My notes on Caplan, R., & Boyd, D. (2018). Isomorphism through algorithms: Institutional dependencies in the case of Facebook. Big Data & Society, 5(1), 2053951718757253.

Are data-driven technologies leading organisations to take on shared characteristics? This is the fascinating question addressed in this paper by Robyn Caplan and danah boyd which they begin with the example of news media. The popularity of social media platform as intermediaries has forced many news media producers to change their operations, increasingly producing with a view to popularity on these platforms. As they put it, “these platforms have upended the organizational practices of news-producing platforms, altering how both the newsroom and individual journalists operate” (2). They use the concept of isomorphism to understand how “algorithms structure disparate businesses and aims into an organizational field, leading them to change their goals and adopt new practices” (2). This is a process of homogenisation, as organisations reconstruct themselves into a field orientated around the assumptions embedded into the t mediating platform. The ensuing ambiguity has regulatory consequences, as social media platforms are not straight forward media actors but nor are they mere intermediaries. By theorising algorithmic mediation as akin to bureaucratisation, it become easier to identify the precise character of the role of platforms within it. It also makes clear the continuities with earlier isomorphic processes, for instance as corporate software platforms introduced common features to organisations.

The roots of this connection are deep. They argue that “algorithms that serve to pre- process, categorize, and classify individuals and organizations should be viewed as extensions of bureaucratic tools such as forms, that have been associated with the state in the past” (3). Software like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Office restructured business activity through the affordances it offered to digitalise bureaucratic processes and algorithmic technologies should be seen as a further extension of this process. The neutrality which animated the promise of bureaucracy is also often expressed in the belief that algorithmic judgement will negate the role of subjectivity and bias in decision making processes. This is obscured by the familiar black box of the algorithm but also the mythology of its uniqueness, seeing it as something distinct from previous organisational processes. However if we see algorithms as organisational phenomena then the problem comes to look quite different, simultaneously more straight forward but also more challenging because the problems will likely spiral outwards across dependent organisations. 

They use DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of isomorphism which considers how a common environment can lead otherwise different units of a population facing that environment to come to resemble one another. For organisations this occurs through one organisation becoming dependent on another organisation, with the expected degree of resemblance tracking the degree of that dependence. For instance in the case of Facebook’s newsfeed, the concept of what is ‘relevant’ has been redefined by the vast size of the audience whose access is mediated through this mechanism. The dependence of the news media on that mechanism means they come to reproduce its characteristics, increasingly operating with a view towards metrics like clicks, likes and shares. The early winners in the Facebook ecosystem were those publishers like Buzzfeed and Upworthy who “subsumed their own organizational practices to the logic of Facebook’s algorithms” (5). But Facebook’s attempts to modulate this mechanism in order to produce what they deemed better quality results inevitably leads the actors dependent upon it to make adaptive changes in response to these modulations. Mimesis thrives in this environment as they explain on pg 6-7:

“Changes stemming from coercive forces, especially when frequent, lead to an environment of uncertainty that prompts dependent organizations to learn from other dependent organizations that have successfully conformed to the structuring mechanisms. This process of ‘‘mimesis,’’ or imitating models for success, is another process DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 151) argue will induce similarity across an organizational field. In this sense, the dominant organization’s incentives or goals become embedded across an industry through the borrowing of practices that lead to success over the network. In the case of Facebook, this was seen in the adoption of data-driven metrics and analytics into newsrooms, as well as the growth of a new set of intermediaries that were fed directly by the Facebook API, whose role it was to analyze and com- municate Facebook metrics back to publishers”

A further ecosystem of intermediaries thrives under these circumstances, as new players emerge who help the firms concerned address their common problems. These responses to uncertainty are driven by a concern to “demonstrate to others that they are working to change their practices to be in-line with those of the dominant organization“ (7) as well as increasing possibilities for success. The discussion of professionalisation is really important for my interests. The roles themselves changed as a result of isomorphism, with normative pressure to enact new functions and perform new skills which contrbute to the success of the organisation. This is my concern about the institutionalisation of social media within higher education. There’s a lot here which I’m going to need to go back to and I think it’s crucial for my developing project on the digital university. 

My notes on Robinson, W. I. (2018). The next economic crisis: digital capitalism and global police state. Race & Class60(1), 77-92.

