Privacy as Cultural Choice and Resistance in the Age of Recommender Systems

Authored by: Mihaela Popescu , Lemi Baruh

The Routledge Handbook of Digital Writing and Rhetoric

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138671362
eBook ISBN: 9781315518497
Adobe ISBN:


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In an age of information overload, recommender systems (RSs), software modules that provide automated and personalized information filters, are indispensable, if often concealed and concealing, mediators between cultural environments and the users who navigate them. Lost in a flood of choices vying for our attention, we habitually rely on algorithms woven into the digital web as if they were our own personal assistants. As these digital curators of information are slowly replacing the role played by cultural intermediaries of varying informality (a teacher, an art critic, one’s peers) and become an intimate part of the fabric of everyday life, they also tend to fade from view like immutable laws of the digital background, given and invisible but for the occasional glitches. Algorithms are inconspicuously reshaping the meanings we assign to cultural objects; our habits of cultural consumption; our practices of content production; and the standards we use to judge a work “relevant,” “popular” (Gillespie, “Relevance”) and even “original” (Introna). In the attention economy of digital content, RSs may even adjudicate among various forms of self-expression and “voice” by strategically nudging communicators to modify their speech to increase its visibility (Gillespie, “Algorithm”). It is precisely this normalization, this process of “backgrounding” (Mackenzie) that makes the power of algorithms all the more ubiquitous, their role in reshaping cultural practices all the more compelling, and the task of uncovering their logic of operation all the more urgent.

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