The Constitution of Algorithms

From Inside Technology

The Constitution of Algorithms

Ground-Truthing, Programming, Formulating

By Florian Jaton

Foreword by Geoffrey C. Bowker

A laboratory study that investigates how algorithms come into existence.




Open Access


A laboratory study that investigates how algorithms come into existence.

Algorithms—often associated with the terms big data, machine learning, or artificial intelligence—underlie the technologies we use every day, and disputes over the consequences, actual or potential, of new algorithms arise regularly. In this book, Florian Jaton offers a new way to study computerized methods, providing an account of where algorithms come from and how they are constituted, investigating the practical activities by which algorithms are progressively assembled rather than what they may suggest or require once they are assembled.

Drawing on a four-year ethnographic study of a computer science laboratory that specialized in digital image processing, Jaton illuminates the invisible processes that are behind the development of algorithms. Tracing what he terms a set of intertwining courses of actions sharing common finalities, he describes the practical activity of creating algorithms through the lenses of ground-truthing, programming, and formulating. He first presents the building of ground truths, referential repositories that form the material basis for algorithms. Then, after considering programming's resistance to ethnographic scrutiny, he describes programming courses of action he attended at the laboratory. Finally, he offers an account of courses of action that successfully formulated some of the relationships among the data of a ground-truth database, revealing the links between ground-truthing, programming, and formulating activities—entangled processes that lead to the shaping of algorithms. In practice, ground-truthing, programming, and formulating form a whirlwind process, an emergent and intertwined agency.

The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.


$60.00 X ISBN: 9780262542142 400 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 63 figures


Geoffrey C. Bowker.


  • “By marrying ethnography and hands-on practice of ground-truthing, programming, and formulating, Jaton discovers all the small but important details and practices that go into creating algorithms.”

    Ben Dickson



  • “A provocative and skillful study of how algorithms come into the world—and inevitably shape it. Jaton performs the daring feat of offering an empirically rich analysis of algorithms without taking them for granted.”

    Malte Ziewitz

    Cornell University

  • “This is a remarkable study of the spaces where algorithms are made: at once an ethnographic and theoretical intervention, illuminating the birthplaces of algorithmic systems and the collective processes that shape them.”

    Kate Crawford

    author of Atlas of AI

Funding provided by:
Arcadia Fund


$60.00 X ISBN: 9780262542142 400 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 63 figures