Public Books — What World? Whose Algorithms?

April 15, 2015 — In an arresting chapter in Carolyn L. Kane’s new book, Chromatic Algorithms: Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after Code, she analyzes the movie Predator, which gives expression to hyperbolic fears about the potentially dire implications of the rise of computerized algorithms, in this case the algorithms that animate digital infrared technologies. In the movie, a combat unit is sent to a jungle to save a soldier. The team soon finds itself engaged in a battle to the death with the Predator, an extraterrestrial creature with highly advanced camouflage capabilities that can also track them in infrared. The film constantly juxtaposes the world as seen through the eyes of the soldiers—a world suffused with what amounts to mostly irrelevant and cumbersome detail in the context of this battle—and the world as seen by the Predator, which is “represented by ‘heat images’ that appear onscreen in a grid overlay with a vertical ‘levels’ bar on the left, and at times, with crosshairs over the center of the heat image, hovering over the human target.” The Predator is “portrayed to hold a significant hunter-prey advantage over the men, not only because he is invisible to them, but also because he can see in ways that … exceed the limits of human perception with or without the aid of an optical prosthetic.” Kane argues that the fears the movie expresses, however hyperbolic they may be, emanate from a legitimate sense of pessimism and crisis in light of the spread of computerized algorithms, the specific lifeworld they engender, and the ways in which they are put to use in commercial technologies.

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