Algocracy

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Algocracy refers to a system of governance based on computer code or algorithm. While the concept has a longer history, going as far back as Max Weber's thesis of bureaucracy, its increasing use in the social sciences[1][2][3][4][5][6] pertains to substantive consequences of technical decision-making. Modern bureaucracy—Max Weber[7] detected—operated on the basis of a legal-rational code that reduced the discretionary power of office holders. Similarly, many technological innovations—for example, the assembly line—further reduced the discretionary power of workers and managers. Harry Braverman[8] and others[9] pointed out that in assembly line systems, the machinery itself is made to direct the labor process and set the pace from factories to fast-food joints. To Bruno Latour,[10] even a nonhuman structure like the speed bump acts like a sleeping cop with a “motive” as the social rule is delegated to a device.

Algocracy can be distinguished from three better known systems of governance—bureaucracy, panoptic, and the market, based on their different ruling mechanisms: bureaucracy (legal-rational), panoptic (surveillance), the market (price), and algocracy (programming or algorithm).[11] The algocratic system of governance consists of programming schemes embedded in software platforms that structure possible forms of work performance. This system does not need monitoring through hierarchical positions as in bureaucracy, or a camera-based surveillance; instead, performance is governed through the design of the work process itself. As a small everyday example, when we use an ATM machine, our each step is determined by software code itself without the need for managerial supervision or surveillance. Similarly, while filling in the “fields” on a computer screen, one cannot type in the address in the space for the phone number, as the embedded code predetermine the field for numerical or text input, providing channels that guide action in precise ways.

The concept of code or algocratic code, even in its brief history, has gone through two iterations: as "perfect law" by Lawrence Lessig[12] and as “hyperbureaucracy” by A. Aneesh.[13] However, algocracy may neither be bureaucracy nor law because there is no common meta-language shared by bureaucratic (permissible/not permissible code), legal (legal/illegal code), and algocratic (binary true/false or 0/1 code) systems of governance. The genealogy of algocracy could be traced as far back as the proposal by Gottfried Leibniz, a seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, to build machines for deducing valid references through a “calculus of reason” (calculus ratiocinator).

References

  1. Aneesh, A. 2006. Virtual Migration : the Programming of Globalization. Durham: Duke University Press.
  2. Vaughan Higgins, Wendy Larner. 2010. Calculating the Social: Standards and the Reconfiguration of Governing (Palgrave Macmillan)
  3. John B Davis (ed). Global Social Economy: Development, Work and Policy. Taylor & Francis.
  4. Adam Fish Ramesh Srinivasan. 2012. Digital labor is the new killer app. New Media and Society 14 (1).
  5. Poster, Winifred R. 2011. Emotion detectors, answering machines, and e-unions: Multi-surveillances in the Global Interactive Service Industry. American Behavioral Scientist 55 (7).
  6. M DeVault. 2013 Institutional Ethnography A Feminist Sociology of Institutional Power. Contemporary Sociology, 42
  7. Weber, Max. 1921. Economy and Society: an Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 1978 ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. Later edition, 1978.
  8. Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and Monopoly Capital: the Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  9. Edwards, Richard. 1979. Contested Terrain: the Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books.
  10. Latour, Bruno. 1994. On Technical Mediation--Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy. Common Knowledge 3 29- 64.
  11. Aneesh, A. 2009. Global Labor: Algocratic Modes of Organization. Sociological Theory 27 (4): 347-70.
  12. Lessig, Lawrence. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.
  13. Aneesh, A. 1999. Technologically Embedded Authority: The Post-Industrial Decline in Bureaucratic Hierarchies. Sociological Abstracts, Chicago: American Sociological Association.