The concept of domination (a concept taken from republican political theory) provides a useful way of understanding and confronting the challenge of the digital panopticon. Republicanism is a rich political and philosophical tradition. Its essential ideas date back to the ancient world, and can be found in the writings of Machiavelli and Rousseau. The central concept in republicanism is domination. In its broad outline, domination describes a situation in which one individual or group of individuals exercises control over another.
An individual can be said to be free if he or she is not living under the arbitrary will of another, i.e. is not subject to their good graces or answerable to them. This conception of freedom is usually contrasted with the more popular liberal ideal of freedom as non-interference. According to this view, an individual can be said to be free if he or she is not being interfered with by another. This concept can be detailed by the ‘Happy Slave’ thought experiment. A slave is someone who is legally owned and controlled by a slave-master. Suppose, however, that the slave-master is benevolent and the slave is happy to conform to their wishes. This means that they are not being interfered with: no one is cracking the whip or threatening them with violence if they step out of line. Are they free though? Their existence is the epitome of unfreedom, but their lack of freedom has nothing to do with the presence of interference. This has to do with the presence of domination. The master is ever present and could step in and impose their will on the slave at any moment.
That is the basic idea of freedom as non-domination. On the other hand, micro-domination occurs in case of many small-scale, seemingly trivial, instances of domination where:
(a) Each instance is a genuine case of domination, i.e. it involves some subordination to the arbitrary will of another and some potential threat of their intervening if you step out of line (i.e. fail to conform with what they prefer).
(b) The aggregative effect of many such instances of micro-domination is significant, i.e. it is what results in a significant threat to individual freedom.
With this more detailed characterization in mind, the question then becomes: does algorithmic governance involve micro-domination?
Algorithmic governance can be defined as the ‘state of being governed by algorithmically-controlled smart devices’. This algorithmic governance can come in many forms. Algorithms can recommend, nudge, manipulate, intervene and, in some cases, take over from individual behavior.
Many small-scale, arguably trivial, choices in our everyday lives are now subject to algorithmic governance: what route to drive, who to talk to, when to exercise and so on. A network of devices monitors and tracks our behavior and sends us prompts and reminders. This provides the infrastructure for a system of algorithmic micro-domination. Although we may not fully appreciate it, we are now the ‘subjects’ of many algorithmic masters. They surveil our lives and create a space of permissible/acceptable behavior. Everything is fine if we stay within this space. We can live happy and productive lives (perhaps happier and more productive than our predecessors thanks to the algorithmic nudging), and to all intents and purposes, these lives may appear to be free. Yet, if we step out of line we may be quick to realize the presence of the algorithmic masters.
This is not to mention that we should develop a narrative of helplessness around the scope and strength of algorithmic governance, yet those who argue that we have the option of switching off may underestimate the pervasiveness of algorithmic control. Janet Vertesi’s experiences in trying to ‘hide’ her pregnancy from Big Data systems seems to provide a clear illustration of what can happen if you do opt out. Vertesi, an expert in Big Data, knew that online marketers and advertisers really like to know if women are pregnant. Writing in 2014, she noted that an average person’s marketing data is worth about 10 cents whereas a pregnant person’s data is worth about $1.50. She decided to conduct an experiment in which she would hide her own pregnancy from the online data miners. This turned out to be exceptionally difficult. She had to avoid all credit card transactions for pregnancy-related shopping. She had to implore her family and friends to avoid mentioning or announcing her pregnancy on social media. When her uncle breached this request by sending her a private message on Facebook, she deleted his messages and unfriended him (she spoke to him in private to explain why).
The analogy with Pettit’s ‘Happy Slave’ thought experiment is direct and obvious. Vertesi wouldn’t have had any problems if she had lived her life within the space of permissible activity created by the system of algorithmically-controlled commerce. By stepping outside that space, she opened herself up to interference. She was no longer tolerated by the system.
We can learn from her experience. Many of us may be happy to go along with the system as currently constituted, but that doesn’t mean that we are free. We are, in fact, subject to its algorithmic micro-domination.
Modern systems of algorithmic governance give rise to algorithmic micro-domination. One could argue that it is misnamed on the grounds that the domination is not really ‘algorithmic’ in nature. The algorithms are simply tools by which humans or human institutions exert control over the lives of others. In other words, it is not the algorithms per se; it’s Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg (and others) that are the masters. There is certainly something to this, but the tools of domination are often just as important as the agents. The tools are what makes the domination possible and dictate its scope and strength. Algorithmic tools could give rise to new forms domination.
On the other hand, algorithmic tools have a life of their own, i.e. are not fully under the control of their human creators. Big Data systems of governance are ‘functionally agentless’, i.e. it would be difficult to trace what they do to the instructions or actions of an individual human agent (or group of human agents). Domination is usually viewed as a human-to-human phenomenon. So if we accept that algorithmic governance systems can be functionally agentless we will need to expand the concept of domination to cover cases in which humans are not the masters.
Is the loss of freedom sufficient to outweigh those gains? We may not have an answer right now, but it is a question worth pursuing.