An anthropology of algorithmic recommendation systems

Computing Taste: Algorithms and the Makers of Music Recommendation
by Nick Seaver
The University of Chicago Press
2022, 216 pages

Meet the people who design the algorithms that capture our musical tastes.
The people who make music recommender systems have lofty goals: they want to broaden listeners’ horizons and help obscure musicians find audiences, taking advantage of the enormous catalogs offered by companies like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. But for their critics, recommender systems seem to embody all the potential harms of algorithms: they flatten culture into numbers, they normalize ever-broadening data collection, and they profile their users for commercial ends. Drawing on years of ethnographic fieldwork, anthropologist Nick Seaver describes how the makers of music recommendation navigate these tensions: how product managers understand their relationship with the users they want to help and to capture; how scientists conceive of listening itself as a kind of data processing; and how engineers imagine the geography of the world of music as a space they care for and control.
Computing Taste rehumanizes the algorithmic systems that shape our world, drawing attention to the people who build and maintain them. In this vividly theorized book, Seaver brings the thinking of programmers into conversation with the discipline of anthropology, opening up the cultural world of computation in a wide-ranging exploration that travels from cosmology to calculation, myth to machine learning, and captivation to care.

Nick Seaver is an anthropologist who, as he puts it, studies how people use technology to make sense of cultural things. He teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University, where he also directs the program of Science, Technology, and Society. His first book is Computing Taste: Algorithms and Makers of Music Recommendation. Nick has published several articles in academic journals on topics related to critical algorithm studies, as well as ethnographic stories and anthropological research methods. He is coeditor of Towards an Anthropology of Data.

> Audio interview (47:57) of Nick Seaver by Ana Carolina de Assis Nunes (PhD student in anthropology at Oregon State University)