What Algorithms Want

What Algorithms Want

Imagination in the Age of Computing

By Ed Finn

The gap between theoretical ideas and messy reality, as seen in Neal Stephenson, Adam Smith, and Star Trek.





The gap between theoretical ideas and messy reality, as seen in Neal Stephenson, Adam Smith, and Star Trek.

We depend on—we believe in—algorithms to help us get a ride, choose which book to buy, execute a mathematical proof. It's as if we think of code as a magic spell, an incantation to reveal what we need to know and even what we want. Humans have always believed that certain invocations—the marriage vow, the shaman's curse—do not merely describe the world but make it. Computation casts a cultural shadow that is shaped by this long tradition of magical thinking. In this book, Ed Finn considers how the algorithm—in practical terms, “a method for solving a problem”—has its roots not only in mathematical logic but also in cybernetics, philosophy, and magical thinking.

Finn argues that the algorithm deploys concepts from the idealized space of computation in a messy reality, with unpredictable and sometimes fascinating results. Drawing on sources that range from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash to Diderot's Encyclopédie, from Adam Smith to the Star Trek computer, Finn explores the gap between theoretical ideas and pragmatic instructions. He examines the development of intelligent assistants like Siri, the rise of algorithmic aesthetics at Netflix, Ian Bogost's satiric Facebook game Cow Clicker, and the revolutionary economics of Bitcoin. He describes Google's goal of anticipating our questions, Uber's cartoon maps and black box accounting, and what Facebook tells us about programmable value, among other things.

If we want to understand the gap between abstraction and messy reality, Finn argues, we need to build a model of “algorithmic reading” and scholarship that attends to process, spearheading a new experimental humanities.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262035927 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 17 b&w illus.


$17.95 T ISBN: 9780262536042 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 17 b&w illus.


  • Ed Finn's What Algorithms Want shows us just how powerful computer programs and their helpers actually are, and the book needs no recourse to science fiction.

    Los Angeles Review of Books


  • Deeply researched and meticulously reasoned in a style that will meet academic standards while being hugely enjoyable and interesting to a general audience. Equally comfortable talking about Perry Mason and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Ed Finn surveys a broad sweep of today's business and cultural worlds while explaining how they got to be that way in a historical context reaching back centuries.

    Neal Stephenson

    author of Seveneves, Reamde, and Snow Crash

  • Perhaps the greatest power in our society today—computation—remains unexamined in a cultural way. Ed Finn calls it our magic; what is present, powerful but unseen. Finn will help you see it.

    Kevin Kelly

    Senior Maverick, Wired magazine

  • The 'algorithmic imagination'—Professor Finn's evocative concept—connects the generative machine and the intelligently creative human. Think about the suggestions that appear in the search field when you begin to enter a term; that is the algorithmic imagination at work in the culture machine known as the Internet. Through a series of provocative chapters, Finn explores encounters that mark the emergence of algorithmic culture—the search for the Star Trek computer, Bitcoin, etc. He reveals the messy entanglements of these culture machines as they both draw on and shape human culture.

    Anne Balsamo

    Dean, School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication, University of Texas, Dallas

  • This is a brilliant and important work. I know of no other book that so ably describes the cultural work that algorithms do. Once you read this you won't think of algorithms as mere batches of code that guide processes. You will see them as actors in the world.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan

    author of The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry)

  • Beautifully crafted, technically lucid, and admirably precise, What Algorithms Want offers humanists a timely tutorial in the concept of the algorithm, while also offering a high-level analysis and sharp critique of algorithmic processes as they are implemented for and by us in our everyday media environments. But its true gift is the modeling of 'algorithmic reading,' a method that shows us how to become better readers—and makers—of culture and culture machines alike. Everyone who wonders 'how Netflix, Apple, or Google knows' needs to read this book.

    Rita Raley

    Associate Professor of English, University of California, Santa Barbara