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Listen to the podcast and watch this video and read the file attached and then start working 

Please respond to the following questions:

1.  Strpias argues that use of algorithms has allowed humans to offload certain aspects of culture onto computational processes. This is resulting in what he calls privatization of the processes that shape cultural values. What does he mean by this? Do you agree? 

2.  Farid examines the use of predictive algorithms in criminal sentencing to eliminate problems with racial bias in court.  How did he study the problem and what were his findings?  Does he find algorithms to be a useful tool in this context?  Why or why not?

3. This episode of AI Nation explores the emerging technology of self-driving cars.  Podcast host Malcolm Burnley argues that "AI is kind of like an alien intelligence. The way it handles information is hugely different from the way we do. There are some ways in which it’s superior to us, and other times it utterly fails at things we’d think of as common sense."  How might that impact the way it drives a car?  Cite specific examples from the podcast.  What are your own thoughts about self-driving cars?  (i.e. Are you looking forward to a day when these are the norm or are you more wary of this form of transportation?)

European Journal of Cultural Studies 2015, Vol. 18(4-5) 395 –412

© The Author(s) 2015

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DOI: 10.1177/1367549415577392 ecs.sagepub.com

e u r o p e a n j o u r n a l o f

Algorithmic culture

Ted Striphas Indiana University, USA

Abstract Over the last 30 years or so, human beings have been delegating the work of culture – the sorting, classifying and hierarchizing of people, places, objects and ideas – increasingly to computational processes. Such a shift significantly alters how the category culture has long been practiced, experienced and understood, giving rise to what, following Alexander Galloway, I am calling ‘algorithmic culture’. The purpose of this essay is to trace some of the conceptual conditions out of which algorithmic culture has emerged and, in doing so, to offer a preliminary treatment on what it is. In the vein of Raymond Williams’ Keywords, I single out three terms whose bearing on the meaning of the word culture seems to have been unusually strong during the period in question: information, crowd and algorithm. My claim is that the offloading of cultural work onto computers, databases and other types of digital technologies has prompted a reshuffling of some of the words most closely associated with culture, giving rise to new senses of the term that may be experientially available but have yet to be well named, documented or recorded. This essay, though largely historical, concludes by connecting the dots critically to the present day. What is at stake in algorithmic culture is the gradual abandonment of culture’s publicness and the emergence of a strange new breed of elite culture purporting to be its opposite.

Keywords Algorism, algorithm, algorithmic culture, big data, crowd, culture, information, keywords, Raymond Williams

Easter 2009 might well be remembered for Amazon.com’s having outshined Jesus Christ. That much was true on Twitter, at any rate, where, during that long weekend in April, a sudden influx of short missives about the online retailer propelled it to the Number 1 spot

Corresponding author: Ted Striphas, Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Classroom Office Building, 800 E. 3rd Street, Indiana University, Bloomington IN 47405, USA. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @striphas

577392ECS0010.1177/1367549415577392European Journal of Cultural StudiesStriphas research-article2015


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on Twitter’s trending topics list, unseating the Prince of Peace along the way (James, 2009b). As the Beatles learned back in 1966, however, ‘more popular than Jesus’ (as John Lennon had claimed of the band) is not necessarily an enviable position in which to find oneself. The hashtag to which the Twitterati directed tens of thousands of messages – #AmazonFail – indicated that something had gone terribly wrong with company. Why, they wondered, had Amazon apparently begun excluding gay and lesbian–themed books from its sales rankings, searches and bestseller lists?

Author Mark R Probst first brought the issue to widespread attention when, on Good Friday, he noticed that several gay romance books had lost their Amazon sales rankings, including his own novel, The Filly. Hoping the matter was a simple mistake, he wrote to Amazon customer service. The agent who emailed Probst explained that Amazon had a policy of filtering ‘adult’ material out of most product listings. Incensed, Probst (2009) posted an account of the incident on his blog in the wee hours of Easter Sunday morning, pointing out inconsistencies in the retailer’s policy. The story was subsequently picked up by major news outlets, who traced incidences of gay and lesbian titles disappearing from Amazon’s main product list back to February 2009 (Lavallee, 2009; see also Kellog, 2009; Rich, 2009).

