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On 15 and 16 June 2017 The Bot Club (humans welcome): Critical Bots event was held at Het Nieuwe Instituut. During the Thursday Night Live! The Bot Club: Critical Bots event, Julian Oliver and Anne Helmond gave lectures and the next day a Hackathon was organized. Criticial Bots was the second edition of Bots Club (humans welcome), a recurring program on algorithmic culture by Het Nieuwe Instituut. 

A Hackathon with case studies

Next to providing evocative, insightful as well as disturbing perspectives on current algorithmic culture, these talks also functioned as introduction to the more practice based hackathon on Critical Bots the day after. Here three presented case studies would frame more articulated technical questions towards actually making new critical bots. 

Cristina Cochior

Bot-custodian and media researcher Cristina Cochior presented a study of the bot culture of Wikipedia, and particularly on the work of Cluebot NG. Bots on wikipedia are intentionally made invisible, thereby playing into the myth of wikipedia as primarily a project of combined human intelligence. Cluebot NG is the most active and important and anti-vandalism bot on Wikipedia. It restores ruined pages and filters offensive language. It has higher rights than many humans that work on Wikipedia. Cluebot NG is what is known as a janitor bot, performing the crucial (but for humans very boring and way to massive) labour of maintenance. It is not actually intervening in discourse in a critical manner, (unless a critical attitude towards vandalism would count) but it facilitates a certain quality of discourse by weeding out the noise and attempts at destruction. Its vandalism detection mechanism uses machine learning algorithms, trained on a dataset that is put together by human vandalism fighters.

Sarah Eskens

Legal scholar Sarah Eskers (UvA) presented her research in the functioning of recommender systems in the context of  news feeds, in the context of the larger question of how to stimulate democratic debate. She put up the hard question of how to capture diversity in an automated way. First of all: there is the issue of whether to (try to) optimize for diversity in sources of news stories, or for diversity in types of (political) content or to optimize for exposure diversity: making sure users actually get exposed to diverse content and or sources. Underpinning this is the more fundamental question of what is the (often implicit) model of democracy that is worked with. A pluralist idea? An agonistic model? A deliberative, concensus-driven process?

Making things

Jullian Oliver then went more deeply into the hardware and code of possible critical interventionist works. Three ideas were developed, for two of which proofs of (aspects of the) concept were delivered. One system (inspired by Julian Olivers work) would be able to spoof weather patterns and would locally output towards the famous Buienradar. Fake weather would again critically question the dependency on digital infrastructure, but would also be able to spark debate on climate change. A second concept targeted flexible pricing systems that apply user data on location, cookies, browser history and such to calculate per user the highest possible price he or she is willing to pay for a certain commodity. The system would generate automatically a (fake) consumer identity that would be able to get the lowest possible price for online purchases. A third project tried to tackle the source diversity  question in online debates.

A more elaborate report on the workshop with links to resources will be made available on demand soon. The combination of theoretical and practical discourse that we explored in this event closely followed the spirit of Critical Making and proved highly constructive. We will therefor continue in this set-up. The next Bot Club (working title Decolonizing Bots) will be held 26 October and will again be followed by a one day workshop.


Het Nieuwe Instituut
Museumpark 25
3015 CB Rotterdam

Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker