What’s the old joke, about mathematicians being machines for turning coffee into theorems? This essay is amazing, and it crystallizes for me something I think a lot of people have been worrying about for a while. What if tech companies are just machines for turning holistic job descriptions (and coffee) into stifling, authoritarian, prescriptive work environments?
By now, stories about isolated, usually male, programmers who see computers as replacements for human interaction are a hoary trope — they’re even a plot points in major motion pictures.
And there’s a fair bit of fetishization of “algorithmic” approaches in the popular press today (see Om Malik in the New Yorker, yesterday: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/in-silicon-valley-now-its-almost-always-winner-takes-all). There’s even a growing awareness in the tech press, that replacing process and custom with algorithm and formula might be a way that values we don’t support or espouse could be surreptitiously embedded in the world around us (I think Sarah Jeong sometimes says it loudest and clearest: http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/8/7350597/why-its-so-hard-to-stop-online-harassment).
Of course, none of this is new or necessarily unique to computers; I’ve personally learned a lot from reading essays like Cosma Shalizi’s “The Singularity in Our Past Light Cone” (http://bactra.org/weblog/699.html) and Charles Stross’s “Invaders from Mars” (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/12/invaders-from-mars.html). Corporations are people, my friend, and we can draw a direct line from the “prescriptive” characteristics of jobs today back through the “scientific management” of Frederick Taylor, and even earlier.
But what if it’s not just a question of “values in our algorithms,” but “values only through the grace of algorithms?” What if our dependence on algorithmic approaches to solving hard problems, or organizing social interactions, simply *is* a value — a value that rewards prescriptive, authoritarian social arrangements over the kinds of hero-oriented holistic work environments that are often promised to programmers, dev-ops gurus, and startup founders?
I like to think that I naturally favor values like “determinism” and “transparency” in our social and political processes, and that my support for algorithmic approaches and solutions is a reflection of those values. But I worry that the end game of algorithms (and “Big Data,” of course) is to replace those processes and values with the reflexes of social isolation and juvenile withdrawal. “We don’t vote anymore, we rage quit.”