The subject in the big data era
: Reading fictions of algorithmic manipulation

  • Jaime Harrison

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


My thesis explores fiction’s response to the question of how the contemporary internet is reshaping subjectivity. Through case studies on Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers (2015), Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY (2017), David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011), and Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (2019), my thesis identifies the extent to which fiction can encourage contestation of a particular understanding of digital culture. I loosely consider these novels as a subset that has evolved from the “systems novels” defined by Tom LeClair in the 1980s—novels which seek to unpack how human beings are formed, informed, and deformed by the intersection and collision of social systems. To this end, I explore how fiction can reveal the systems which underpin digital culture and, by revealing them to be constructed, encourage the reader to consider how they may be reconstructed. In order to explore how these systems are depicted in fiction, I define the key characteristics of what I have called “algorithmic manipulation”—specific characteristics of algorithms which contribute to digital culture’s ability to reshape subjects and subjective experience. This framework draws upon existing digital culture scholarship, including the work of Antoinette Rouvroy, Shoshana Zuboff and Byung-Chul Han, as well as upon the theory of computation. But on a broader level, my framework draws upon and extends Michel Foucault’s bio-power concept, to consider how algorithms herd subjects en masse, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. My use of the latter interrogates to what extent the fact that algorithms are inscribed in code has had an influence on digital culture. I argue that algorithmic manipulation functions through language and through narrative, and it is on these two fields that literature can most effectively engage with and encourage the contestation of digital culture.

Thesis embargoed until 31st December 2025
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAHRC Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorAndrew Pepper (Supervisor) & Alex Murray (Supervisor)


  • Contemporary literature
  • English literature
  • big data
  • digital culture
  • novel
  • fiction

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