This paper places digitalisation in historical context, framing the current boom in terms of the fallout from the 2008 crisis. We are seeing a restructuring grounded in digitalisation and militarisation which will aggravate the conditions of the last crisis which still remain in place: growing consumer debt, vast speculative investment and an ever increasing degree of financialisation. Gross world product was $75 trillion in 201 while the global derivatives market was estimated at $1.2 quadrillion and currency speculation estimated at $5.3 trillion per day. Robinson argues that “the rapid digitalisation of global capitalism” needs to be understood alongside “debt-driven consumption and financial speculation” as an outlet for surplus capital (78). This is now coalescing in what he describes as the global police state encompassing:

  1. Ever more ubiquitous systems of mass control, repression and warfare that contain real and potential rebellion
  2. The increasing dependence of accumulation on the deployment of these systems in the face of chronic stagnation
  3. The move towards political systems which can be characterised as twenty-first century fascism

The potential causes of another crash are manifold: a burst stock market bubble, defaults in household or public debt or new international conflicts. Digitalisation is not a saviour of the system but rather an extension of how past crises have been negotiated. As he writes, “the rise of Computer and Information Technology (CIT) in the 1980s was itself a response on the part of capitalists to the crisis of overaccumulation, declining rates of profit, and well-organised working classes and social movements in the 1960s and the 1970s” (79). These facilitated a global restructuring which freed capital from redistribution at the level of the nation state (e.g. precaritisation of labour, trade liberalisation, growth of outsourcing, distributed global supply chains, increasing capacity to extract corporate subsidy, bond markets disciplining states) while leading to an escalation of inequalities which now constitutes a systemic risk. This has produced a new crisis of overaccumulation described on pg 80:

Given such extreme polarisation of income and wealth, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. The Great Recession marked the onset of a new structural crisis of overaccumulation. Corporations are now awash in cash but they do not have opportunities to profitably invest this cash. Corporate profits surged after the 2008 crisis and have reached near record highs at the same time that corporate investment has declined.13 In 2017 the largest US-based companies were sitting on an outstanding $1.01 trillion in uninvested cash.

Where can this surplus be uploaded? Robinson reads Trumpism as a far-right response to this crisis which in fact aggravates it, shoring up the system through a nativist mobilisation of the disaffected but “this repressive neoliberalism ends up further restricting the market and therefore aggravating the underlying crisis of overaccumulation” (80). Accumulation by repression (the war on drugs and the war of terrorism, securitisation, militarisation leading to  Pentagon budget increased by 91% in real terms between 1998 and 2011, while defence industry profits quadrupled) is one response to this crisis which we can expect will be ratcheted up even further by Trumpism. Accumulation by digitalisation is the other outlet, with a transnationalisation of services driven by the platform economy coming to replace a globalisation of production and the financial system in an earlier phase. The growth of the tech sector in this context is described on pg 82:

The tech sector has become a major new outlet for uninvested capital in the face of stagnation. Investment in the IT sector jumped from $17 billion in the 1970s to $175 billion in 1990, then to $496 billion in 2000. It then dipped following the turn-of-century dot-com bust, only to climb up to new heights after 2008, surpassing $700 billion as 2017 drew to a close.

In the process a new class of intermediaries has been empowered, accumulating vast reserves through their data driven insertion into existing circuits of production and value. The tech giants have world leading capitalisations and the broader tech sector encompasses the digital economy, in spite of constituting a relatively small part of it once you exclude the giants. Its implications for employment have been bleak, creating unstable and low paid work while increasingly threatening a decimation of established occupations through the roll out of automation technologies. Furthermore, tech companies themselves are strikingly small employers, embodied by a billion dollar data centre built by Apple in North Carolina that only employs 50 full-time staff. Digitalisation intensifies the contradictions of capitalism and ultimately pushes costs down towards zero. If I understand correctly, Robinson argues this leaves it unable to continually absorb surplus capital because its very success erodes that capacity.

His notion of the global police state theorises what happens when “dominant groups turn to applying the new technologies to mass social control and repression in the face of real and potential resistance” as “digitalisation concentrates capital, heightens polarisation, and swells the ranks of surplus labour” (84). A terrifying new range of repressive technologies has been rendered feasible by digitalisation:

The new systems of warfare and repression made possible by more advanced digitalisation include AI powered autonomous weaponry such as unmanned attack and transportation vehicles, robot soldiers, a new generation of ‘superdrones’ and ‘flybots’, hypersonic weapons, microwave guns that immobilise, cyber attack and info-warfare, biometric identification, state data mining, and global electronic surveillance that allows for the tracking and control of every Robinson: The next economic crisis 85 movement. State data mining and global electronic surveillance are now expanding the theatre of conflict from active war zones to militarised cities and rural localities around the world.31 These combine with a restructuring of space that allow for new forms of spatial containment and control of the marginalised. The dual functions of accumulation and social control are played out in the militarisation of civil society and the crossover between the military and the civilian application of these advanced weapons, tracking, security, and surveillance systems. (84-85)

Investment in and deployment of these emerging repressive technologies provides a new vector through which accumulation can take place. A whole range of operations can be encompassed by this, from anti-crime sweeps and humanitarian missions through to drug enforcement operations and low or high intensity wars. It left me thinking of Nervous States by Will Davies and the significance of the eroding distinction between war and piece. It is inarguably that the global security sector is flourishing, ranging from arms manufacturers through to private military and security firms which now employ over 15 million people.

