This image is the cover for the book Life by Algorithms

Life by Algorithms

Essays on the downsides, dysfunctions, and dangers of automated decision-making: “An excellent survey of the algorithmically managed life.” —Choice

The phone systems that businesses use to screen calls. The link between student standardized test scores and public schools’ access to resources. The algorithms that regulate patient diagnoses and reimbursements to doctors. The impenetrable corporate bureaucracy that can drive customers in need of help up the wall—or drive them to suicide.

The storage, sorting, and analysis of massive amounts of information have enabled the automation of decision-making at an unprecedented level. Meanwhile, computers have offered a model of cognition that increasingly shapes our approach to the world. The proliferation of “roboprocesses” is the result, as editors Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson observe in this rich and wide-ranging volume, which features contributions from a distinguished cast of scholars in anthropology, communications, international studies, and political science.

Though automatic processes are designed to be engines of rational systems, the stories in Life by Algorithms reveal how they can in fact produce absurd, inflexible, or even dangerous outcomes. Joining the call for “algorithmic transparency,” the contributors bring exceptional sensitivity to everyday sociality into their critique to better understand how the perils of modern technology affect finance, medicine, education, housing, the workplace, food production, public space, and emotions—not as separate problems but as linked manifestations of a deeper defect in the fundamental ordering of our society.

“‘The Machine Stops,’ E. M. Forster’s 1909 science fiction story, tells the tale of a human society collapsing when the technology upon which it has become dependent fails. Think of [this] volume as ‘The Machine Starts,’ a collection of unsettling ethnographic accounts of the rise of algorithmic governance . . . A necessary and sobering call to arms.” —Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Contributors include: Catherine Besteman * Alex Blanchette * Robert W. Gehl * Hugh Gusterson * Catherine Lutz * Ann Lutz Fernandez * Joseph Masco * Sally Engle Merry * Keesha M. Middlemass * Noelle Stout * Susan J. Terrio

Catherine Besteman, Hugh Gusterson

Catherine Besteman is the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. Hugh Gusterson is professor of international affairs and anthropology at the George Washington University.

The University of Chicago Press