Read CCS Faculty Fellow Werner Binder’s newest article, Technology as (Dis-)Enchantment. AlphaGo and the Meaning-Making of Artificial Intelligence, out now in the journal Cultural Sociology.
Abstract: As a social phenomenon, artificial intelligence (AI) is not just technically but also culturally constructed. This article investigates the meaning-making of AI in the case of AlphaGo by employing and refining cultural sociological narrative analysis. Building on Smith’s structural model of genre, whose horizontal axis reflects varying degrees of (dis-)enchantment, I propose an extended model of narrative genre, adding a vertical axis on the theoretical basis of Durkheim’s distinction between pure and impure sacred, to account for the empirical bifurcation between utopian and dystopian AI narratives. While critical approaches to AI, prevalent in sociology, tend to offer disenchanted narratives, my cultural sociological approach allows for the construction of a meta-narrative, which is able to capture not only enchantment as well as disenchantment but also purification and impurification as empirical processes that accompany the emergence and consolidation of new technologies. This approach is exemplified by a case study of AlphaGo, a Go-playing program utilizing machine learning and neural networks, which gained global prominence and cultural significance after beating a human grandmaster in 2016. Drawing on publicly available online data, this article investigates the discourses surrounding AlphaGo, focusing on its cultural construction through storytelling and genre. I not only show how characters and events were emplotted in different stories, which were in turn embedded in broader narratives about technological progress and AI, but also explain how the development of the main storyline was driven by in-game performances, audience expectations and collective representations. The article demonstrates the feasibility of a cultural sociology of AI and the usefulness of my extended model of narrative genre, which is not only applicable to AI discourses but other domains as well.