Styles of Valuation: Algorithms and Agency in High-throughput Bioscience

Francis Lee & Claes-Fredrik Helgesson (2020)

Science, Technology, & Human Values 45(4), pp. 659-685.

Abstract. In science and technology studies today, there is a troubling tendency to portray actors in the biosciences as “cultural dopes” and technology as having monolithic qualities with predetermined outcomes. To remedy this analytical impasse, this article introduces the concept styles of valuation to analyze how actors struggle with valuing technology in practice. Empirically, this article examines how actors in a bioscientific laboratory struggle with valuing the properties and qualities of algorithms in a high-throughput setting and identifies the copresence of several different styles. The question that the actors struggle with is what different configurations of algorithms, devices, and humans are “good bioscience,” that is, what do the actors perform as a good distribution of agency between algorithms and humans? A key finding is that algorithms, robots, and humans are valued in multiple ways in the same setting. For the actors, it is not apparent which configuration of agency and devices is more authoritative nor is it obvious which skills and functions should be redistributed to the algorithms. Thus, rather than tying algorithms to one set of values, such as “speed,” “precision,” or “automation,” this article demonstrates the broad utility of attending to the multivalence of algorithms and technology in practice.

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