Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 27, 2017

people and algorithms, principalities and powers

In this interview, Jill Lepore comments,

To be fair, it’s difficult not to be susceptible to technological determinism. We measure the very moments of our lives by computer-driven clocks and calendars that we keep in our pockets. I get why people think this way. Still, it’s a pernicious fallacy. To believe that change is driven by technology, when technology is driven by humans, renders force and power invisible.

I like this point, largely because I’ve made it myself — browsing this tag will give you some examples. But to say this is not to say that those humans are simply free agents, self-determining actors. It’s not as though Mark Zuckerberg is holed up here:



Zuck’s model of Facebook controlli — um, healing the world is one you should be enormously skeptical of, for reasons Nick Carr explains quite eloquently here. But even if you think Zuck is as wicked Sauron or Voldemort — which I don't, by the way; I think he's as well-meaning as his core assumptions allow him to be — he isn’t Sauron or Voldemort, not structurally speaking. When the Ring of Power is unmade, Sauron’s “slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired.” When Voledmort is killed, the Death Eaters slink away, fearful and powerless. But if any of the Captains of Technological Industry were to undergo some kind of moral conversion and walk away from their posts ... nothing would change.

We have to keep insisting that algorithms are written by people for specific purposes in order to refute the simplistic and dangerous idea that algorithms are neutral and true and SCIENCE. But those people who write the algorithms, and those people who instruct others to write those algorithms, are implicated in the power-knowledge regime or Domination System or governmentality that I described in my previous post. The really vital long-term task is understanding how those structures work so that they may be both resisted and redeemed.

2 comments:

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Lepore's point, but I would suggest that it's also a fallacy to deny the deterministic force of the built world, a force that, particularly when it comes to complex systems, often diverges from the builders' intentions and sometimes contradicts those intentions. I was born into a world with a dense road and highway network, and that network shaped my life in profound ways (and often in ways unintended by road designers and government officials) and it did so long before I was even conscious of (a) its historical contingency or (b) its influence on me and society. Yes, we need to remember that these are all human constructions, and we are responsible for them, but understanding the power of technology means also appreciating that it can come to exert a formative influence on our lives that is unanticipated, difficult to alter, and hard if not impossible to resist. I guess I may just be acknowledging the existence of the "power-knowledge regime," but that regime may be as much an emanation of the technology as the technology is an emanation of the regime.

  • Nick, I think this is exactly right -- it's part of what I meant when I said that I think Zuckerberg is as well-meaning as he can be, given his core assumptions. As you know, there have been a number of interviews with and profiles of him in the past few months, and you see him there really trying to think things through -- but the solutionism that is, as you say, an "emanation of technology" is just in his bones. I dont think he can think beyond it any more than he could see with organs other than his eyes.

    And what's true of him is true to some degree of all of us. Which just raises the question for me, once more, of just how much resistance is possible from within the regime, and how thoroughly one would have to opt out in order to achieve anything like liberation from its power.

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