Algorithm Island

I’ve just returned from an excellent Algorithm Studies Network workshop on the island of Sandhamn in Sweden (photos at center and top left). It was organized by Francis Lee and Lotta Björklund Larson, and after every talk they asked us to write our impressions and ideas on sticky notes that were then collected and organized into groups (photo at bottom left).

One of the things that came up again and again on the sticky notes was the question of epistemology–namely how to study algorithms, which extend across individual case studies and are routinely defined so broadly as to include almost any set of instructions.

In discussions like these, I always find myself butting up against the limits of my own imagination, like Averroes, or the author himself, in J.L. Borges’s story “Averroes’ Search“. Because studying algorithms is also to participate in a transnational tradition whose scope is itself difficult to imagine.

Although they are associated with the internet and big data, algorithms stretch back at least as far as the 9th century Muslim mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi. Al-Khwarizmi introduced Europe to the numerals still used today (0, 1, 2, … , 9) and his work is the ultimate source of the terms algorithm and algebra.

Al-Khwarizmi lived and worked in Baghdad. While in Sweden, I was reminded that roughly three hundred years later, in the 11th century, Scandinavian travelers (think: vikings) journeyed, under the leadership of a man called “Ingvar, to Baghdad in the area controlled by the Abbasid Caliphate, which they called “Serkland”.

One of the rune stones for a traveler who went with Ingvar was found in 1990 (photo at far right), during the construction for the airport that serves Stockholm. The stone was made as a siblings’ tribute to their brother who perished “in the East”, and it’s described in the popular book, Beyond the Northlands.

No one would know about such journeys today if it weren’t for various clues, including accounts in the sagas and 20-30 rune stones that were erected by their family members after those in the expedition all died, many of them in present-day Russia, without ever reaching Baghdad. At least, scholars think they all died because they just don’t have any evidence of someone surviving and returning home. It could be that the travelers stayed in Baghdad or Jerusalem and became part of life there. Later viking warriors did as much in Constantinople.

My point in bringing up Ingvar is not to romanticize travel or globalization in its many forms, but instead to point out how different ideas of history would be if those rune stones were not put up, and to think about all of the things that happened that were not memorialized, or whose memorials have been lost.

For example, think about how many pop science articles make reference to “our human ancestors” or prehistoric times to support claims about sociology or human psychology. Technology and algorithmic practices are presented as overwhelming for people who, it is claimed, deep down are just “cavemen” (and implicitly, in common sexist fashion, “cavewomen”) who originated in simpler times.

But we actually know so little about prehistory that I’m deeply skeptical of any justification that uses an oversimplified imagination of prehistory. Scholars have vastly more evidence for figures like al-Khwarizmi and the Scandinavian travelers to Baghdad than for others, and even so there is very little evidence at all.

Even in ancient societies that came long after prehistory (if far before al-Khwarizmi) like Ancient Egypt or Greece, and where life was painstakingly documented in writing and art, there are enormous gaps in knowledge. Studying algorithms makes me realize that much of the present is equally unknown.