Algocracy: The Threat Of Rule By Algorithm


Will democracy give way to algocracy? Via the Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technologies, John Danaher writes:

In brief, modern technology has made it possible for pretty much all of our movements, particularly those we make “online”, to be monitored, tracked, processed, and leveraged. We can do some of this leveraging ourselves, by tracking our behavior to improve our diets, increase our productivity and so forth. But, of course, governments and corporations can also take advantage of these data-tracking and processing technologies.

Data-mining [could create] a system of algorithmic regulation, one in which our decisions are “nudged” in particular directions by powerful data-processing algorithms. This is worrisome because the rational basis of these algorithms will not be transparent:

Thanks to smartphones or Google Glass, we can now be pinged whenever we are about to do something stupid, unhealthy or unsound. We wouldn’t necessarily need to know why the action would be wrong: the system’s algorithms do the moral calculus on their own. Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data. And why wouldn’t we, if we are promised slimmer waistlines, cleaner air, or longer (and safer) lives in return?

In other words, the algorithms take over from the messy, human process of democratic decision-making. Citizens become beholden to them, unsure of how they work, but afraid to disregard their guidance. This creates a sort of prison of “invisible barbed wire” which constrains our intellectual and moral development, as well as our lives more generally.

59 Comments on "Algocracy: The Threat Of Rule By Algorithm"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Jan 15, 2014 at 11:05 am |

    Less than 5% of Americans have any real problem with this. Not a critical mass, and it’s understood that some around the edges will fall off.

  2. Damien Quinn | Jan 15, 2014 at 11:37 am |

    People can’t be expected to think for themselves, if there isn’t someone trying to dictate their moral, intellectual and dietary decisions then they’ll just go out and find someone, or something, to do it for them.

    • Jonas Planck | Jan 15, 2014 at 11:55 am |

      You don’t actually believe that, so stop thinking it. You now believe that free will and free will ALONE governs the behavior of all human beings. You also think that reality TV is entertaining, and you would like to eat a roast beef sandwich.

    • Simon Valentine | Jan 15, 2014 at 7:10 pm |

      i have to concede agreement by direct evidence and experimentation despite willing for the contrary. if it’s not one-flew-over and it’s not the probability amplitude of a hot potato (didn’t F.N. philisophicolize about that?) then maybe it’s dull wits or simply lack of practice. however, regretably, considering an endeavor to be praxis often has a titanic anti-beneficial effect. those logic problems of not having the logical means to learn to solve logic problems. maybe it is true that that’s what my beatings were for, in parallel tandem. i shall never know.


  4. BuzzCoastin | Jan 15, 2014 at 12:03 pm |

    studies have shown that humans are impervious
    to algorithmic thinking

    the oligarchs running things now
    run things by thoughts of fear, scarcity and greed
    totally without logic or understanding
    using algorithms to predict blowback

  5. mannyfurious | Jan 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm |

    I don’t know. I’m so convinced that I’d rather be a miserable, petty, pathetic fuck up of a human being than an automaton, that I have trouble understanding why so much of humanity is running for any drug, toy, technology or anything else that makes them feel less human.

    I get that being human is often a painful, shameful, undignified existence… but that’s sort of what makes it worth living. It’s like that for a reason, Everyone acts like they want “adventure” but they run from it every chance they get. There’s an adventure RIGHT NOW, AT THIS VERY MOMENT. Your life is a challenge. You can either embrace it with courage and bravery and empathy. Or you can run from it like a coward, too afraid to lose something you never even had in the first place.

    Everybody talks a good game about living life to its fullest. But mountain-biking in Peru or backpacking through Europe once or twice is a sad substitute for the real thing.

    • I’m not sure you get just how painful and miserable life is for some people. There are more suicides than homicides for a reason. Calling people who don’t embrace the life they’ve been thrown into cowards is a judgement based in idealism and ignorance. I don’t blame people who are conflicted.

      • Lookinfor Buford | Jan 15, 2014 at 1:06 pm |

        Being proud of oneself comes from one’s actions, whether failures or successes. One learns esteem can come from either, as they consider the alternative, which is to attempt nothing risky, avoid failure at all costs, and ultimately self loathing because they have developed no sources of pride. Self-loathing is enemy number 1.

      • mannyfurious | Jan 15, 2014 at 1:37 pm |

        Fair point, perhaps, but the feeling I get (which could be wrong, certainly), is that the people who will be allowing google glass to make decisions for them are hardly the kind of person who is really struggling with some hardcore life circumstances.

