More Algorithms in Svenska Dagbladet

“Coded cultural choice” on the cover of SvD’s Arts section, illustrated by badly indented Java code.

My quixotic attempts to insert computer science into the memetic space of the literati continue to bear fruit. Today’s score is 3 pages in Sweden’s major newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. Of course, this only works on a day where the entire cultural elite is still hung over from actually having a life at New Years’s Eve, so there is a narrow window of opportunity where no other culture is being produced.

The article is about the effect of algorithms on the consumption of culture. One of the arguments that I’ve been trying to make for a while is that (a) the human condition is increasingly determined by access to information (b) the main force affecting information is algorithms. Thus algorithms are a worth understanding for other reasons than (a) intellectual curiosity or (b) technological progress.

The web version of the article is online at

Such an article are the result of an interview that takes over an hour, and where I say a lot of things about a lot of things, and some subsequent emails. What ends up in the final article is a bit of hit and miss. This time, I’m pretty happy with the outcome.

Some highlights and comments:

  • My physics envy is in full display: “We teach 1960’s science like physics and chemistry in school, but you don’t learn more about algorithms now than 20 years ago.” This statement is of course not universally true; many countries do have programming and other computer science as part of the high school curriculum. But even with that proviso I think it’s safe to say that “what science should be thought in school” has changed relatively little since Sputnik. But the point of the article is of course something else: algorithms have an effect on culture (and democracy and whatnot), so the bold claim is that algorithmic thinking should be part of the Social Science curriculum. (It goes without saying that recursion ought to stand proudly next to Pascal’s law in the Science and Maths curriculum as well.)
  • The article contains a nice-looking attempt at actually Explaining What’s Going On. You can see some pseudocode in the web version, where nice-looking brand icons serve as objects that are polled for various signals about previous user behaviour. There is even a collaborative filtering aspect (since the hypothetical Facebook object is queried about what your friends like). Given the constraints under which such a page is produced, I think this came out well. The real point is of course that this code is not written by a human, but by another algorithm, so “the algorithm” performs at a meta-level. I did not find a good way to communicate that, so I didn’t try.
  • The code on the section’s front page is from the very nice data mining research done at ITU: Andrea Campagna and Rasmus Pagh, Finding Associations and Computing Similarity via Biased Pair Sampling, The Ninth IEEE International Conference on Data Mining, Miami, Florida, USA, 6-9 December 2009 pp 61-70. Proper indentation or choice of a non-proportional font is not something the newspaper graphics guy cares about. (Hell, my own students don’t.) I proudly showed this to ITU’s vice chancellor Mads Tofte, but he “would have been more impressed if it had been in ML.”
  • Lest somebody misattributes pithy quotations to quotable me, the phrase “program or be programmed” is from Douglas Rushkoff.

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