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Contact Info:
Tufts University
Department of Anthropology
5 The Green
311A Eaton Hall
Medford, MA 02155

Office: 617.627.8833


Nick Seaver
Assistant Professor

PhD in Anthropology, University of California at Irvine
MA in Anthropology, University of California at Irvine
SM in Comparative Media Studies, MIT
BA in Literature, Yale University

Computing and algorithms; sound and music; knowledge and attention; taste and classification; media technologies; science and technology studies

Scholarship & Research
I study how people who make technology deal with cultural materials. My current book project, Computing Taste, draws on several years of ethnographic research and interviews with US-based developers of algorithmic music recommender systems – services that model their users' taste. Where popular critical accounts presume that engineers inevitably misunderstand culture, I instead examine how they theorize about culture and technology – what they are and how they should interact. These theories can have broad consequences, as they shape the design and evolution of influential algorithmic systems. Because many engineering practices are protected by corporate secrecy, I am also interested in developing new ethnographic techniques for accessing and examining the cultural worlds of engineers.

In my new research, I am investigating the technocultural life of attention in the United States. Recently, attention and its technical mediations have become objects of great popular concern—filter bubbles, fake news, political distractions, and shortening attention spans are all blamed on technologies that have been designed to manipulate their users' attention. In this project, I look to see how the people building some of these systems understand attention themselves: how they navigate public concerns about their work, and how their engineering practices relate to ideas about what attention is. I am interested in how the many understandings of attention – as a currency, a capacity, a filter, a spotlight, a moral responsibility – come together in the design of computational systems aimed at quantifying, attracting, or paying attention. This project engages people working in machine learning, facial recognition, and online advertising, as well as the recent movement to "reclaim" attention from the software platforms that have tried to capture it.

n.d. Knowing Algorithms. In Digital STS Handbook, edited by Janet Vertesi and David Ribes. Princeton University Press. In press.

2017. Algorithms as Culture: Some Tactics for the Ethnography of Algorithmic Systems. In "Algorithms in Culture," edited by Morgan Ames and Massimo Mazzotti, special issue, Big Data & Society.

2017. Arrival. In "Correspondences: Proficiency," edited by Andrés García Molina and Franziska Weidle. Cultural Anthropology website, June 27, 2017.

2017. Attending to the mediators. Review of The Passion for Music: A Sociology of Mediation, by Antoine Hennion. Journal of Cultural Economy 10(3): 309–323.

2015. The nice thing about context is that everyone has it. Media, Culture, and Society 37(7): 1101–1109.

2015. Bastard Algebra. In Data, Now Bigger & Better!, edited by Bill Maurer and Tom Boellstorff. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 27–45.

2012. Algorithmic Recommendations and Synaptic Functions. Limn 2, "Crowds and Clouds." Edited by Christopher Kelty, Lilly Irani, and Nick Seaver.

2011. "This is Not a Copy": Mechanical Fidelity and the Re-enacting Piano. In "The Sense of Sound," edited by Rey Chow and James A. Steintrager, special issue, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22(2-3): 54–73.