In a press release issued on Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for Amazon attributed the fiasco to ‘an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error’. More than 57,000 books had been affected in all, including not only those with gay and lesbian themes but also titles appearing under the headings ‘Health, Mind, Body, Reproductive and Sexual Medicine, and Erotica’ (quoted in James, 2009a; see also Rich, 2009). An Amazon techni- cian working in France reportedly altered the value of a single database attribute – ‘adult’ – from false to true. The change then spread globally throughout the retailer’s network of online product catalogs, de-listing any books that had been tagged with the corresponding metadata (James, 2009b). This was not homophobia, Amazon insisted, but a slip-up resulting from human error amplified by the affordances of a technical system.

In the wake of the controversy, author and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activist Larry Kramer observed: ‘We have to now keep a more diligent eye on Amazon and how they handle the world’s cultural heritage’ (quoted in Rich, 2009). Indeed, Amazon may have started as a retailer, but it has grown into an exemplar of the many ways human beings have been delegating the work of culture – the sorting, clas- sifying and hierarchizing of people, places, objects and ideas – to data-intensive compu- tational processes.1 Amazon’s back-end data infrastructure is so vast, in fact, that in 2006 it began selling excess capacity to clients under the name Amazon Web Services. It also collects sensitive data about how people read through its Kindle e-book devices – which is to say nothing of how it profiles and then markets products to customers based on their browsing and purchasing patterns (Striphas, 2010). What one sees in Amazon, and in its kin Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and many others, is the enfolding of human thought, conduct, organization and expression into the logic of big data and large-scale computation, a move that alters how the category culture has long been practiced, expe- rienced and understood. This is the phenomenon I am calling, following Alexander R Galloway (2006), ‘algorithmic culture’.2

The purpose of this essay is to trace one set of conditions out of which a data-driven algorithmic culture has developed and, in doing so, to offer a preliminary sense of what

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‘it’ is. The overarching impulse here is historico-definitional, though there are many ways to execute such a project. One could focus on the propagation of ‘truthful’ statements (i.e. discourses) pertaining to algorithmic culture (Foucault, 1972), or map the sociological circuitry through which the concept has made its way through the world (Mannheim, 1955). Or instead, one could take an etymological tack in attempting to trace the origins of particular words, or adopt a philological thrust in trying to apprehend definitive usages of words in history.

While this essay combines elements of these approaches, it is inspired primarily by Raymond Williams’ (1983) work on keywords. This piece emphasizes moments of cat- achresis – instances of lexical ‘misuse’ that help concretize an alternative semantics for particular words and word clusters. These moments enable new or at least different ways of figuring reality through language, for example, in drawing what was long taken to be the conceptual sine qua non of qualitative human experience – culture – into the orbit of computational data processing (see, e.g. Kittler, 2006). It is a contention of this essay that the semantic dimensions of algorithmic culture (and also then of the related phenomena of big data, data mining and analytics, the themes of this special issue of European Journal of Cultural Studies) are at least as important as the technological ones, the latter, for perhaps obvious reasons, tending to command the spotlight. But as Williams (1983) noted, ‘some important social and historical processes occur within language’, giving rise to new existential territories that only later come to be populated by technical arti- facts (p. 22; see also Striphas, 2014).

Moreover, a keywords approach is useful in apprehending latencies of sense and meaning that persist, insist and subsist in contemporary usage as ‘traces without … an inventory’ (Gramsci, 1971: 324; see also Seigworth, 2000: 237). Logging that inventory, as it were, allows one to not only situate algorithmic culture within a longer durée but also reflect on claims to objectivity and egalitarianism that are now made in its name. Beyond semantics, what is at stake in algorithmic culture is the gradual abandonment of culture’s publicness and thus the emergence of a new breed of elite culture purporting to be its opposite.

