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Media of Calculation

Media of Calculation


Carolin Gerlitz, Bernhard Rieder




This research group is dedicated to investigating the role calculation, understood widely as mechanical reasoning, plays in contemporary societies. Although practices like statistics, cost-benefit analysis, or accounting have been important practices for centuries, the invention of the computer and its more recent infiltration into the pores of contemporary societies have put the spotlight on calculation as a means to represent and intervene. This implies that various kinds of decisions – from what movie to watch to how to allocate a state’s budget – are made on the basis of forms of reasoning that rely on data collection, formalization, counting, and, increasingly often, advanced mathematics. The Media of Calculation research group aims at contributing to our understanding of both the inner logic of these techniques and the social and cultural significance of their application.

Contemporary media, from search engines to social media to television are increasingly involved in practices of counting, measuring, ordering, evaluating, and ranking. Informed by contemporary audit cultures, media transform user activities and other data into different numerical forms which become subject to algorithmic processing, self-evaluation, and economic valorisation. Socially and culturally relevant tasks, such as sorting knowledge or determining who is credit-worthy, are delegated to these calculative media. The underlying calculative operations come with specific valuations and classification schemes build into them, which become increasingly invisible once established as common practice or implemented in automated systems.

This research project contributes to an understanding of the calculative agencies of media and their social, cultural and economic effects. It engages a wider account of calculation which extends beyond quantification and includes ordering, valuation, decision making, measurement, and ranking. Within this project, we trace the historical emergence of calculative practices, the different rationales build into them as well as their performative effects. This allows us to inquire how media of calculation entangle the production of social, cultural, and economic value.

To follow this goal, we build on established disciplines, for instance science and technology studies, economic sociology, or cultural epistemology, as well as more recent fields such as software and platform studies. Of particular interest to our project is the relationship between calculation and economic considerations, whether it concerns the transfer of economic models into calculative settings (e.g. the application of auction models to ad pricing online) or, more generally, the desire to maximize performance, engagement, and value extraction. But rather than treating calculation as a mere tool for faster and more profitable decision-making, we want to consider the various forms of counting, ordering, filtering, arranging, and so forth as contemporary forms of mediation that have much more far reaching consequences than their immediate application might suggest. Involved in knowledge production, risk assessment, surveillance, social sorting, cultural selection, and governance, calculation has become a central means of control, forcing us to reassess the theory, critique, and accountability of power in the 21st century.

Envisaged Activities

The aim of the research group is to provide an interdisciplinary context for ongoing research on media and calculation. Current sub-projects focus on information processing, social media metrics, and numbering practices in digital media. The group will run a regular reading group and envisions to organise a special issue publication as well as facilitate joint grant applications.

Societal relevance

Pervasive computing renders always larger domains subject to calculation. This project responds to a growing public interest in operations and effects of algorithmic sorting and digital evaluation. It provides a critical framework to understand how media of calculation not only measure, but govern, shape, and transform social and cultural life.

Reading Group Meetings

Tuesday, January 27, 15.00 - 17.00. Location: BG1, room 1.15B Tuesday, February 24, 13.00 - 15.00 Tuesday, March 31, 15.00 - 17.00

Texts for the first meeting

Callon, M. & Muniesa, F., 2005. Peripheral Vision: Economic Markets as Calculative Collective Devices. Organization Studies, 26(8), pp.1229–1250.

Goody, J., 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Chapters 4 and 5)

Power, M., 2004. Counting, Control and Calculation: Reflections on Measuring and Management. Human Relations, 57(6), pp.765–783.

All texts can be downloaded at this address:

This Research Group is active in the following constellations:


Cultural and Social Critique