Tales from the Algorithm Age

/ April 2022

A naive visitor to any American city would be shocked to learn that the denizens of said city are not the glimmering Automobiles which occupy the overwhelming majority of public space, but in fact the pedestrians, sorrowful creatures relegated to pathetically small (if existent) walkways on the margins of the great moving machines.

We traverse our over-spread cities using our ever-growing cars, our underfunded buses, or, if we are lucky, our barely-operational trains. Now, we have the exciting option of renting electric scooters, mopeds, and bicycles for outlandish prices, attempting to navigate the dangerous vestigial gaps between cars while making car-free urban transit somewhat functional.

Our houses are filled with light bulbs, microwaves, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, and of course, the holiest machines of them all: the computer and the phone.

We have casually accepted a world organized around machinery. We work to afford “time-saving” machines to make up for how much we work. Cars have not shortened commutes, but just increased how much urban sprawl we can tolerate.

The environmental consequences of this society-wide mechanization are vast, even apocalyptic. We have conceded any attempt at thoughtful, communal organization of space and labor, allowing the machines to (insufficiently) make up for the haphazard and chaotic social organization resulting from the idiosyncrasies of the mighty market.

These physical mechanizations, which metastasized to the point of normality over the course of the past century (particularly during the postwar growth period in the United States), have surely been commented on thoroughly by others. What I am interested in here is to discuss how the all-consuming mechanization of physical space and labor has served as the vanguard for an even more dangerous and alienating force: the mechanization of our psychological spaces, of our interiority, of our desires, of randomness, and of fate. The mechanization of the non-physical sphere of human experience has happened rapidly, accelerating dramatically in the past ten years as technology companies have gained near total control of most basic aspects of daily intellectual life. I will refer to the broad complex of information technologies, apps, and algorithms that have come to rule our lives as the Algorithm, a novel social force which, while being historically distinct in form and scope, functions as the continuation and magnification of the hegemonic ideology of rationalization and “progress” which has defined the post-Enlightenment capitalist West.

Let us examine the scope of the problem. Consider a day in the life of an average Bay Area tech worker. They wake up at the sound of their alarm, perhaps perfectly timed with their sleep schedule due to their phone monitoring their body’s movements during the night. Their attached smart watch informs the worker how healthy their sleep was, suggesting adjustments in pre-somnolent light intake. The worker’s refrigerator greets them with simulated joy as the door is opened for breakfast.

Our protagonist works from home, their entire experience of their labor mediated through their computer. The screen displays tasks and rewards, images of faces and facsimiles of speech on endless video calls.

For lunch, the worker checks their weather app. Being told by the Algorithm that it is raining outside, the worker opens one of the many available food-ordering apps. The Algorithm suggests a restaurant, offers popular dishes, and notifies the worker of any venture-capital funded enticing discounts in food price. Going along with the recommendations, the worker orders; the Algorithm anonymously draws on its pool of casualized labor to send a servant to pick up and deliver the food. The orderer, the driver, and the chef are all alienated from each other, cogs used and discarded by the Algorithm to complete this single transaction.

During lunch, the worker decides to book a flight to an exotic locale to convince themselves they have agency and can escape tedium. They select their preferred flight-booking website, and the Algorithm offers up a spread of flight times, providers, and prices. Cross-referencing this matrix of options with the matrix of responsibilities stored in a digital calendar as well as their calculated available vacation time, the worker decides on the optimal flight and set of days. They peruse the housing options in their foreign locale offered by the Algorithm, after applying their various filters, and select an optimal option. The vacation is set.

After work, the worker takes some time to relax. Their gig-economy grocery deliverer will soon arrive with a new food supply, and the worker fits in a quick video experience. The Algorithm suggests several options predicted to appeal to the worker based on harvested preference data, and the worker selects one to pass the time. While cooking, the worker listens to an Algorithm-curated assortment of music.

Of course, tonight is no ordinary night – the happy worker has a date! They were introduced to their potential mate through the Algorithm, since dating apps have become ubiquitous among young urbanites. This curated sexual pairing is facilitated by an Algorithm-recommended bar, assuredly trendy (it would be too painful to also comment on the inevitable aesthetic of said bar: minimalist-futurist pseudo-organic brightly-colored plastic fixture decorations, “reclaimed” shipping pallet or driftwood tables, soft pastel-colored LEDs, token plants in off-white faux-ceramic…). At the bar, the prospective couple needn’t waste their time interacting with the fleshy bipeds around them: their table comes equipped with a menu-replacing QR code, through which they order. After some drinks, the duo asks the Algorithm to provide them with a car-driving laborer to take them home. The laborer, of course, only knows how to reach the tech worker’s gentrified apartment thanks to the navigation algorithm providing instruction.