        Also, having worked in a field where I have met people who were abandoned as young children, homeless, sexually abused, hooked on drugs, sent to prison, raped in prison, released only to go through the same thing again and again, and still manage to wake up every morning with some energy to meet life head on, it really makes me wonder what the difference is between that person and a person who kills themself for what, ostensibly, would seem like much more trivial reasons.

        I would agree that it’s not right for me to judge others in certain circumstances. But I do wonder why some people are very strong and determined emotionally and why others are less so.

        • emperorreagan | Jan 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm |

          Certainly at least the first wave of this sort of thing would be directed at the middle of society – not the impoverished, who typically don’t figure into anyone’s calculations until a market is saturated and you have no place else to go with your excess capacity.

          I’d be curious as to where these algorithms would direct at-risk members of society once they do make it into their hands. The technocrats seem to be very unsympathetic to such people living in their midst. Would the algorithm encourage them in behavior that leads them to prison or suicide? A eugenics program written into google glass? Doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

        • Also a fair point. But I was arguing in favor of suicide, not *shudder* Google Glass.

      • mannyfurious | Jan 15, 2014 at 1:41 pm |

        And just to clarify, I don’t consider myself one of the strong-minded. I’m prone to extended fits of despondency and self-pity for very petty reasons. One of the reasons I wonder such things is in the hopes that I can mimic such strength.

    • Lookinfor Buford | Jan 15, 2014 at 1:00 pm |

      One of the primary lectures I constantly give my two sons.

      • But not your daughter…never your daughter.

        • Lookinfor Buford | Jan 16, 2014 at 11:00 am |

          Pff.. my daughter’s five, yo. My son’s are almost men. Gimme a break, haters.
          My daughter will be a phenom. Mark my words.

          • Don’t encourage her too much. She might become a feminist.

          • Lookinfor Buford | Jan 16, 2014 at 11:05 am |

            Or, more likely, with the right encouragement, the opposite of a feminist.. A female who sees there are no true boundaries, only perceived boundaries, and that the only true obstacle for a feminist is her own lack of self esteem.

          • Um…you mean, a feminist? Where the hell do you people get your definitions?

          • Lookinfor Buford | Jan 21, 2014 at 12:58 pm |

            I dunno, let’s just try Wikipedia, I guess..

            Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.

            In other words, and IMO, being totally focused and preoccupied on “perceived” (not real) obstacles, and persisting to try and adapt the environment to satisfy this apparently insatiable need for special treatment, instead of realizing that a mature person of any gender can rise to any level through internalizing their struggle, working hard, and making the environment work for them.
            – A formerly young radical non-conformist, who learned he actually had quite a bit more opportunity just by being here, than he formerly gave credit for.

    • A walk in a park can be an adventure, if you let it be.

    • Will Mickelson | Jan 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm |

      I’d love to be the first!

    • Volunteering at a VA hospital makes biking in Peru look like riding a three wheeler in the yard.

  6. Lookinfor Buford | Jan 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm |

    Won’t it be entertaining to see us revolt against our algorithmic overlord? Everybody starts smashing their devices and unplugging.. Next thing you know the resistance is swept into a dark lab where they are lobotomized with an implant that takes over their lower brain functions, and they then become not only submissive, but agents of enforcement for the system..

  7. Simon Valentine | Jan 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm |

    pretty sure my view on this is unique and dies with me.

    you’ll never have my algorithms.

    only somewhat less mysterious copies or pseudo random generations.

  8. the new tp cookie

  9. Unlike current American courts would algorithmic judgements treat all fairly?no exceptions?

  10. Lookinfor Buford | Jan 21, 2014 at 12:45 pm |

    Well that’s tough, but I would suggest that we are seeing even now, the ability to alter large-group thought processes through appeal-to-authority (the group) brain washing. This is no small thing. Having granular personal information on all subjects, makes this even more dangerous.
    In it’s current form you are right it is a minor threat, but how about when cybernetics gains steam? Unlike true (silicon-based) AI, cybernetics, cognitive ‘enhancement’, etc.. I would say *is* on the horizon. Now instead of trying to predict my own version of dystopia, best I can do is maybe refer you to a sci-fi book written in 2002, which I believe did an insightful job of predicting the state of social-technology as it stands today (while embellishing). The book was written for teens. It is no masterpiece and not even on par with most of what I would usually dare suggest people read, but, it is intriguing.. It’s called “Feed” (Anderson).
    I suggest foregoing the synopsis, and just reading it.. But that’s just my personal strategy for open-mindedness.

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