In a thought-provoking contribution published by The Atlantic, Ian Bogost discusses the role of characters in video games, our obsession with self-identification and self-representation and why we should start consider a future where systems like video games could work without characters at all renouncing “[…] our own selfish, individual desires in the interest of participating in systems larger than ourselves”.
According to Ian Bogost, the tendency to read our present through algorithms and softwares is driven by a misleading sense of devotion rather than the “materiality” of a phenomenon. So, we end up with considering softwares as the foundation of today culture instead of one of the available abstractions to understand it. At odds with Manovich, Bogost writes:
The algorithmic metaphor is just a special version of the machine metaphor, one specifying a particular kind of machine (the computer) and a particular way of operating it (via a step-by-step procedure for calculation). And when left unseen, we are able to invent a transcendental ideal for the algorithm. The canonical algorithm is not just a model sequence but a concise and efficient one. In its ideological, mythic incarnation, the ideal algorithm is thought to be some flawless little trifle of lithe computer code, processing data into tapestry like a robotic silkworm. A perfect flower, elegant and pristine, simple and singular. A thing you can hold in your palm and caress. A beautiful thing. A divine one. But just as the machine metaphor gives us a distorted view of automated manufacture as prime mover, so the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action.[…]
The same could be said for data, the material algorithms operate upon. Data has become just as theologized as algorithms, especially “big data,” whose name is meant to elevate information to the level of celestial infinity. Today, conventional wisdom would suggest that mystical, ubiquitous sensors are collecting data by the terabyteful without our knowledge or intervention. Even if this is true to an extent, examples like Netflix’s altgenres show that data is created, not simply aggregated, and often by means of laborious, manual processes rather than anonymous vacuum-devices. Once you adopt skepticism toward the algorithmic- and the data-divine, you can no longer construe any computational system as merely algorithmic. Think about Google Maps, for example. It’s not just mapping software running via computer—it also involves geographical information systems, geolocation satellites and transponders, human-driven automobiles, roof-mounted panoramic optical recording systems, international recording and privacy law, physical- and data-network routing systems, and web/mobile presentational apparatuses. That’s not algorithmic culture—it’s just, well, culture.[…]
If algorithms aren’t gods, what are they instead? Like metaphors, algorithms are simplifications, or distortions. They are caricatures. They take a complex system from the world and abstract it into processes that capture some of that system’s logic and discard others. And they couple to other processes, machines, and materials that carry out the extra-computational part of their work. Unfortunately, most computing systems don’t want to admit that they are burlesques. They want to be innovators, disruptors, world-changers, and such zeal requires sectarian blindness. The exception is games, which willingly admit that they are caricatures—and which suffer the consequences of this admission in the court of public opinion. Games know that they are faking it, which makes them less susceptible to theologization.SimCity isn’t an urban planning tool, it’s a cartoon of urban planning. Imagine the folly of thinking otherwise! Yet, that’s precisely the belief people hold of Google and Facebook and the like