This not-very-fictional day is as banal as it is horrifying. We recall Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in which the upper caste of urbanites inhabit a magnificent mechanized city, filled with parks and transit, blissfully unaware of the subterranean slave labor being used to maintain the machines. This excellent film provided a great critique of physical mechanization: the expansion of machinery under capitalism has always implied continued coerced labor to maintain machines, rather than the theoretical emancipation from work that technology promises. However, Metropolis displays the contradictions in mechanized urbanity in a way appropriate to its situation. The division between ruler and worker, and the ignorance of the former of the latter, exists at the level of spatial organization. The rulers are physically above the workers, separated by feet of concrete, earth, and stone from their servants. Mechanized rationality maintains the exploitative labor structure automatically, as a structural facet of the physical arrangement of the city. Centralized master planning is thus required to enable this total separation of producer and consumer which extends to the psychological level.

Of course, our cities are not designed by central planners, but by and large by the chaotic nonsense of private development. Thus we cannot so totally separate out the riffraff from the bourgeoisie, despite the large strides made in this direction by structural segregation and class-separated spaces. Furthermore, our physical mechanization is not so complete as in Metropolis – we still require manual cooking, serving, maintenance, etc., rather than a complete replacement of above-ground (that is, within the spaces designed for the bourgeoisie) labor by machines undergoing subterranean maintenance.

Luckily, the Algorithm has come to the rescue. While we still need laborers among us to act as servants, the Algorithm has striven to minimize any cross-class human contact. Gig economy apps provide casualized labor for random tasks without demanding human interaction. Class-separation is now facilitated by technology. You will not be denied entry to a music venue due to your parentage, but you will be for not having a phone to use the QR code menu, or a cashless form of payment. This is to say nothing, of course, of how expensive these experiences are to begin with, but that’s another matter.

Thanks to the Algorithm, this class-control over physical space is hardly even necessary. As always, those at the bottom of the class hierarchy barely have time or money to go to these spaces to begin with. The beauty of the Algorithm is that it exerts social control and reinforces class hierarchies without even needing physical space as an agent to do so. The excellent Lynne Sachs documentary The Washing Society (2018) portrays a common exploitative labor arrangement from the era of physical mechanization. Laundromat workers are given bags of clothes, using their machines to wash and dry the items and their hands to fold them. Crucially, the implicit hierarchy between those who drop off clothes and those who clean them is organized through the physical space of the laundromat and its constituent machinery.

The Algorithm intensifies the alienation between laborer and consumer by destroying this consistent space of contact. The workplace is no more in the gig economy. The boss rides around in the worker’s pocket, the eternal Algorithm being able to provide orders at any time, in any place. Physical segregation is redundant when you can just destroy the physical sphere of socialization entirely. Simple acts of exchange and communication are annihilated: the taxi-hailing wave replaced by a button, the conversation with the cashier forgotten, compliments to the chef undeliverable. Aside from the intensified alienation, the Algorithm comes with an added bonus of making labor organizing radically harder. It is difficult enough to unionize workers who work in the same location at the same time. It is overwhelmingly difficult to unionize workers who work anywhere, anytime, bound together by the oppression of their inhuman taskmaster but denied the chance to ever see each other.

The Algorithm’s exacerbation of societal alienation and the erosion of human interaction is nightmarish, but we must also take into account the equally devastating effect it has on the level of the individual psyche. The Algorithm warps and distorts our daily decision-making. Prices for rideshares and flights are completely opaque, changing constantly based on hidden algorithms measuring demand. Similarly, we rent scooters, mopeds, bikes, and cars without being able to know the ultimate cost, allowing the Algorithm to hand us a final bill based on secret computation. Constellations of temporary deals and discounts, funded by investors seeking to gain market share, reward the constant creation of new accounts and unplanned purchases. We bury our heads in our phones during walks and drives in an attempt to save mere minutes on a journey, being told that this efficiency liberates us to spend time on better things (begging us to forget about having already sold off the majority of our waking hours in order to afford food and shelter).

