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algorithms, situated judgements and imposed patterns

An interesting case discussed on pg 85 of Unforbidden Pleasures, by Adam Phillips:

We may live in the aftermath of the myth of the Fall, and the even longer aftermath of the myth of Oedipus, but the first traffic lights were invented in the United States after the First World War. The traditional mutual accommodation travellers had been making to each other on their bikes and cars and carts was replaced by a set of lights. ‘Its purpose,’ the anthropologist James C. Scott writes, ‘was to prevent accidents by imposing an engineered scheme of coordination.’ Partly through pressure of numbers and the proliferation of vehicles, and partly through the new scientific and bureaucratic fantasies of efficiency and productivity, familiar forms of cooperation gave way to a new, technologically implemented, set of rules. People’s practical judgement was delegated to a red light. They had known when to stop, but now they were being told when to stop.

The institutionalisation of algorithmic evaluation should be seen as continuous with this much longer standing process of using technology to impose patterns upon, often entirely substituting for, situated judgement. It’s a new means towards a long standing end, rather than something radically discontinuous with what has come before.

In fact recognising this poses an apparent challenge for the argument I’ve been developing about the increasing ‘cognitive load’ of digital capitalism. Surely systems which support or substitute for reflexivity actually decrease the burden upon subjects? My argument will be that the experienced necessity for these systems develops in relation to their unintended consequences towards ratcheting up the burden in other ways. But it’s currently rather light on detail.

Categories: Algorithmic Authoritarianism and Digital Repression Philosophy of Technology The Technological History of Digital Capitalism

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Mark