Algorithmic authority

Fascinating panel at a Yale conference on (what else?) the future of journalism with Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Columbia’s Michael Schudson. We have moved, Shirky argued, from the age of expert authority to the age of “algorithmic authority”. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Wikipedia, from a single source of authority to the convergence of many opinionns to produce an authority. Algorithmic authority sounded brand new, but turned out to not to be. Google lists a hundred or so previous occurrences.

Shirky isn’t wrong in tracking this change. But the shift in social or cultural authority between the one and the many isn’t that simple. To start with the “authority” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica may look as if it is based on the view of the single author. But in truth it isn’t and never was. I’m no expert on EB’s procedures but any entry will have been edited and almost certainly been through some sort of informal “peer review”.

That leads on to the wider point that pre-digital publishing wasn’t unilateral. Think science. Publication in any scientific discipline worth the name involves sometimes quite elaborate layers of filters which are designed to screen out work which will damage the reputation of the science, the author, his colleagues or team. That is one of the sense of the word “discipline” in its scientific sense. Academic work in any discipline gathers momentum and scale only gradually as work survives the process of being critically evaluated, reworked and generally put through the wringer.

Algorithmic authority uses a vastly wider pool of labour but isn’t as much of a break from the past as might appear. And if algorithmic authority was ever used to suppress a view from an individual who was breaking new ground – as often happens – by contradicting conventional wisdom, then that wouldn’t be much of an advance would it?


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