Who’s afraid of algorithms?

Cheers to Science Lecture Series

30nov2018 17:00 - 18:00


Algorithms. A set of mathematical procedures that calculate your shortest cycling route on Google maps, control your Facebook feed, enable contactless payment and automate your human-free passport check gate at Schiphol. You can’t touch them, you can’t see them. But they are everywhere around us, and they run right before your eyes on your personal device, displaying the text you are reading right now

In her dissertation, Evelyn Wan analyzed the power of algorithms over our bodies and the ways digital media technologies introduce surveillance and control without us consciously noticing. Part of the study compares digital algorithms with their analogue counterparts in the cogs and gears of clocks, automata, and early computing machines. These curious objects are material versions of algorithms. While their nature is very different from the invisible and hyper-fast digital ones running on our smartphones, they both share this basic definition: algorithms are essentially step-by-step rules to be followed in calculations. And the clock, with its tick-tock rhythm and rendering of time, calculates 60 seconds as a minute, and 60 minutes as an hour—a prime example of a mechanical algorithm.

In this short lecture Evelyn will offer a quick historical excursion of clocks, automata, and computing machines, tracing an alternative history of algorithms from analogue clocks to the 18th century chess-playing machine Mechanical Turk to the invincible Go-playing AI of AlphaGo Zero. Through this, she explains what algorithms are, what they do, and how they hold the power to govern our lives. When clocks and their mechanical algorithms were popularised during the Industrial Revolution, schedules were invented, time discipline was introduced, and work became compensated based on hourly rates. Fast forward to today, what kinds of effects do digital algorithms have as they become part-and-parcel of our daily lives? What if algorithms are the new clocks of the twenty-first century, always running in the background, poised to effect control on the way we live?


About the speaker

Evelyn Wan is a cultural researcher at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry of Utrecht University, specialising in Media and Performance Studies. She is due to defend her PhD dissertation at Utrecht University entitled “Clocked!: Time and Biopower in the Age of Algorithms” on 23 Nov. Prior to her graduate studies in the Netherlands, she worked as a contemporary dance artist and a theatre critic in Hong Kong.

For a Dutch introduction to Evelyn's work, her project was featured in Trouw in October 2018.

Proost op de Wetenschap

The SPUI25-series 'Proost op de wetenschap' (Cheers to Science) gives PhD candidates and recently promoted researchers a platform to present their research to a broad audience. During this afternoon at SPUI25 a young researcher tells us about his or her recent research. 

From 16:30 onwards, you can join us for a drink. The lectures start at 17:00 and will take about half an hour, after which there will be plenty of time to ask questions. To conclude we will celebrate the researcher of the week, science and the start of the weekend.


You can sign up for this program for free. If you subscribe for the program we count on your presence. If you are unable to attend, please let us know via spui25@uva.nl | T: +31 (0)20 525 8142.

Location: SPUI25