Algorithms ≠ Automation: guest post from Jesse Shapins

I write this from an eerily warm Cambridge, saddened by the fact that I cannot travel to Bristol for i-Docs. The group coming together is incredible, and while not physically present, I look forward to following the conversation virtually. As a provocation, Mandy invited me to write a blog post on Zeega — an open-source, HTML5 platform for creating interactive documentaries — and I took this as an opportunity to begin some very cursory reflections on the relationships between our constantly evolving work on Zeega and some of the broader cultural questions percolating around documentary.

It’s been a crazy couple of years thinking about the changing nature of documentary in the context of networked culture. In the background of developing Mapping Main Street and then Zeega, I’ve also been doing research into what I call the urban database documentary (in-progress PDF here). I define the urban database documentary as a mode of media art practice that uses structural systems as generative processes and organizational frameworks to explore the lived experience of place. While particularly prominent in recent decades, I argue that the genre of the urban database documentary emerges in the early 20th century as a response to new cultural conditions created by the widespread adoption of new media recording and  distribution technologies; mass urbanization; and an information-based society. In other words, the invention of the computer did not give rise to the urban database documentary — it only enabled new forms of its realization. With this perspective, looking at historical work can often be useful for creatively thinking about the present.

Zeega + Dziga in the Context of The City Symphony

Zeega’s namesake is Dziga Vertov, creator of Man with a Movie Camera, the famous 1929 film often described as a “city symphony.” This term term is most commonly used to describe a series of avant-garde documentary films from the 1920s that focus upon the day-in-the-life of the modern metropolis.

City symphonies are typically identified by various qualities: 1) a temporal structure, where the film begins with morning and ends at night; 2) rapid montage as the dominant editing style; 3) shots of individuals and crowds caught unaware by a concealed camera; 4) and the treatment of a cityscape itself as the main character and actor as opposed to individual personalities.

The most famous examples are Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City” (1927), the work that gave the genre its title, and “Man with a Movie Camera.” Ruttmann’s 65-minute silent classic begins with Berlin’s awakening and culminates in evening fireworks, with rapid, rhythmic montage sequences of industrial labor, street crowds, communications technologies and other classic icons of modernity documented in between. The footage is largely observational.

Vertov’s work similarly follows the morning-to-night structure; however, the film also interweaves a narrative of the projection, recording and editing of the film itself into the documentation of the daily lives of urbanites in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The first part of the film shows an empty theater with a projectionist taking out a reel titled “Man with a Movie Camera.” We then see people come into the theater and begin watching this film which shows a literal man with a movie camera out in the world recording events; the rest of the film follows this cameraman (who happens to be Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman), and also includes segments showing the film’s editor, Elizaveta Svilova, selecting clips from the cameraman’s reels, understood to be those selections that become the final film.

This reflective layer of “Man with a Movie Camera” exposes the highly mediated processes by which documentaries are made, and has since become a touchstone of film and cultural theory, giving rise to such fascinating web-based projects as Perry Bard’sMan with a Movie Camera: A Global Remake.


From our perspective, it’s interesting to note that the city symphony’s defining qualities are in effect rule-based strategies for organizing collections of media (i.e., databases). Although the term algorithm is traditionally used to describe computational processes, I would like to suggest that we broaden our scope to conceive of algorithm as a sequence of rules with clear instructions that may be carried out by either a machine or a human. In this light, the editorial decision to assemble a body of material according to a temporal structure is basically a simple algorithm.

Moreover, the emphasis on categories of activity (e.g., residence, employment, etc.) points to a rule-based structure built on common themes. The editor has the ability to perform these algorithms, and now through techniques such as a tagging, audiences can also participate in authoring and performing such algorithms.

What’s important to distinguish in this definition, then, is that an algorithm is distinct from automation. This decoupling frees us up to make greater creative distinctions in contemporary computational media practice between modes of authorship, and moreover, helps us to better understand the longer history of rule-based artistic practices.

In the case of the historical city symphony, a work’s editor performs the very simple algorithm of organizing material within a day-to-night framework. Within this general scheme, the editor has a lot of flexibility in choosing the precise clips and their relative ordering. In contemporary culture, we see similar algorithms performed via automation by machines, such as the visualization of all images within Flickr according to their timestamps.

The differences between these two examples are, of course, many. But I would suggest that the most pertinent distinction is the role of the editor as human versus editor as machine. What a close reading of the city symphony’s formal characteristics exposes is that the aesthetic exploration of algorithmic approaches to media-making was already underway before the invention of computers.

However, the editing process by which these early algorithms were performed was by humans; whereas, today, many of these algorithms are automated, and the process by which they are human-authored is often obscured.

With Zeega, we hope to provide a set of tools that enable humans — coders and non-coders alike — to author algorithms that creatively build narratives out of databases. Moreover, we aim to make these algorithms transparent in different ways to users, thus helping to facilitate a more critical culture vis-a-vis the many algorithms shaping our media experience.

While often automated, algorithms are created by humans and carry significant opinion. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. The problem is not that algorithms are not “objective,” it is that we often think that they are.

PS We are getting close to making Zeega available to more and more i-doc makers. For those in Toronto for Hot Docs, on May 3rd we’ll be holding a workshop on “Inventing New Forms of Storytelling” where filmmakers will receive logins to Zeega’s new web-based editor. At that time, we will also be opening up a simple application process for anyone to submit project ideas that can start as early as this summer. Sorry again to miss the gathering in Bristol! Look forward to meeting many of you in person and online over the coming months/years.

PPS Portions of this post appeared previously on the IdeaLab blog. For more info on Zeega, you can see these previous IdeaLab posts on Localore, our work with archives and libraries, and Zeega’s history.