His terrifying suggestion is that the “Global police state and the rise of the digital economy appear to fuse three fractions of capital around a combined process of financial speculation and militarised accumulation into which the TCC is unloading billions of dollars in surplus accumulated capital” (86): financial capital supplies the direct and indirect investment, big tech develops and implements the technologies, the military-industrial-security complex applies these technologies through militarised accumulation. This extends from military conflict through to the spiralling armies of guard labour and ubiquitous private security systems. There is a propaganda component to this, with over 800 major films and 1000 television shows from 2005 to 2016 being influenced by US military and intelligence agencies in order to legitimate these operations and their targets. This is his account of the core contradiction at work, from pg 87:

There is a dangerous spiral here in the contradiction between a digitalisation that throws ever-more workers into the ranks of surplus humanity and the need for the system to unload ever-greater amounts of accumulated surplus. Once masses of people are no longer needed on a long-term and even permanent basis there arises the political problem of how to control this expanded mass of surplus humanity. Greater discipline is required, both for those who manage to secure work under new regimes of precarious employment and super-exploitation, and for those expelled and made surplus. The entire social order becomes surveilled.

Digitalisation renders workers redundant and controlling them in their redundancy offers a solution to the problem of overaccumulation that digitalisation has compounded. He suggests that nascent fascisms need to be understood as a preemptive strike at the working class against a backdrop of ever escalating tensions. There is a growing concern for the coercive exclusion of surplus humanity in lieu of a capacity or willingness to secure legitimacy (pg 88). Fascist movements are displacing the anxiety of downwardly mobile but historically privileged sectors of the global working class towards scapegoated communities presented as outside and threatening. The reality of Trumpism has been a neoliberalism on steroids only likely to accelerate the underlying downward mobility and anxiety.

This looks fantastic! 

CALL FOR PAPERS:

MORAL MACHINES? THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF THE DIGITAL WORLD

6-8 March 2019, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki

With confirmed keynotes from N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University, USA) and Bernard Stiegler (IRI: Institut de Recherche et d’Innovation at the Centre Pompidou de Paris)

As our visible and invisible social reality is getting increasingly digital, the question of the ethical, moral and political consequences of digitalization is ever more pressing. Such issue is too complex to be met only with instinctive digiphilia or digiphobia. No technology is just a tool, all technologies mark their users and environments. Digital technologies, however, mark them much more intimately than any previous ones have done since they promise to think in our place – so that they do not only enhance the homo sapiens’ most distinctive feature but also relieve them from it. We entrust computers with more and more functions, and their help is indeed invaluable especially in science and technology. Some fear or dream that in the end, they become so invaluable that a huge Artificial Intelligence or Singularity will take control of the whole affair that humans deal with so messily.

The symposium “Moral Machines? The Ethics and Politics of the Digital World” welcomes contributions addressing the various aspects of the contemporary digital world. We are especially interested in the idea that despite everything they can do, the machines do not really think, at least not like us. So, what is thinking in the digital world? How does the digital machine “think”? Our both confirmed keynote speakers, N. Katherine Hayles and Bernard Stiegler, have approached these fundamental questions in their work, and one of our aims within this symposium is to bring their approaches together for a lively discussion. Hayles has shown that, for a long time, computers were built with the assumption that they imitate human thought – while in fact, the machine’s capability of non-embodied and non-conscious cognition sets it apart from everything we call thinking. For his part, Bernard Stiegler has shown how technics in general and digital technologies in particular are specific forms of memory that is externalized and made public – and that, at the same time, becomes very different from and alien to individual human consciousness.

We are seeking submissions from scholars studying different aspects of these issues. Prominent work is done in many fields ranging from philosophy and literary studies to political science and sociology, not forgetting the wide umbrella of digital humanities. We hope that the symposium can bring together researchers from multiple fields and thus address the ethics and politics of the digital world in an interdisciplinary and inspiring setting. In addition to the keynotes, our confirmed participants already include Erich Hörl, Fréderic Neyrat and François Sebbah, for instance.

We encourage approaching our possible list of topics (see below) from numerous angles, from philosophical and theoretical to more practical ones. For example, the topics could be approached from the viewpoint of how they have been addressed within the realm of fiction, journalism, law or politics, and how these discourses possibly frame or reflect our understanding of the digital world.

