The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism

by Henry Farrell on March 1, 2023

[the below is the main text of Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade, “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism,” published in the Winter 2023 issue of Daedalus under a Creative Commons license. For the original in HTML form, click here, and for a nicely formatted PDF, click here.]


While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism”—the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life—has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes.
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I’ve enjoyed Miriam’s posts on things, little and big, that restore our faith in humanity, so I thought I would share a little hope of my own.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about global heating, where it’s often hard to be optimistic about the future. But there are some bright spots. In particular, there’s a good chance that 2023 will be the year that coal use finally begins a sustained decline, and relatedly the year the carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation start to fall.
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