Keywords today

Gary Hall (2002) opens the final section of Culture in Bits with the line, ‘what if Richard Hoggart had had email?’ (p. 126). This is tantamount to asking, ‘what would the work of cultural studies’ canonical figures look like were it composed today, a time of ubiquitous digital computational technologies?’ Imagine, say, Raymond Williams (1958) were writ- ing Culture and Society having to confront the #AmazonFail episode. How might he make sense of the entwining of culture, which he posited as a ‘court of human appeal’ (Williams, 1958: viii), and computational decision-making (see also Hallinan and Striphas, 2014)?

Williams’ (1983) original project was to show how culture, once a relatively obscure word in English-language usage, became ‘one of the two or three most complicated words’ by the start of the 20th century (p. 87). He did so by tracing semantic shifts across a net- work of terms, many of which formed the basis for his compendium, Keywords (Williams, 1976, 1983). The introduction to Culture and Society offers a more succinct version of the

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story, focusing on five words whose history and interconnection uniquely embodied ‘a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life’: industry, democracy, class, art and culture (Williams, 1958: xiii). With the first four, Williams estab- lished a set of semantic coordinates, which he then used to chart culture’s shifting meaning and importance: from a pre-modern understanding grounded in husbandry to a more capa- cious, modern view – ‘a thing in itself’, encompassing not only ‘the general body of the arts’ but also ‘a whole way of life, material, intellectual, and spiritual’ (p. xvi).

Spanning the years 1780–1950, Culture and Society is bookended by two major his- torical events, namely, the industrial revolution and the end of the Second World War. The latter helped precipitate another great transformation referred to variously as the computer revolution, the communications revolution, the cybernetics revolution and so on (Beniger, 1986: 4–5). Prescient as he was, it is doubtful Williams grasped the full significance of his endpoint. More likely, he chose 1950 because the date marked mid- century, the moment in which the symbolics of history and futurity mingle more or less freely. Still, one can see Williams (1958) grasping to understand new technological con- texts in his reflections on communication appearing in the conclusion to Culture and Society (pp. 296, 300–304, 313–319). It was not until the publication of The Sociology of Culture, however, that Williams (1981) broached the relationship between culture, infor- mation and digital technologies – but then only in passing, in the work’s conclusion (pp. 231–232).3 He may not have been able to work out a fully revised theory of culture per se, but he managed to lay important groundwork for assessing how the semantic – and hence practical and experiential – coordinates of culture had shifted since 1950.

We are still living in the midst of this shift, although the nascent trends and tendencies Williams tried to make sense of in the early 1980s are more coherent today. The #AmazonFail episode illustrates this point, underscoring the degree to which shopping, merchandizing and a host of other everyday cultural activities are now data-driven activ- ities subject to machine-based information processing (Striphas, 2009: 81–110). Indeed, the incident would not have been intelligible, much less possible, without a reshuffling of the terms surrounding the word, culture. Those that Williams (1958) identified in Culture and Society remain important, to be sure, but in recent decades a host of others have emerged. An extended list might include analog, application, cloud, code, control, convergence, copy, data, design, digital, format, free, friend, game, graph, hack, human, identity, machine, message, mobile, network, noise, peer, platform, protocol, search, security, server, share, social, status, web and many more.4 Like Williams, however, I want to single out a small group of terms whose semantic twists and turns tell us some- thing about senses and meanings of the word culture that are available today, and also then about the politics of big data, data mining and analytics. Williams identified the first one – information; the other two – crowd and algorithm – are my own.5


If culture’s usage is unusually ‘complicated’, then information’s is equally contradictory. John Durham Peters (1988) describes its etymology as ‘a history full of inversions and compromises’ (p. 10). Like a moody teenager, it swings from specificity to generality, and from the empirical to the abstract. Yet, this range is also what makes information

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intriguing from the standpoint of algorithmic culture, which channels an older sense of the word that the Oxford English Dictionary or OED describes as, ‘now rare’ (‘Information’, n., n.d.; see also Peters, 1988: 11; Gleick, 2011).

When information enters the English language sometime around the 12th or 13th century CE, chiefly from Latin, the tension at the heart of the word is already becoming manifest. At this early stage, it operates in two main semantic registers: religion and law. The use that the OED claims is ‘now rare’ is the religious one, although it might be more apt to describe it as spiritual, even deific. Here, information denotes ‘the giving of form or essential character to something; the act of imbuing with a particular quality; anima- tion’ (‘Information’, n., n.d.). This definition posits an irreducible connection between the shaping of something and the endowment with character, substance or life.

