The algorithmic infrastructures of the internet are made by a weird cast of characters: rock stars, gurus, ninjas, wizards, alchemists, park rangers, gardeners, plumbers, and janitors can all be found sitting at computers in otherwise unremarkable offices, typing. These job titles, sometimes official, sometimes informal, are a striking feature of internet industries. They mark jobs as novel or hip, contrasting starkly with the sedentary screenwork of programming. But is that all they do? In this talk, drawing on several years of fieldwork with the developers of algorithmic music recommenders, Seaver describes how these terms help people make sense of new kinds of jobs and their positions within new infrastructures. They draw analogies that fit into existing prestige hierarchies (rockstars and janitors) or relationships to craft and technique (gardeners and alchemists). They aspire to particular imaginations of mastery (gurus and ninjas). Critics of big data have drawn attention to the importance of metaphors in framing public and commercial understandings of data, its biases and origins. The metaphorical borrowings of role terms serve a similar function, highlighting some features at the expense of others and shaping emerging professions in their image. If we want to make sense of new algorithmic industries, we’ll need to understand how they make sense of themselves.
Nick Seaver is assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts University. His current research examines the cultural life of algorithms for understanding and recommending music. He received a masters from CMS in 2010 for research on the history of the player piano.