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 Woodcock, J. (2018). Digital labour in the university: understanding the transformations of academic work in the UK. TripleC, 16(1), 129-142.

This important paper by Jamie Woodcock sees to rectify the lack of application of ways of analysing work to the work conducted within the university. His main focus is on the introduction of new management techniques and the introduction of digital technologies, exploring the entanglement between the two. This requires taking the role of information in Labour seriously, acknowledging it predates contemporary digital technologies, as can be seen for instance in Taylorism. If we recognise how information is used for control and production, it becomes easier to see how the emancipatory potential apparently found in digital technology actually gives rise to its opposite:

New technologies have reduced paperwork and increased the pace of tasks, in effect augmenting the labour process by automating parts of it, and there have been increasing applications of technology for supervision and control. For example, Bain et al. (2002, 3) previously noted that it is now ‘feasible to attain total knowledge, in “real time”, of how every employee’s time was being deployed, through the application of electronic monitoring equipment.’

Woodcock goes on to consider the two functions universities have served: knowledge production and teaching/training. In the UK these institutions are formally at a distance from the state yet dependent on state funding, as well as increasingly under pressure to collaborate with the private sector. We must understand the imperative for “control over and improving the effectiveness of academic labor” against this background. Academic work lacks the measurability on which information-led control depends but this is a problem which digital technology can solve, “creating more opportunities for the generation, capture, and analysis of data” and allowing the kids of ‘quantified control’ described by Roger Burrows et al.

This is most apparent in citations leading to a situation in which it is “not enough to simply produce an academic output – for example, a journal article – but that output itself has to be measured along a variety of metrics: the quality of the journal in which it was published, the number of times it has been cited (in where the citing paper was published), and so on”. But the rankings produced through such a process extend beyond matters of ‘outputs’. These metrics function in place of the “dictatorial and electronically enabled forms of control and surveillance” which can be found in other work places, with the “creative dimensions of academic work (the need to produce new and meaningful ideas, or to provide up to date and relevant teaching), along with the classic problem of the indeterminacy of labour” making these more direct forms of control unfeasible.

Social media is changing the orientation academics have to their ‘outputs’/, as it promises to be a vehicle for attaining the wider audience (outside of the discipline and/or outside of the university) which has often been an ambition of academic authors. But in doing so, it leaves them bound into an increasingly well understood attention economy. Digital technologies more broadly are coming to mediate between students and teachers, from the intensified communication which e-mail engenders through to the pressure to create supplementary learning materials to share online and the implications which lecture capture has for face-to-face interaction with students. Finally the instruments used by academics are changing. As Woodcock describes it, “The historical image of the academic working in dusty offices or libraries is increasingly giving way to that of a person typing away on a laptop, whether at home, an office (possibly shared), or a coffee shop with wifi.” He suggests this is giving rise to a platform university:

One of the interesting dynamics that this introduces, as opposed to the analogue resources of the physical library, is a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university. In this sense, the university becomes more like a platform – allowing access to institutional subscriptions, email accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself.

What’s important to grasp is the ambivalent character of these tools, how the “relative freedom of being able to use digital tools to engage with teaching, research, and administration to engage with the university from wherever” also goes hand-in-hand with the “the possibility of greater precarisation and outsourcing via a platform mode of organisation”. He includes a useful table discussing the impact of digitalisation on different aspects of academic work:

He suggests Operaismo provides useful resources for making sense of how we can resist these changes, relying on the distinction between technical composition (“the labour process, the application of technology, management strategies, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power”) and class composition (“the practices, traditions, and forms of struggle, something that is itself continually in a process of re-composition”). He cites Roggero’s notion of ‘blockages’ created by the pressures attendant upon the technical composition. This is a similar argument to the one Filip Vostal and I have tried to make about acceleration and the difficulties it creates for collective action. Their result is that “sustained struggle within the university has become limited, giving the impression that not much is currently happening on the terrain of workplace struggle”.

He suggests that workers inquiry can provide a response to this, observing that rather “than watching the new digital tools being used to further the precariousness and alienation of academic work, they can be adapted and modified to fit a project for a very different kind of university”. Collaborative inquiry into shared conditions can provides a means to better understand their contours, suggest new ideas and experiment with new forms of organisation. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he’s suggesting this as a method of inquiry with precarious workers outside the university, other workers within the university, entirely by academics or all three. But it’s an exciting idea nonetheless.

In our discussion of metrics systems, it’s easy to treat subjectivity as a cipher, regarding people as passively moulded by algorithms or blindly governed by the incentives that operate through the institutionalisation of the metrics. My objection to the former is not the claim that people are shaped by metrics, but rather the assumption that this process is basically passive. My interest is in how metrics come to matter to us. How are people shaped over time? How do their biographically accumulating dispositions and concerns influence the actions they take over time? How do these feed back into the metrics system and the organisations within which they are institutionalised?

The fictional portrayals that are starting to emerge of this – novels like Super Sad True Love Story, the Circle and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, films like Nerve – often struggle to represent this engaged subjectivity because the imperatives of effective story telling militate against it. What we really need is a novel or film that explores metricisation through the internal monologue of what I imagine would turn out to be an unreliable narrator.