Who Are the People Behind the Algorithms?

Jakob Svensson, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Malmö University, is the author of a book just published by Nordicom. The title of the book is Wizards of the Web: An Outsider’s Journey into Tech Culture, Programming, and Mathemagics. Johannes Bjerling, editor at Nordicom, discusses the book with its author.

Johannes Bjerling (JB): The power of global tech companies such as Google and Facebook is often discussed, but your book is not really about power on the macro level. Instead, your book is concerned with the people behind the screens: the people who code and create the algorithms on which so much in our contemporary, digital societies depends. In that sense, it is about the people creating the codes rather than the companies themselves. Are you happy with that description?

Jakob Svensson (JS): Yes, it’s very spot-on. As a matter of fact, the title of my application to the Swedish Research Council was “Behind the Algorithm”, so this “behind-aspect” – looking at the values and cultures among the programmers – has, from the very start, been central to me. I do, however, think that the book is also, to some extent, about power in the macro sense, because if you want to discuss power relations on a big scale, you need to have a basic understanding of the values that guide actions on the micro level.

JB: So, by understanding the cultures in which code is created, we can better understand how tech companies operate and act? By going behind the surface, or screen, we become better at understanding what happens around us – the thinking and reasoning behind digital devices?

JS: Yeah, there’s a connection between the micro and the macro, and whereas much has been written about the latter, the former – the level where the programmers themselves are found – has not received much scholarly attention. The culture of hands-on programming is, I argue, much understudied.

An outsiders perspective

JB: Before we move on and discuss it here and now, I’d like you to say something about the subtitle: An Outsider’s Journey into Tech Culture. How are we to understand the “outsider perspective” of your book?

JS: Well, “the outsider”, that’s me, obviously. And since I don’t have a background in this community, or culture, the entire project, from the beginning, had to be an explorative study; while I knew that “the hacker” was an important figure, that was really about it. So, while it would be wrong to suggest that I approached the culture as a complete alien, I did approach it from the outside. And while there are certain cons coming with this – of not already being an expert on what you study when you start off – there are also certain advantages: having an outsider perspective enables you to see and question what the insiders themselves take for granted – not least with regard to the norms and values that underlie their culture.

JB: In a way, this means that the book is a personal journey; you are exploring a culture that you, in the beginning, were not very familiar with?

JS: Yes. And while some think it is a crime of researchers when they mention or refer to themselves, I do it often in the book. Because going to tech conferences, and getting to know the people and the culture of tech, was really my life for three years. And since the book is a personal and explorative study, and all sorts of things happen to you during a period of three years, I decided to not write the traditional, detached research monograph. As a result, I hope the result is a book that’s more reader-friendly than your typical research study.

A complex culture

JB: Well, I think it’s very refreshing! It’s an academic book with a personal touch: a book that the reader can actually enjoy! But turning to the content, the programmers and their cultures, what are your empirical results? What characterises the programmers? What are the values and beliefs driving this culture?

JS: First of all, I’d like to emphasise that it is a complex culture that we are now discussing. In the book, an entire chapter is about the different cultures co-existing in Silicon Valley. Having said that, some of the previous books appear as rather one-dimensional: “oh, tech culture is such a sexist culture”, or “oh, it’s really a hippie culture”, etcetera, etcetera. In contrast, one thing that struck me was the double-sidedness of the culture, and in the book, I discuss some of the contradictions that sometimes come to the fore. While business ideology and making money has become increasingly important, tech culture is still not monolithic: on the one hand, you have the influences from the hippies, and on the other, you have the values and ideals of libertarian entrepreneurs.     

JB: You also zoom in on certain symbols in this multifaceted culture?

JS: Yes. In the book, I discuss the unicorn and the emblematic beanbag – all tech offices seem to have them. The Prometheus myth is also an important feature in the culture, and with regard to rules and rituals, the idea of “flow” – a condition where you are completely obsessed with programming and time disappears – is another thing that I discuss. There is also the notion of “grit” – the importance of persistence and never giving up when facing a problem – and, speaking about the values that characterise the culture, “solution creativity” is central: solutions shall not only to be found, they should also be creative, new and elegant…

JB: You are talking about a culture where creativity is highly valued?

