Rule by Algorithm? Big Data and the Threat of Algocracy

An increasing number of people are worried about the way in which our data is being mined by governments and corporations. One of these people is Evgeny Morozov. In an article that appeared in the MIT Technology Review back in October 2013, he argued that this trend poses a serious threat to democracy, one that should be resisted through political activism and “sabotage”. As it happens, I have written about similar threats to democracy myself in the past, so I was interested to see how Morozov defended his view.

Unfortunately, Morozov’s article is not written in a style that renders its argumentative structure immediately transparent. I shouldn’t complain: not everyone writes in the style of an analytic philosopher; not everyone aspires to reduce human language to a series of number propositions and conclusions. Nevertheless, I have set myself the task re-presenting Morozov’s argument in a more formal garb, and subjecting it to some critical scrutiny. That’s what this blog post is about.

The discussion is broken-down into three sections. First, I’ll talk in general terms about the problem Morozov sees with data-mining technologies. Second, I present what I take to be Morozov’s central argument, which I call the argument from the threat of algocracy. This, I suggest, is similar to an argument found in the work of the political philosopher David Estlund. Finally, I look at the suggested solutions to the problem, noting how Morozov’s solution differs from one that I have defended in the past.

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