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The Algorithm Society and Its Discontents

Modern civilization was built by adding markets and bureaucracy to other, much older modes of human organization: redistribution, reciprocity, and democracy. But the rapid rise of governance by algorithms could represent another epochal shift – and it will not be for the better.

BERKELEY – In my view, the most profound and insightful work of political economy written in the 2010s was neither a journal article nor a monograph nor a book in the traditional sense. Rather, it was an online symposium. In Red Plenty: A Crooked Timber Book Event, scholars and intellectuals, convened by political scientist Henry Farrell, used a new mode of print-communication to react to Francis Spufford’s very interesting book Red Plenty.

Spufford had analyzed the Soviet Union’s stunningly unsuccessful attempt to use bureaucracy and mathematics to build a better society than could be achieved using markets. Yet every time I return to Red Plenty: A Crooked Timber Book Event, I am struck by its contributors’ insights into the insurmountable dilemmas generated by the modern market economy itself. I am also still struck by how successful the “book event” was in using new technologies to drive a qualitative shift in how we communicate and come to understand the world together.

I have been thinking about these issues because Farrell recently published a new article, “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism.” He and the sociologist Marion Fourcade argue that the internet and its progeny (what they call “high-tech modernism”) are changing the world in ways that are as profound as the rise of the market economy and the bureaucratization of society under the modern state.