Information’s juridical definition derives from the codes of ancient Roman legal pro- cedure. Broadly, it refers to ‘the imparting of incriminating knowledge’, and more specifi- cally, in US law, to ‘an accusation or criminal charge brought before a judge without a grand jury indictment’ (‘Information’, n., n.d.). Although information here depends on and passes among incarnate human agents, this definition differs from the more recent understanding, ‘knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event’ (‘Information’, n., n.d.). In the legal sense, one does not refer to information per se but to something narrower in scope – ‘an information’, or even ‘information’. The corre- sponding verb form, ‘laying of information’, is a special type of communication – a speech act – whose outcome is to transform the innocent into the accused and to set forth social rituals intended to restore order in the wake of some disturbance. Here the defini- tion comes closest to the religious sense of character- or quality-giving, although now the information ‘source’ is secular interaction.

The influence of early modern empiricism and idealism on the word information must not be underestimated. The definition to which I referred in passing, ‘knowledge com- municated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event’, is indicative of the term’s encounter with these crosscurrents of early modern thought, for it posits information not as intrinsic quality or character but as extrinsic sense data. This bit of semantic drift is significant, underscoring how far the locus of information has shifted from pre-modern through early modern times and beyond. Although it continued to refer to a kind of exis- tential work, divine or worldly, gradually, a more object-oriented definition sidelined this sense of the word.

The passive voice construction ‘knowledge communicated’ is important to dwell on, moreover, because it indicates that information – now conceived as a thing – always emanates from some source external to one’s self. In the framework of Immanuel Kant, it belongs to the noumenon, or the realm of unmediated sense data. This marks a signifi- cant departure from the spiritual and legal definitions, both of which locate information in the body vis-a-vis its incarnations, godly or performative. The object-oriented defini- tion, on the other hand, inaugurates a process of abstracting information from the body; instead of being vested there, information becomes a separate raw material that must be given order vis-a-vis our cognitive faculties (‘Information’, n., n.d.).

The 20th century information theorist Norbert Wiener famously quipped that the nat- ural world consists of ‘a myriad of To Whom It May Concern messages’ (quoted in Rheingold, 1985: 113), drawing a line back to the work of his early-modern forebears.

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They similarly imagined a world bombarding us with sensory input. This was a broken, not a direct line, however, resulting in an even more diffuse meaning for the word. If information were akin to a ‘To Whom It May Concern Message’, then it need not be directed to anyone in particular. More to the point, in Wiener’s formulation, it need not be directed to anyone at all.

Apropos, the stars of Wiener’s two major books on cybernetics and information are neither the brain nor the cognitive structures that purportedly allow people to make our way in the world. They are, instead, photoelectric cells and antiaircraft guns, and more utilitarian things like automatic door openers and thermostats (Wiener, 1954, 1961). In contrast to wind-up clocks and other simple mechanical devices, which function in a manner more or less unattuned to environmental conditions, these machines ‘must be en rapport with the world by sense organs’ and adjust their behavior according to the infor- mation they receive (Wiener, 1954: 33; see also pp. 21–22). In 1944, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1967 [1944]) argued that life ‘feeds on negative entropy’, meaning that life is nothing more and nothing less than a small pocket of order within a world abuzz with information (p. 70). Four years later, Wiener told a similar story but threw in a major plot twist. If machines possessed an appetite for information, then apparently information was not particular to human beings.

From the Second World War on, then, machines begin being seen not merely as useful things but as custodians of orderliness. Critical to their work was information, which Gregory Bateson (2000 [1971]) defined as ‘a difference which makes a difference’ (p. 315). Bateson, like Wiener, identified as a cyberneticist, so in one sense it should not surprise to find him defining information in terms of bits, or simple yes–no decisions. But in another sense, his definition may surprise. Bateson was a trained anthropologist and spouse of Margaret Mead, to whom he was married for 14 years. They had one child together, Mary Catherine, who also became a noted anthropologist. In a family so thick with interest in people and culture, it is telling that Bateson never bothered with the ques- tion ‘to whom?’ when he called information ‘a difference which makes a difference’. By the early 1970s, information was only residually the process by which people and things were endowed with substance, trait or character – in-formed, as it were. It had become, instead, a counter-anthropological leveler, smoothing over longstanding differences between humans and machines: Inform-uniform. James Gleick (2011) puts the matter succinctly: ‘it’s all one problem’ (p. 280).

