For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Algorithms as fetish: Faith and possibility in algorithmic work"

by Thomas, Suzanne L; Nafus, Dawn; Sherman, Jamie (2018)


Algorithms are powerful because we invest in them the power to do things. With such promise, they can transform the ordinary, say snapshots along a robotic vacuum cleaner?s route, into something much more, such as a clean home. Echoing David Graeber?s revision of fetishism, we argue that this easy slip from technical capabilities to broader claims betrays not the ?magic? of algorithms but rather the dynamics of their exchange. Fetishes are not indicators of false thinking, but social contracts in material form. They mediate emerging distributions of power often too nascent, too slippery or too disconcerting to directly acknowledge. Drawing primarily on 2016 ethnographic research with computer vision professionals, we show how faith in what algorithms can do shapes the social encounters and exchanges of their production. By analyzing algorithms through the lens of fetishism, we can see the social and economic investment in some people?s labor over others. We also see everyday opportunities for social creativity and change. We conclude that what is problematic about algorithms is not their fetishization but instead their stabilization into full-fledged gods and demons ? the more deserving objects of critique.


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Bullshit Jobs, Algorithms, Automation

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