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Synthetic Situations and Algorithmic Phenomena

Fri, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Beacon E


With the proliferation of social media, algorithms, simulations, and the Internet of Things in work-related and private settings, the idea of situated action and interaction is challenged. Situations are seamlessly augmented with a wide and expanding variety of digital representations, thus becoming entangled with their material and technological means. This shift resonates with the notion of algorithmic phenomenon (Orlikowski and Scott 2015): the digital no longer stands in for but becomes the phenomenon. Algorithmic phenomena are manifest in our longitudinal studies within the offshore oil and gas industry, characterized by data-intensive work where people are not co-located with the physical objects and processes around which their work is organised. The phenomena under inquiry emerge as algorithmically performed through digital technologies: the datasets, the technological arrangements that generate them, and the practices in which they are embedded are co-constituted. Our contribution to STS expands Knorr Cetina's (2009) 'synthetic situation' to develop a sensitivity to the way different entailments of these algorithmic phenomena play out and under what conditions. Highlighting the performative nature of synthetic situations, we find that, first, noise in the data is not only irreducible, but productive in and of algorithmic phenomena. Second, we highlight how the generative nature of algorithmic phenomena reshapes the ramifications of the synthetic situation. Third, we discuss how politics manifests in synthetic situations. While algorithmic phenomena open the stage for the interaction of diverse actors, they have the potential to further concentrate knowledge creation (hence power) in the hands of a few strong stakeholders.