In 1966, Michel Foucault concluded The Order of Things (1971 [1970]) by claiming that ‘man is an invention of recent date … [a]nd one perhaps nearing its end’ (p. 387). Six years later, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1983) opened Anti-Oedipus by pro- claiming that ‘everything is a machine’ – plant life, animal life, mechanical devices, electronic goods, economic activities, celestial bodies and more (p. 2). Sandwiched between them was Bateson, the an-anthropic anthropologist for whom cultural life becomes one type of information processing task among many. One can also see emerg- ing the sense of cultural objects, practices and preferences as comprising a corpus of data (from the Latin, ‘something given’), albeit data that exceed the traditional view of the human sciences in the agnosticism toward the intended recipient. No longer would human beings hold exclusive rights as cultural producers, arbiters, curators or interpret- ers – a welcome development, perhaps, given the shame, disrespect and brutality elites

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have long exacted in the name of cultural difference. But what if the apparent uniformity between people and machines resulted in cultural practices and decision-making that were no better in-formed?


The etymology of the word crowd is, like that of information, a study in polarity reversal. It entered the English language around the 15th century CE as an adaptation of verbs extant in Dutch, German and Frisian denoting pressuring or pushing. The English verb form ‘to crowd’ preserves this early meaning of the word, although in some contexts the element of physical force may be figurative rather than literal. The OED mentions that crowd was ‘comparatively rare down to 1600’, which means its rise roughly coincides with early modernity (‘Crowd’, n.d.). The noun form of the word has often been used interchangeably with mass, mob, multitude and throng to refer to large gatherings of people, generally in public, especially in urban settings. Frequently, it denotes imped- ance, inefficiency and frustration, as in the expressions ‘fighting the crowds’ and ‘three’s a crowd’. It also conveys individual anonymity and engaged inaction, as in the phrase, ‘a crowd of onlookers’.6 For these reasons crowd has, until recently, harbored almost exclu- sively pejorative connotations.

Semantically, crowd comes fully into its own in the 19th century, becoming a mainstay of journalistic and scholarly attention.7 Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in Britain in 1841, is a key text in this regard. The book chronicles incidents in which, as Mackay (2001 [1841]) puts it, ‘whole commu- nities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in pursuit of it’ (p. ix). The list ranges from stock bubbles to hairstyles, catch phrases, slow poisoning, dueling, occult practices and the mania for tulips in 17th century Holland. It is a capacious book, yet one that offers surprising little in the way of explicit insight into crowds – at least beyond their guilt by association with practices and events that, for Mackay, evidenced the collective abandonment of reason. Instead, he seems to play to the conventional wisdom of the time: ‘Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one’ (Mackay, 2001 [1841]: x).

But Mackay does not only play to the conventional wisdom – he also plays upon it. Preceding his statement about ‘thinking in herds’ is a passing reference to an analogous concept: the ‘popular mind’ (Mackay, 2001 [1841]: x). Terminologically, it is a small difference, but semantically it is a bait-and-switch. The verb phrase ‘thinking in herds’ would seem to designate an active, living process, albeit one in which any individual contribution registers diffusely. The noun form ‘popular mind’ largely elides that pro- cess, positing some overarching thing referring to everyone in general and no one in particular. And in this way, crowd’s etymology closely parallels that of information, which follows the term’s divestiture from the human body, its transformation into an immaterial object and its dispersal into the world.

This way of conceiving of crowds culminates in Gustave Le Bon’s (2002 [1895]) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon offers something like the explanatory framework absent in Mackay. Le Bon’s book is occasioned by ‘the entry of the popular classes into political life’, whom he paints a vicious, unthinking horde: ‘History tells us

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that from the moment when the moral forces on which a civilisation rested have lost their strength, its final dissolution is brought about by those unconscious and brutal crowds known, justifiably enough, as barbarians’ (Le Bon, 2002 [1895]: xii–xiii; see also Arnold, 1993 [1869]).

