Life by Algorithms

Life by Algorithms: How Roboprocesses Are Remaking Our World, edited by Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Vlad Schüler-Costa, University of Manchester

The British comedy series Little Britain features a recurring sketch in which clerk Carol Beer (portrayed by David Walliams) gives troubled costumers unhelpful advice, accompanied by the catchphrase “computer says no.” In one of these sketches, a young girl and her mother find upon arriving at a hospital that the system has the girl down for a double hip replacement, despite having arranged for a tonsil removal. Carol says there is nothing she can do, and asks the girl whether she would like the double hip replacement or not. When asked whether she could speak to someone to override the mistake in the system, Carol shrugs and replies “I could, but … .”

Reading Life by Algorithms, I could not help but think of this sketch. This edited volume includes a set of separate cases drawn together by the novel concept of roboprocesses: computerized processes which, through malice or incompetence, produce nonsensical (at best) or harmful (at worst) outcomes. These processes usually require a human being with enough authority and autonomy to override the system, but often (intentionally or not) make it difficult (or plainly impossible) to access such authority. No recourse to common sense or good will is possible: the roboprocess is absolute and sovereign.

Roboprocesses lie at the crossroads between bureaucracy studies and algorithm studies, and the analysis of them offered in this book might be useful to scholars of both fields. Drawing from authors such as Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Michael Herzfeld, and David Graeber, Hugh Gusterson outlines in the volume’s introduction a brief genealogy of roboprocesses, showing how they are “rooted in the emergence and maturation of bureaucratic forms of administration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (p. 4). Likewise, drawing from authors like Frank Pasquale, Shoshana Zuboff, and Cathy O’Neil, Catherine Besteman argues in the afterword that features such as automation and quantification, vital to roboprocesses, “distinguish them from modernity’s previous forms of social ordering and production” (p. 167). Roboprocesses are, however, more than the mere sum of bureaucracy and algorithms: throughout the book the reader can see the many ways in which these new phenomena produce novel effects.

The book’s three parts – Categories, Emotions, and Surveillance – show the malleability of the concept. Part I deals with what can be broadly called algorithm governance. The reader is presented, in four chapters, with vivid cases of the (mis-)usage of algorithms, metrics, rules, and protocols in settings such as the real estate and banking industries, public education, custody and deportation bureaucracies, and the criminal justice system. Each of these chapters—by Noelle Stout, Susan J. Terrio, Keesha M. Middlemass, and Ann Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz—paints a bleak picture of the ways in which impersonal and, indeed, inhumane systems are set up to impede most kinds of human intervention and create conditions in which well-intentioned operators and bureaucrats have little (if any) autonomy and agency.

Parts II and III are not as internally coherent as Part I. Part II is composed of two chapters: one is an engaging ethnography by Alex Blanchette that details how the pursuit of productivity metrics in swine farms leads the industry not just to neglect issues of animal welfare and workers’ well-being, but perhaps most importantly to ignore the hidden emotional labor of human caretakers that keeps the system working. The other, by Robert W. Gehl, is an exploration of emotional roboprocesses, or the ways in which the systems and machines of late capitalism capture and process human emotion, to influence and mold our behavior, consumption, association, and thinking.

Part III is likewise composed of two chapters. Joe Masco provides a broad overview of ubiquitous surveillance systems surrounding us – from military satellites, through internet surveillance and widespread CCTV systems, through the mundane surveillance embedded in our “smart” consumer goods. Finally, a chapter by the late Sally Engle Merry offers a refined analysis of the ways in which quantification and numbers – such as indicators, indexes, and ranks – are used in global development discourse and policy-making as tools to name and shame countries and governments, and thus to influence politics and policy across the globe.

Life by Algorithms is certainly an extremely topical book, which will be of interest to anyone studying the ways in which systems – bureaucratic and/or computerized – influence and mold human reality. The book’s attempt to establish the new concept of roboprocess is interesting, if the force of the concept is somewhat blunted by how broadly it is applied across these disparate cases and projects. However, the book’s main argument is both necessary and supported with a wealth of poignant detail: our societies are increasingly governed and controlled by systems intentionally designed to be beyond oversight and out of our control. Maybe giving this phenomenon a name will help in tackling it.