Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner (Portfolio-Penguin, 2012)

In Automate This, journalist Christopher Steiner, discusses the ways in which algorithms are increasingly mediating and augmenting everyday life through their deployment in a variety of industries.  He makes a persuasive case, using a series of well told stories that focus on the activities of particular pioneers of creating and using algorithms.  The result is an engaging and informative read that largely celebrates the development and use of algorithms and their creators, and congratulates them for finding ways to make themselves incredibly rich whilst improving the lot of mankind through better health care, financial trading, music production, a multitude of apps, etc. 

That said, the book suffers from a couple of troubling flaws.  First, the narrative almost exclusively focuses on the development and use of algorithms in the United States, as if it’s the font of all global computing and algorithmic innovation.  And second, and more problematic, is the almost total absence of any critical analysis of algorithms, the logic and rational instrumentality underpinning their use, and their wider effects on social and economic systems.  Sure, the use of algorithms has its benefits, but there are also all kinds of risks and social, political and economic consequences to their use, including wide-scale economic restructuring and job losses.  Occasionally Steiner acknowledges some of these risks and effects, usually in a throwaway sentence, before quickly moving on, with the suggestion that the benefits out-weigh the risks and better algorithms will address most present shortcomings.  No serious attention is paid to forms of algorithmic governance or their uses in surveillance, social sorting, filtering and profiling, nor the inherent contradictions in rendering labour redundant and therefore unable to buy the goods and services algorithms create.  The result is an interesting and largely optimistic book that lacks analytic depth and critical reflection.  Nonetheless I have recommended it to several folk, with the warning to keep that caveat in mind.


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