We are demanded to have constant contact with the Algorithm in order to function in society. Nonsensical spatial arrangements force us to rely on navigation to efficiently move around. We are expected to acquire obscure but necessary products online, gaining convenience at the cost of alienation and allowing a digital facsimile of our identities to be created and sold to marketers. Ignorance of the Algorithm is met with shock and confusion: attempts to order using speech instead of QR code are rebuffed; choosing a suboptimal eatery due to not sufficiently examining digital reputation is viewed as a personal failing; being late to work because of navigating sans algorithm demands reprimand.

We are reminded in these aspects of the noble Mr. Hulot in the wonderful Tati film Mon Oncle (1958). The hapless protagonist is met with pity and mockery due to his total absence of desire to organize his life around machines. His sister, living as a housewife in a comically mechanized modern environment, has as her primary daily activity the operation and maintenance of machinery. Mr. Hulot is nominally the fool for contentedly living out his days in his non-mechanized abode, whose lack of modernist rationality is emphasized at every turn (consider the fantastic scene showing his circuitous climb from front door to apartment). Although the problem of the Algorithm is essentially similar to the problem of the Machine critiqued by Tati, the crucial difference lies in corporate power: the Algorithm is offered to us as a service, not an object, whose price and accessibility can be changed at any time. The Algorithm is self-reinforcing, demanding conformity for the sake of compatibility (I need Twitter to message my friend on Twitter, but I do not need a specific type of car to be able to drive to my friend’s house, for instance).

The present reality is that we are increasingly enslaved to the Algorithm. Basic tasks, such as navigation and food acquisition, are increasingly transferred into being the responsibility of the Algorithm. We are participating in a vast, unprecedented experiment to portion off components of our brain into privatized software, growing dependent on subscription products whose inner workings are legally-protected secrets. The tech workers designing the algorithms have both direct insight into and control over their users’ minds. They know what we usually like to purchase, so they tell us what to purchase. They know where we usually like to go, so they tell us where to go. Through social media, they know what imagery and stories we like to hear, so they regurgitate them to us in increasingly extreme degrees. One by one, our cognitive processes are studied and replaced by the Algorithm, and we are sold back a bizarre replica of our own cognition.

Perhaps the most striking instance of the Algorithm, to me, is its dominance of young courtship. With the erosion of public space and public celebration has come an increasing reliance on love-providing products. Dating apps attempt the impossible task of replacing the vast and complex social algorithm underlying physical courtship with a hollow, quantized matchmaking algorithm. An immense amount of culture is destroyed in this process: rather than the infinitely complex set of nonverbal codes we have evolved to perform courtship, we numbly swipe through bundles of images and attributes, trawling through a digital supermarket shelf of sexual objects, pursuing one with sufficiently distinguished quanta for the algorithm to recommend a connection. This is to say nothing of the amount of social engineering facilitated by dating algorithms – eugenics could be effortlessly implemented, population demographics altered by lines of code. Were such power in the hands of the state, there would be disgust and overwhelming critique. Since it is instead in the hands of enterprising technobarons ruling their digital fiefdoms, we resign ourselves to the inevitable march of progress which has eradicated the randomness and fate of public interaction and replaced it with privatized commodities.

All of this is to say that the Algorithm does not provide novel solutions in a vacuum. Humans have long acquired food, transit, companionship, and more without relying on proprietary decision-making programs. The Algorithm’s success comes at the cost of the annihilation of the rituals and personal interactions that have long defined the human experience. Ultimately, we sacrifice these aspects of humanity to the Algorithm to solve problems created by mechanization. We need rideshare and food delivery apps to navigate our unwalkable cities, and dating apps to make up for our obliteration of public space and casual socialization. We are caught in a cycle of alienation and mechanization producing each other, the Algorithm being only the latest intensification. We can think of the excellent Mambety film Hyenas (1992), in which Senegalese villagers are willing to execute their friend in order to access the machines of modernity. There is no social code, no connection, too sacred to be consumed by the Algorithm.

Algorithms, of course, are a triumph of humanity. We can predict the weather, diagnose disease, and solve complex problems in energy, transit, and so much more by using our computational and mathematical prowess. The tragedy, of course, is when this power is seen as being so omniscient and complete that we deem it sufficient to replace our vastly more complex and beautiful preexisting social algorithms. We have let physical machines destroy so much of our culture and sense of collectivity. I only hope we can prevent the Algorithm from delivering the death blow by eliminating our sense of spontaneity and social freedom as well.