No, Algorithms Don't Devalue Humans

No, Algorithms Don't Devalue Humans

I read Ian Bogost's essay in the Atlantic called "The Cathedral of Computation" a week ago, but it still annoys me. Bogost argues that our obsession with algorithms everywhere in the labor economy undermines the very human aspects of labor that we should not be ignoring.

His argument is that behind every algorithm is a human organization doing the actual work required to make a product or service function. "... just as the machine metaphor gives us a distorted view of automated manufacture as prime mover, so the algorithmic metaphor gives us a distorted, theological view of computational action."

Take Netflix, for example. Bogost writes that, "Netflix trains people to watch films, and those viewers laboriously tag the films with lots of metadata, including ratings of factors like sexually suggestive content or plot closure. [...] Yes, there’s a computer program matching viewing habits to a database of film properties. But the overall work of the Netflix recommendation system is distributed amongst so many different systems, actors, and processes that only a zealot would call the end result an algorithm."

Bogost's central point is that we are using algorithms as a sort of theology, much as science has been used as a theology the last few decades. It allows us to abbreviate our thinking and avoid the sometimes harsh behind-the-scenes processes that consumers would rather avoid when thinking about who makes their products or what allows their services to be successful.

Bogost has a point, but I don't think algorithms undermine our discussions of the modern labor force, nor do algorithms devalue human work.

I use the algorithm economy as a short hand to describe a very specific set of changes to the economy, most notably the rise of network-mediated marketplaces like Uber and Airbnb. Neither system, or indeed, the vast majority of labor marketplaces, obscure who is doing the work. Indeed, the algorithms underlying these marketplaces are not so different from the invisible hand "algorithm" of traditional marketplaces.

Algorithm may be a fancy word, but it isn't like the Netflix example is that different from, say, the development of a dictionary or encyclopedia done over a century ago. Someone had to write all of those entries and edit them, even though none of those workers were on the front cover (except Samuel Johnson of course). The invisibility of the work behind a product is hardly a recent development.

Society severed the link between worker and product many years ago, going all the way back to the start of the Industrial Revolution (and maybe even further back). Product brands used to be individual names, but today they are disembodied and independent.

Interestingly, algorithms and these network economies are actually helping to regenerate the connection between workers and products. We no longer need to scale up to the same levels to provide products, and there is now greater demand for personalized, custom-made products. The rise of neo-craftsmen which has been discussed ad nauseam is fundamentally a positive benefit derived from better labor marketplaces, and ultimately, smarter algorithms.

Algorithms are not devaluing labor, but they are extending old models and building new ones. Some of those models are improvements for workers, others are more neutral. We have the opportunity to shape that progression, and that is the strength of the algorithm economy today.

Photo by jm_escalante used under Creative Commons.