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Review of Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet by

Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet

by Ted Striphas

First off, shout-out to this book for no subtitle! That’s rare for a work of nonfiction—not that I have any great hatred of subtitles, but the absence of one here is notable. Anyway. Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet caught my eye because the history of computing, intertwined as it is with the history of mathematics and the history of feminism, interests me a lot. Ted Striphas discusses how we conceptualized both the word algorithm and the word culture prior to “algorithmic culture” emerging as a more recent phenomenon from the past few decades. This book is really not what I expected from the description, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad time. Thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for the eARC!

Striphas takes a very intertextual and interdisciplinary approach to answering the question of, What was algorithmic culture like before we had the internet? These chapters span centuries, languages, and draw on everything from philosophy to computer science to linguistics and semiotics. It’s truly impressive how Striphas synthesizes writings and ideas from these various fields into his presentation. He references entire areas of study and scholars I had no idea existed (and I have degrees in math and education as well as minors in English and philosophy!).

In particular, Striphas grounds his approach through his own expansion of Raymond Williams’s Keywords publication/theory. Look, I’m not going to pretend I have enough background to evaluate this approach. Readers more familiar with this angle of attack and Williams might be better poised to critique Striphas’ strategy. As it is, I liked the emphasis on looking at language as something constructed by and responsive to changes in our society—along with the potent reminder that even a concept like culture, whose meaning we might assume is to be taken for granted, shifts over time. So Striphas definitely exposed me to a lot of new (old) ideas, got me thinking, and that alone is something I appreciate in a nonfiction book like this!

On the other hand, this means that Striphas often gets bogged down in the weeds of theory. So much so that I’m not sure each chapter actually accomplishes its mission of supporting his overall thesis. Striphas attempts to trace the history of the word algorithm, then culture, and finally algorithmic culture, but along the way he gets lost in discussing, say, the historical context of the Cold War, suspicion and oppression of gay people in civil service and academia, etc. I’m not dismissing that these could be relevant threads to his argument, but the amount of digression feels, if not boring, then distracting enough to divert me from the overall point he’s trying to make.

As a mathematician, I really liked the chapter about the origins of algorithm, algebra, and al-Khwarizmi. I learned a lot I didn’t know. Striphas carefully questions the “official,” simplified narrative we often learn (if we are lucky) in our math classes. He makes it clear that he isn’t trying to downplay al-Khwarizmi’s role, or the wider role of Islamic mathematicians, when it comes to their influence on European mathematics. At the same time, he points out that a reductive approach—tracing algorithm back to al-Kwharizmi’s name, algebra back to a book he wrote (on a method that he probably did not originate)—actually does an injustice, flattening and erasing the complexities of that time period and al-Khwarizmi’s life.

I really appreciate how Striphas clearly acknowledges the power dynamics at play, both in contemporary writings of each period along with modern views, the roles of racism and sexism, etc., influencing our perception of algorithmic culture. He references many luminary scholars whose names I’ve heard of (Ruha Benjamin) or work I’ve read (Safiya Umoja Noble). In this sense, Algorithmic Culture Before the Internet continues the intertextual conversation, not just engaging with it but building it and then throwing the ball forward, into the future, hoping that someone will pick it up and engage with Striphas later down the line.

This book is very specifically targeted towards an audience with more knowledge of this field than me. I think some people might pick it up (as I did) because of its title and description, expecting a more straightforward history (as I did) of computer science prior to the computer and the intersections with culture. But this is an academic book, not a pop history book, and it shows. If you’re willing to wade into deeper intellectual waters, then you will find parts of this book rewarding—challenging but rewarding. If you’re not wanting that workout right now, then you should skip this one.


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