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In Session: COVID-19 and Shifting Attitudes Towards Digital Sociality in China and Japan
3: Algorithm in Action: Reassembling the Contact Tracing and Risk Assessment in a Pandemic in China
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of California, San Diego, Department of Sociology, United States
Algorithms are ubiquitous in our life. Along with other information and communication technologies, they collect data from us through surveillance infrastructures and make decisions about us in the cloud. During the Covid-19 pandemic, contact tracing and risk assessment algorithms have been widely used in many societies. While debates are heated about the optimal design of the algorithm in regard to its effectiveness and ethics, little is known how the algorithm is deployed, experienced, challenged, and reshaped in society. This paper examines health code, the Chinese contact tracing and risk assessment algorithm, in action during the pandemic. I use in-depth interviews, media articles, and policy documents to reconstruct the health code’s assembling, disassembling, and reassembling trajectories with the involvement of diverse human and non-human actors. I first explore the intensive and invisible works of people mobilization, space rearrangement, and infrastructure building that enable health code to enact in reality. I then show how these assembling processes are constantly challenged and broken by various social actors, which destabilizes the health code’s operation. Furthermore, I examine how the health code reassembles with the engagements of diverse yet unintended actors, local networks, and power relations, which creates multiple health code algorithms at different social localities. Lastly, I argue for a conceptualization of algorithms as sociotechnical assemblages to understand their operations and impact in a more dynamic, nuanced, and realistic way. I critically examine how the process these assemblages bring could reshape the mechanism of social stratification and governance in the digital society.