Workshop 1: Finding Metaphors for Algorithm

Final Major Project / 02

July 20, 2021

Luchen Peng, Tiana Robison, Jinsong (Sylvester) Liu

As a participatory process, we invited serval friends to join a beta workshop at the London College of Communication on 26 July 2021.

In this workshop, participants will first share their own experiences with AI algorithms and how they have affected their lives. Then they will collaborate and make some physical, symbolic representation of the “general algorithm”. This study aims to explore the different ways algorithms engage in our society, discuss whether we should be more aware of the power we give them and investigate people’s understanding of this abstract technology.

A complete guid of workshop. Image by Tiana.

All participants are from the London College of Communication:
  • Fianda, MA Service Design student.
  • Yingyi, MA Visual Effect student.
  • Huan-huan, MA Film student.
  • Ming, MA Service Design student.

Part I: Share Your Personal Engagement with Algorithms

The first part is understanding how we interact with algorithms on a daily basis. The most mentioned example from the interviewees of this is social media like Facebook. Since we gave some hint sectors such as finance, health, transport, they also shared stories of using fitness tracking devices and AI-based loan credit scores. One example from Ming is when she walks alone at night, she always hopes the navigation can show the safest route, maybe integrating crime rates data.

It is not easier for them to come up with new sectors. But everyone agreed that algorithms today are everywhere, and it will be hard to escape them, as they are in our pockets, in our homes, and even in the school or workplace.

Part II: Build a Metaphor for Algorithm(s)

The second part invites participants to build a physical metaphor of the “general algorithms”. We gave space for individual work and collaboration, but all of them choose to work independently. Although we included a brief introduction, they struggled a bit in comprehension and conceiving initially, then gradually moved to the prototyping.

It is worth mentioning that the industry is already using metaphorical appellations for algorithmic infrastructure. A set of remote storage computing servers is “cloud”, a self-updated algorithm is “machine learning”, and calling a digital text-based responding service “chat bot” would somehow affect our interaction and expectation. Therefore, I was keen to determine whether people in this workshop would build on top of these familiar ideas or create something new.

“A DNA Strings Ball”

Fianda created a “DNA Ball” representing the networked algorithm. She described the interconnected strings in various colours as different sectors (social media, health, finance, etc.) and influencing each other. The overall sphere can continuously stretch and reshape, reflecting her  “weird, uncomfortable feeling”.

“Ticking bomb”

Huan-huan made a device as “a dating app”. She told a story that all users (pins) immersing in the information sea (blue waves). Meanwhile, two main characters finally find their soul mate (two pins in the red circle), started a long, complex journey (knotted ropes) and remain in a happy yet dangerous relationship (a balloon that is about to be poked).

“A Network”

Ying Yi built a network map as a metaphor. The film Matrix inspired her the overall environment (green sponge background), bearing routes (paper clip chains) and activities (dots). She applied different drops to express her conflicting view on this subject, balancing convenience and privacy issues in the digital world.

“A Dominant Machine”

Ming also created another “ocean” (white paper background) with connected people living in (coloured fish-shaped strings). But this time, she also imagined a giant “a self-updated, all-knowing machine” (blue zig-zags) under the sea interfering with the residences.


In conclusion, thanks to everyone’s actively contribution, the workshop is fun and inspiring. We noticed that except Fianda, everyone else tended to build a flat model, probably because of our mislead. However, the provided materials seem very helpful in evoking hands-on activity, especially those that can change, flex, bend or twist.

Most people’s concerns about algorithms are manifested in privacy and autonomy. Those repeated metaphors (ocean, chains, nets) show the immersive, complex and dynamic nature of the view towards “algorithms”, with some exciting opportunities in manipulative interaction between the device and audiences. We want to adjust our instruction to encourage it in the next step.

Complete artefact analysis.