This report on the Ethics of Coding [EoC] presents a snapshot view through an investigation on the current state of what we call “the algorithmic condition”. How can we think adequately about the relation between knowledge and ethics in societies that are governed by algorithmic digital systems and objects endowed with agency?

An algorithm is a finite set of instructive steps that can be followed mechanically, without comprehension, and that is used to organise, calculate, control, shape, and sometimes predict outcomes, applied across various fields. Algorithms are as old as mathematics itself (Ritter, 1989a, 1989b) and are used in multiple domains of human life; from making food using recipes, solving math problems in engineering, to controlling complex transport and distributions systems. Developed for calculating, and reasoning problems in a computational manner, algorithms are classically used in math. With the rise of computers and computation especially since the 1980s, more and more problems from more and more diverse fields are being treated as “computable” problems; which means they are being tackled in algorithmic manner. The use of algorithms (for the detection of patterns in information; the organisation and analysis of data; the implementation of data codes and sequences; and other computational systems) in societies not only effects a practice-based shift in knowledge production and acquisition, but also produces a logic which is symbolic but also which manifests as a reality. This logic - which is logistically constituted – is what we refer to in this report as the algorithmic condition. 

This report presents a snapshot view through a short and preliminary one-year investigation on the current state of what we call “the algorithmic condition”. By speaking of the algorithmic condition, we pick up today, in critical manner, Hannah Arendt’s question of the condition of possibility for leading an “active life” as the conditions of possibility for politics. For Arendt, this question emerged out of an altered status of knowledge that resulted in her time from being related to nature of the earth as investigated from a viewpoint in the universe, rather than one situated firmly on earthly grounds (Arendt, 1958). In doing so this report brings together discourses and objects, of the sciences and the humanities, and seeks to present a spectrum of the diversity of issues generated by this altered, novel condition, and survey of the wide-ranging considerations and potential applications of this topic. Further, this report on the ethics of coding and the algorithmic condition asks: How can we think adequately about the relation between knowledge and ethics in societies that are governed by algorithmic digital systems and objects endowed with agency? In order to attend to these latter questions, we looked at Jean-Francois Lyotard’s report from 1979 on the altered status of knowledge in “computerized societies”. Raising Arendt’s question of critique (and transcendentality of conditions of possibility) with regard to how we think about “human nature”, as well as by relating coding and programming to Lyotard’s particular notion of language games and paralogisms (Lyotard, 1979), we propose to take into account, from both viewpoints, an emerging novel “literacy” which we propose to call a “quantum literacy”. With this, we want to direct attention to the principle inadequacy of thinking about numbers and letters, mathematics and language, as two separate domains of which the former is concerned with the necessary whereas the latter deals with the contingent and interpretable. Code confronts us with an “impure” reason that cannot rid itself of amphiboly, but that is nevertheless “computable”. We regard the algorithmic condition as the contemporary human condition that alters the cultural and social reality it organises through its procedural dynamics; this procedural dynamics, we address as the ethics of coding. Algorithms engage the data as they are written, but their codes can and do evidence degrees of bias (Amoore, 2009; Bishop, 2018; Cheney-Lippold, 2011; Hayles, 2017); and the degree of code bias thus requires consideration of the ethics of coding.

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Please cite as:
Colman, F., Bühlmann, V., O’Donnell, A. and van der Tuin, I. (2018). Ethics of Coding: A Report on the Algorithmic Condition [EoC]. H2020-EU.2.1.1. – INDUSTRIAL LEADERSHIP – Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies – Information and Communication Technologies. Brussels: European Commission. 732407, pp.1–54.