In ever more areas of life, algorithms are coming to substitute for judgment exercised by identifiable human beings who can be held to account. The rationale offered is that automated decision-making will be more reliable. But a further attraction is that it serves to insulate various forms of power from popular pressures.
Our readiness to acquiesce in the conceit of authorless control is surely due in part to our ideal of procedural fairness, which demands that individual discretion exercised by those in power should be replaced with rules whenever possible, because authority will inevitably be abused. This is the original core of liberalism, dating from the English Revolution.
Mechanized judgment resembles liberal proceduralism. It relies on our habit of deference to rules, and our suspicion of visible, personified authority. But its effect is to erode precisely those procedural liberties that are the great accomplishment of the liberal tradition, and to place authority beyond scrutiny. I mean “authority” in the broadest sense, including our interactions with outsized commercial entities that play a quasi-governmental role in our lives. That is the first problem. A second problem is that decisions made by algorithm are often not explainable, even by those who wrote the algorithm, and for that reason cannot win rational assent. This is the more fundamental problem posed by mechanized decision-making, as it touches on the basis of political legitimacy in any liberal regime.
I hope that what follows can help explain why so many people feel angry, put-upon, and powerless. And why so many, in expressing their anger, refer to something called “the establishment,” that shadowy and pervasive entity. In this essay I will be critiquing both algorithmic governance and (more controversially) the tenets of progressive governance that make these digital innovations attractive to managers, bureaucrats, and visionaries. What is at stake is the qualitative character of institutional authority—how we experience it.