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Jeffrey Binder


I am currently working on a book about the intellectual history of algorithms from the mid-1500s to around 1900. By examing the differing ways in which people have conceptualized algorithm-like processes over the centuries, my book shows that computation as we know it depends on social categories that emerged in the nineteenth century. During the Enlightenment, algorithms were a politically loaded topic; radicals sought to replace the “errors” of the past with mathematical rationality, while conservatives viewed such methods as tyrannical impositions of arbitrary rules on human thought. The Romantic turn around 1800, I argue, provided a new definition of culture in which these two conflicting positions could get along: the technical aspects of mathematical systems could be scientifically designed, whereas the “cultural factors” involved in making them meaningful to people could be enabled to develop organically. This nineteenth-century compromise, I argue, set the terms on which algorithms continue to relate to meaning in the present day.