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 pertains to substantive consequences of technical decision-making. Modern bureaucracy—Max Weber 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 and others 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, 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). 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 and as “hyperbureaucracy” by A. Aneesh. 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).
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