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Monday, September 14, 2020

Two Pieces on Algorithms and Institutions

This is a good time to be writing about institutions, which I have done for some time--and a depressing time for those who think institutions are valuable and are watching them suffer in real time, as much from the inside as the outside. Via the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily, here are two recent pieces on the effects of metrics and algorithms on two "First Amendment institutions." 

The first, from the LA Review of Books, is by Mario Biagioli, a professor of law and communication at UCLA. In it, Biagioli discusses new and old forms of academic misconduct, largely but not exclusively around publication and citation practices, and their relationship to various forms of ranking or influence metrics. (The focus here is on other disciplines, especially the sciences and social sciences, not on law. I would be interested in seeing a similar piece from him about legal academic practices, although I think the difficulty here would be getting people to see some practices as academic misconduct, or at least institution- or discipline-damaging conduct, rather than as baseline or even commendable practices.)

The second is an essay in The Walrus by Russell Smith, a former columnist for The Globe and Mail. It discusses the effects on newspapers of algorithms tracking reader interest in various stories, including the looming presence in newsrooms of large screens monitoring "engagement, in real time, with the stories currently on the paper’s website"--where "engagement" means something other than any meaningful definition of the word--and their effect on editorial judgment and resource allocation in the major press. (Any online reader of the New York Times, whose decline as a quality newspaper is steady, remarkable, and far-reaching in its effects on the business and content decisions of the institution, can see the traces of these practices daily. They are evident not only in the devotion of prime space to things like recaps of late-night monologues, but in the practice of using and testing different and increasingly clickbait-y headlines for same op-ed pieces and other stories. This is the kind of practice that major media organizations used to worry about rather than engage in with seemingly untroubled enthusiasm.)

I recommend both pieces, dispiriting though they may be.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 14, 2020 at 09:36 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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