Invasion of Algorithmic Managers

廖顯禕
4 min readMay 30, 2019

When your job is your life, the algorithms control you.

Your Job Can Be Your Life

Modern employers are private governments. They enjoy broad powers over their employees’ lives. Of course, they dictate employees lives during work hours and in the workplace. But even outside of those hours and those places, employers still hold control over their employees.

Wellness programs illustrate the control that employers hold over their employees. You know what they are: you only get a “discount” on your employer-provided insurance if you go see a doctor for a check up, quit smoking, and report back on your cholesterol level. As L.V. Anderson reported in Slate: “Wellness programs don’t save money by preventing expensive medical claims — and in fact, they might even increase claims costs due to encouraging unnecessary doctors’ visits. But wellness programs can save money if enough employees fail them or opt out.”

The primary function of wellness programs is not, contrary to their ostensible goal, to improve employees’ health. Instead, their primary function is to shift the cost and risk from employers to employees. In doing so, they also provide a mechanism for employers to exercise control over employees’ lives outside of work. Go see that doctor! Quit smoking! And report back your cholesterol level! (All on your own time, of course.) As Julie Appleby reported on NPR, these are not just invasion into private lives, they are also invasions of privacy.

The Rise of Algorithmic Managers

Governments use algorithms to automate compliance from its citizens. So do private governments.

Modern employers are increasingly, in big and small ways, using algorithms as middle managers. Most obviously, the gig economy workforce (Lyft, Uber, DoorDash, etc.) is now almost entirely managed by algorithms. Amazon, too, is using algorithmic managers to track and fire warehouse workers based on an opaque “productivity” metric.

From the employers’ perspective, algorithmic managers are significant improvements over their human counterparts. They are cheaper. They obey orders. And, best of all, they cannot listen to or respond to employees’ complaints. Algorithmic managers do not (and cannot, by design) try to work with employees to find mutually-agreeable work conditions. Instead, they are only there to enforce a simple rule of do what the algorithmic manager says, or else.

Look around you. Look around you. Just look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for? Correct. The answer is algorithmic middle managers.

Your Own Moments of Algorithmic Management

Maybe you are lucky enough to not be an Uber driver or an Amazon warehouse worker. But you are certainly not lucky enough, even if you do not have a direct algorithmic manager, to avoid algorithmic management’s intrusion into your life. Again, wellness programs are good examples of such nearly-imperceptible invasions of algorithmic managers.

So are online “training” programs. Like wellness programs, their primary function is not, contrary to their ostensible goal, to reduce sexual harassment, data theft, or other very bad things. (To be clear, we should definitely do more to reduce sexual harassment and other very bad things. I am aware of no independent evidence that online training programs do so.) Instead, their primary function is to shift the cost and risk from employers to employees: it is now your responsibility if these very bad things happen, not theirs.

Remember, the best thing about algorithmic managers is that they cannot listen to or respond to employees’ complaints. So, just as an example, an algorithmic manager can make you watch poorly-scripted, poorly-acted, and poorly-produced videos as part of an online training program. And when you try to look away, like by opening another app or even another browser tab, the algorithmic manager can track your behavior and enforce compliance. Do what the algorithmic manager says, or you will not receive your online training program certificate.

But you can resist. One obvious route is to unionize and engage in collective actions. In the mean time, however, should you find yourself in a position where you are forced to watch poorly-scripted, poorly-acted, and poorly-produced videos as part of an online training program—such as the ones by EverFi, LawRoom, etc.—you might consider some minor algorithmic resistance of your own. For example, you might look into ways to directly control video playback, such as the Video Speed Controller extension for Chrome. Then you can use the time saved to think more about the invasion of algorithmic managers into everyday lives, or even write about it.

I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My academic website is liao.shen-yi.org. The views expressed here are (obviously!) not my employer’s.

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廖顯禕

Academic studying objects and spaces where cognition meets oppression. Taiwanese.