JS: Yes, and it is also a very future-oriented culture; technology, it is believed, will help us to create a better future. And this benevolent side of tech culture is something that is reflected in the title of the book: over time, the “dark” figure of the hacker has, I argue, increasingly given way to the more benevolent figure of the wizard.

The wizards of the web

JB: A wizard is someone who helps us who are not very good at using computers and technology?

JS: Exactly. And having “wizards” in the title is therefore not only a nice alliteration, it also points to one of the central conclusions: how helping others is a central value in programmer culture.

JB: The people inhabiting this culture, the programmers that you have met, in the book you seem to be quite fond of them?

JS: Yeah… I mean… Yes, I’m fond of them! I mean, you often hear accounts about these evil companies – Facebook, Google and Amazon – but the people I met were in many cases quite altruistic – “do-gooders”, so to speak – navigating a culture of contradictions. And how do you do that? How do you navigate in a culture with very different subcultures; what unites the ideals of the hippies and the ideals of start-up entrepreneurs? I’d say that they are both quite anti-authoritarian. Neither the hippie nor the libertarian entrepreneur is fond of people telling them what to do; both value individual freedom and freedom of information. But it is clear to me that there, over time, has been a shift in the culture, and one of my interviewees laments how Silicon Valley today is “all about the money”. This interviewee – she is now in her early fifties and of Lithuanian origin but working in Silicon Valley – compared the present with how a “hippie-spirited” programmer went to the Soviet Union to install networks during the Glasnost of the late 1980s. Among my interviewees, there were those who – because of this development from “connecting people and doing good” to making money – had decided to go freelance. In that way, being their own bosses, they were more able to let ethics and morals be factors when considering what projects to work with. 

An explorative study     

JB: I now realise that we haven’t said anything about your material, and we should do that as well! So, the book is based on 40 interviews with programmers of various kinds –

JS: – actually, it’s 39, but we can say 40, it’s a nicer number!

JB: – and you have also made observations at tech conferences and seminars in Brazil, India, the US, Germany and Sweden. But you are not really trying to provide any definitive answers in the book – you avoid the grand claims of generalisability – and the book is more… Well, how would you put it?

JS: I want it to initiate a discussion about programmers, their cultures and values, and the importance of this in our contemporary societies. Whereas there are hundreds of studies on the importance of journalists and their values – there are probably more, there are thousands of these studies – surprisingly little has been written about programmers. Many have asked for these studies, saying “we should study the people behind the screens”, but the number of actually existing studies is… well, very low. Due to this, an academic value such as generalisability must, I think, be allowed to stand back; the study at hand is explorative in character and style.

Some normative concerns

JB: In the concluding chapter, you raise some important normative concerns. Although, as you stress, it may not be a monoculture, it is still a culture that is largely populated by men, and since programming and algorithms are so important, you argue that the “black box” of programming must be opened up for others?

JS: Yes. The diversity reports of tech companies are really sad reading, and company representatives keep saying “we must work harder to acquire gender balance”. And in this respect, discussing the composition of the work force, age is an issue that really must be discussed. Because while most of us are probably aware that tech culture is a culture of men – most of whom are white – fewer, I think, have any idea about how young these men are.

JB: And age, like gender and ethnicity, has a bearing on what algorithms and codes are created?

JS: Yes. And since usage today increases faster for older cohorts than for any other age groups, there are good reasons for companies to be better at catering to their needs.

JB: Having said that – that the business would actually benefit from being more representative – do you think change is actually underway? Ten years from now, do you think the situation will be different?

JS: Over the years, tech culture has changed a lot – going from the early hippie ethos to the start-up hallelujahs of today – but I… gender representation has improved very slowly, to say the least, but there’s a chance that tech – though I doubt it – will be more representative in the future.

JB: Okay, let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best! Thanks for talking with me – I’ve learnt a lot from reading your book!

JS: Thank you!

New book

Wizards of the Web

The Open Access book “Wizards of the Web: An Outsider’s Journey into Tech Culture, Programming, and Mathemagics” by Jakob Svensson was published on 8 September 2021. You can read and download it free of charge.
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Photo: Chris Lynch CC-BY-NC