Le Bon’s book has been read, understandably, as an attack on crowds (see, for exam- ple, Milgram and Toch, 2010; Surowiecki, 2004). It is one, to be sure, and an elegy for the decline of privileged minority rule akin to Edmund Burke’s (1999 [1790]) Reflections on the Revolution in France. Yet, there is a tone of resignation evident in Le Bon’s prose, suggesting a kind of begrudging acceptance of the emerging political realities of the time: ‘The age we are about to enter will in truth be the era of crowds’, he states (Le Bon, 2002 [1895]: x; emphasis in original). This may help to explain why The Crowd also contains a handful of passages in which Le Bon offers a more equivocal view, such as this one: ‘What, for instance, can be more complicated, more logical, more marvelous than a language? Yet whence can this admirably organised production have arisen, except it be the outcome of the unconscious genius of crowds’ (Le Bon, 2002 [1895]: v)?

Whether by default or by design, Le Bon was drawing on a subterranean line of think- ing about crowds. This line developed in the overlap of Classical Liberalism and the Scottish Enlightenment and received its most enduring expression in the work of Adam Smith. It was Smith (1977 [1776]) who, in An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations, struggled to make sense of apparently spontaneous economic activities whose outcome was – in Le Bon’s words – ‘admirably organised production’. Yet, the figure of the crowd is noticeably absent from Smith. In fact, the word crowd appears only four times in his 375,000 word magnum opus, and only then in verb form. His figure is a dif- ferent one, and of a different kind, although it performs rhetorical work comparable to Le Bon’s ‘genius’ crowd. This is the famous ‘invisible hand’, which, in Smith’s (1977 [1776]) view, aligns the interests of individual economic actors with the needs of a soci- ety as a whole (p. 477).

Mysterious, ghostlike, the ‘invisible hand’ is essentially a deus ex machina of eco- nomic activity, and in this regard it is not too far removed from the spiritual sense of information mentioned earlier. In the 20th century, Friedrich A Hayek would make the link more explicit, helping to bolster the more affirmative view of crowds nascent in both Smith and Le Bon. The key work here is Hayek’s (2007 [1944]) Road to Serfdom, pub- lished in 1944, arguably the strong state’s high-water mark in both Europe and the United States. Hayek believed there ought to be some force to which was assigned the task of holding the state in check; for him, that force was the economic sphere. Hence, his desire to strip the state of the responsibility of economic planning and to leave the task of coor- dinating economic activities up to individual actors dispersed far and wide (Hayek, 2007 [1944]: 232). Instead of positing that coordination resulted from the arcane workings of an invisible hand, Hayek stressed the crucial role that information – his word – played in choreographing this intricate group dance, particularly through the price system (Hayek, 2007 [1944]: 95).

Like Smith, Hayek had little to say about crowds per se. His understanding of the indi- vidual, however, harkened back to the earliest English-language sense of crowd as the exertion of force on others. And with this, he helped to usher the idea of the intelligent, constructive crowd more fully into view. He was not alone in this endeavor. In 1965, the

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economist Mancur Olson (1971), a friend of Hayek, refuted the claim that groups were intrinsically stupid and irrational by describing the hidden ‘logic’ underlying collective action.8 So, too, with sociologist Stanley Milgram, whose early work on obedience to authority was given subtlety and dimension in his later work on crowds, where he disman- tled the view that crowds caused otherwise mindful people to become deluded (Milgram, 2010; Milgram and Toch, 2010). Finally, inasmuch as he was Hayek’s ideological oppo- site, we must nonetheless reckon with the contributions Raymond Williams made to the redemption of crowds. The conclusion to Culture and Society is an extended critique of the notion of masses-as-mob, culminating in the insight, ‘there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses’ (Williams, 1958: 300). The alternatives Williams proposes – ‘community’ or ‘common culture’ – bear an uncanny resemblance to the