Algorithms as Bureaucracy

A paper exploring how machine leaning algorithms impose new bureaucratic, market, and surveillance effects is worth a read

Sometimes, I wonder if people are paying attention. Euphemisms run rampant, with “equity” used as a cover for “uniformity,” and “transparency” bandied about as if we are not in one of the least-transparent times when it comes to the forces influencing what we see, hear, know, and believe.

With this in mind, the abstract to a recent paper in Daedalus by Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade grabbed my attention:

While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism” – the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life – has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes.

The image of script above comes from the URL of the paper’s PDF, reminding us that surveillance is the starting point of high-tech modernism.