The Altar
of The Algorithm

Design Project / Design Research

2017

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Algorithms are becoming fundamentally important sources of authority in everyday life. They are shaping more and more of our everyday experiences, and also on a sociocultural level they are are increasingly relying on algorithms to make decisions. They are responsible for curating the news and media we consume, but also for deciding whether somebody can apply for a bank loan. Yet, despite of all the influence we are granting algorithms to have in our lives, our relationship with them is based more on faith and trust than anything else.

Our understanding of algorithms is very much shaped by ideological ideas about the algorithm and magical thinking about computers. These ideological ideas are increasingly subjected to critical debate, predominantly in the human sciences such as philosophy and sociology. But can the field of design contribute something to these debates? Because a strong argument can be made that the way we understand and relate to algorithms is highly dependent on how they are presented to us - through design.

The Altar of the Algorithm depicts our relationship with algorithms in its extreme form: a relationship not based on understanding, but on blind faith. The Altar is an interface between us mortals and the algorithms that dwell in cyberspace. Giving physical form to this relationship enables us to critically reflect on it and question the authority we give to algorithms. But in doing so the project also explores the role of design plays in the creation of these relationships, and how design can help in advancing critical debates in search of new ways of thinking about algorithms.

The design of the Altar references both religious aesthetics as wel as early computer terminals - two seemingly incompatible archetypes.

The interaction design of the Altar follows this contrast. Data is not uploaded, but sacrificed, turning it from a process we are rarely aware of into a conscious, loaded action.

The questions that the Altar asks talk about familiar things such as ‘Terms and Agreements’, but frames them in such a way that they become part of an alienating narrative; algorithms are praised for their omnipresence in our lives, and in an attempt to make the observer embrace the ideological image of algorithms the Altar instills the idea that we might have already been embracing it without knowing it.

All the while someone is interacting with the Altar, the thermal printer prints out all the data that is being entered, creating a physical dataflow as a trace of an otherwise intangible interaction.