Differing ethnographic accounts of the effectiveness of technology

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m curious as I compare two recent papers, one by Christin [2017] and one by Levy [2015], both about the role of technology in society. and backed by ethnographic data.

What interests me is that the two papers both examine the use of algorithms in practice, but they differ in their account of the effectiveness of the algorithms used. Christin emphasizes the way web journalists and legal professionals deliberately undermine the impact of algorithms. Levy discusses how electronic monitoring achieves central organizational control over truckers.

I’m interested in the different framings because, as Christin points out, a central point of contention in the critical scholarship around data and algorithms is the effectiveness of the technology, especially “in practice”. Implicitly if not explicitly, if the technology is not as effective as its advocates say it is, then it is overhyped and this debunking is an accomplishment of the critical and often ethnographic field.

On the other hand, if the technology is effective at control, as Levy’s article argues that it is, then it poses a much more real managerialist threat to worker’s autonomy. Identifying that this is occurring is also a serious accomplishment of the ethnographic field.

What must be recognized, however, is that these two positions contradict each other, at least as general perspectives on data-collection and algorithmic decision-making. The use of a particular technology in a particular place cannot be both so ineffective as to be overhyped and so effective as to constitute a managerialist threat. The substance of the two critiques is at odds with each other, and they call for different pragmatic responses. The former suggests a rhetorical strategy of further debunking, the latter demands a material strategy of changing working conditions.

I have seen both strategies used in critical scholarship, sometimes even in the same article, chapter, or book. I have never seen critical scholars attempt to resolve this difference between themselves using their shared assumptions and methods. I’d like to see more resolution in the ethnographic field on this point.

Correction, 8/10/17:

The apparent tension is resolved on a closer reading of Christin (2017). The argument there is that technology (in the managerialist use common to both papers) is ineffective when its intended use is resisted by those being managed by it.

That shifts the ethnographic challenge to technology away from an attack on the technical quality of the work (which is a non-starter) to accomplish what it is designed to do, but rather on the uncontroversial proposition that the effectiveness of technology depends in part on assumptions on how it will be used, and that these assumptions can be violated.

The political question of to what extent these new technologies should be adopted can then be addressed straightforwardly in terms of whether or not it is fully and properly adopted, or only partially and improperly adopted. Using language like this would be helpful in bridging technical and ethnographic fields.

References

Christin, 2017. “Algorithms in practice: Comparing journalism and criminal justice.” (link)

Levy, 2015. “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work.” (link)

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