This paper explores pragmatic approaches that might be employed to document the behavior of large, complex socio-technical systems (often today shorthanded as “algorithms”) that centrally involve some mixture of personalization, opaque rules, and machine learning components. Thinking rooted in traditional archival methodology — focusing on the preservation of physical and digital objects, and perhaps the accompanying preservation of their environments to permit subsequent interpretation or performance of the objects — has been a total failure for many reasons, and we must address this problem. The approaches presented here are clearly imperfect, unproven, labor-intensive, and sensitive to the often hidden factors that the target systems use for decision-making (including personalization of results, where relevant); but they are a place to begin, and their limitations are at least outlined. Numerous research questions must be explored before we can fully understand the strengths and limitations of what is proposed here. But it represents a way forward. This is essentially the first paper I am aware of which tries to effectively make progress on the stewardship challenges facing our society in the so-called “Age of Algorithms;” the paper concludes with some discussion of the failure to address these challenges to date, and the implications for the roles of archivists as opposed to other players in the broader enterprise of stewardship — that is, the capture of a record of the present and the transmission of this record, and the records bequeathed by the past, into the future. It may well be that we see the emergence of a new group of creators of documentation, perhaps predominantly social scientists and humanists, taking the front lines in dealing with the “Age of Algorithms,” with their materials then destined for our memory organizations to be cared for into the future.
Read the full paper here.