On the Objectivity of Algorithms

On the objectivity of algorithms:

We also need to recognize the crude opportunism behind some efforts to elevate the status of algorithms.

We are surrounded by systems of prediction and control. The supervision (via super-vision) here is not simply a way of stopping particularly bad acts but of shaping behavior toward certain ends. The better the surveillance becomes, the better the “men behind the camera” can plan, behavioristically, matrices of penalties and rewards to reinforce acceptable behavior and deter terror, crime, antisocial behavior, suspicious activities, lack of productivity, laziness—whatever detracts from the gross domestic product and homeland security. Jeremy Bentham’s ecstatic claim for the Panopticon—“Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in Architecture!”—would not be out of place in the prospectuses of Silicon Valley startups, or spy agency mission statements

Criticism of algorithms must go beyond merely recognizing the emptiness of virality or the numbing self-reference inherent in the algorithmic economy’s obsession with “metrics,” “engagement,” and “impact.” Without robust backstops of cultural meaning, and the fight to preserve them, those at the top of society will increasingly engineer out of daily experience all manner of “inconvenient” cultural and social practices. The least we can hope for is some clear understanding of how the strategies the powerful deploy affect how we see the world, how we are seen, and how capital is deployed. And we must work to recognize and preserve those fonts of value that are so rarely encoded into the algorithms of the everyday.

Computation does not need to be guided by crude profit-maximization algorithms alone. It can incorporate other values.

—Frank Pasquale


Pasquale, Frank. “The Algorithmic Self.” The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

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