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From ideology to algorithm: the opaque politics of the internet

The emergence of new technology has a recurring history of being understood in terms of emancipation, as if access to new functions provides the potential for liberating social organisation. Walter Benjamin has argued that new technologies of mechanical reproduction have the potential to liberate and politicise humans. This argument has been applied most recently by Marcus Breen in his book Uprising to the internet’s potential for liberating politicisation. However, questions remain about the emancipatory power of the internet. Is it really a tool of liberation or a space of control? Focusing on the underlying systemic structures of the internet, the stance taken in this paper is to dispute the possibilities of new media functioning as an emancipatory tool. Central to the approach taken in this paper, is a consideration of the role of the algorithm in controlling the flow of internet data. Algorithm is a mathematical term used to define the binary code that enables command operations in computer systems (Judit 157). In recent years the algorithm has been used to describe the technology behind the internet search engine. A search engine such as Google uses algorithmic processing to electronically decide the order and importance of search results. Similar algorithms are used to link search terms with product advertising. Algorithms work at the level of the network and produce difference. They order and control the way internet users gain access to information and knowledge. As such, they are not inherently liberating, but constitute a powerful tool of intellectual oppression which, I argue, replaces the ideological oppression of the older technologies. My hypothesis is that the public sphere – a space of centralising ideologies in which a general consensus can be formed, as proposed by Habermas -- becomes a network of differences when applied to the internet. Differences within the internet are broken down to the level of the individual and at such a micro-level that the macro, i.e. the political, has already disappeared. In the enhanced subjectivity of personal monitor space (Breen 110-111), ideology becomes subjective and individualised. In such a space, the unifying modality of ideology gives way to the differential processing of the algorithm which shapes social space as a controlled experiment, and which may be adapted to create different output results. I will argue that in its capacity to shape the social space of the individualised internet user, the algorithm has now become a more effective method of intellectual oppression than the ideology of the outdated mass media technologies.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Snake-Beings, E. (2013). From ideology to algorithm: the opaque politics of the internet. Transformations Journal of Media & Culture, (23), 1–8.
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