The possible list of topics, here assembled under three main headings, includes but is not limited to:

  • Thinking in the digital world:
  • What kind of materiality conditions the digital cognition?
  • How does nonhuman and nonconscious digital world differ from the embodied human thought?
  • How do the digital technologies function as technologies of memory and thought
  • What kind of consequences might their usage in this capacity have in the long run?
  • The morality of machines:
  • Is a moral machine possible?
  • Have thinking machines made invalid the old argument according to which a technology is only as truthful and moral as its human user? Or can truthfulness and morals be programmed (as the constructors of self-driving cars apparently try to do)?
  • How is war affected by new technologies?
  • The ways of controlling and manipulating the digital world:
  • Can and should the digital world be politically controlled, as digital technologies are efficient means of both emancipation and manipulation?
  • How can we control our digital traces and data gathered of us?
  • On what assumptions are the national and global systems (e.g., financial system, global commerce, national systems of administration, health and defense) designed and do we trust them?
  • What does it mean that public space is increasingly administered by technical equipment made by very few private companies whose copyrights are secret?

“Moral Machines? The Ethics and Politics of the Digital World” is a symposium organized by two research fellows, Susanna Lindberg and Hanna-Riikka Roine at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki. The symposium is free of charge, and there will also be a public evening programme with artists engaging the digital world. Our aim is to bring together researchers from all fields addressing the many issues and problems of the digitalization of our social reality, and possibly contribute towards the creation of a research network. It is also possible that some of the papers will be invited to be further developed for publication either in a special journal issue or an edited book.

The papers to be presented will be selected based on abstracts which should not exceed 300 words (plus references). Add a bio note (max. 150 words) that includes your affiliation and email address. Name your file [firstname lastname] and submit it as a pdf. If you which to propose a panel of 3-4 papers, include a description of the panel (max. 300 words), papers (max. 200 words each), and bio notes (max. 150 words each).

Please submit your proposal to moralmachines2019@gmail.com by 31 August 2018. Decisions on the proposals will be made by 31 October 2018.

For further information about the symposium, feel free to contact the organizers Susanna Lindberg (susanna.e.lindberg@gmail.com) and Hanna-Riikka Roine (hanna.roine@helsinki.fi).

The symposium web site: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/moralmachines/.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a late night train to Manchester from London. After a long day, I was longing to arrive home, a prospect that seemed imminent as the train approached Stockport. Then it stopped. Eventually, we were told that there was someone on the tracks ahead and that the police were on the scene. We waited. After another ten minutes, we were told that the police were still trying to apprehend the person on the tracks. I checked Twitter and saw this incident had been unfolding for a while, seemingly disrupting all the trains going into and through Stockport train station. We waited some more. The train manager announced that the police had told trains they could proceed… a few minutes later the finally moving train came to an abrupt halt, apparently because the person who, it turned out was still on the tracks, had almost been hit. The train staff seemed surprised and mildly shaken up, unable to explain why the police had given the order to move. 

I eventually made it to Manchester, albeit after the last tram to the north had departed. As a naturally curious person, I wanted to find out more about what had happened, not least of all to clarify the slightly weird Benny Hill-esque images I was left with following these repeated invocations of police “in pursuit of” this mysterious “woman on the tracks” over half an hour. Plus what the hell were the police doing telling the train to proceed when she was still on the tracks? If it was a mistake, I was curious about why exactly they thought their pursuit had ended when they hadn’t arrested her. If it wasn’t a mistake, it seemed an inexcusable and possibly illegal action, both in terms of harm to the woman and the psychological violence potentially inflicted on a train driver.

But I couldn’t find anything. I searched local newspapers but nothing. I searched social media but could only find my own tweet and the blandly descriptive disruption update on national rail enquiries. My point in recounting this story is not to stress the intrinsic interest of the situation itself. It’s not particularly interesting and you likely had to be there to have any concern. Rather, I’m interested in understanding the character of my frustration at being unable to find what I was looking for through digital means. It’s something I thought back to yesterday, when I was looking for a particular clip from the Simpsons to make a point in a conversation I was having with someone, but could not find it no matter how hard I looked.

In both cases, my behaviour revealed an implicit expectation concerning the extent of digitalisation. In the first case, that an incident which presumably delayed hundreds of people under (vaguely) mysterious circumstances would inevitably generate some digital record. In the second case, a memorable incident from a popular tv show would surely have been uploaded to a video sharing site. My frustration, though mild, stems from an encounter with the incompleteness of digitalisation. 

These thoughts are extremely provisional but I’d really welcome feedback.