Algocratic Modes of Organization for Global Labor Coordination

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* Article: Global Labor: Algocratic Modes of Organization. By A. Aneesh. Sociological Theory, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 2009), pp. 347-370



"This study investigates a practice that allows workers based in India to work online on projects for corporations in the United States, representing a new mode of labor integration. In the absence of direct bureaucratic control across continents, the question arises how this rapidly growing labor practice is organized. The riddle of organizational governance is solved through an analysis of software programming schemes, which are presented as the key to organizing globally dispersed labor through data servers. This labor integration through programming code is distinguished from two other systems of organization—bureaucracy and the market—while bringing out the salient features of each system in terms of its ruling principle: bureaucracy (legalrational), the market (price), and algocracy (programming or algorithm). The logic of algocratic systems is explored methodically to analyze global work."

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* Article: Technologically Coded Authority: The Post-Industrial Decline in Bureaucratic Hierarchies. By A. Aneesh


“Once fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy ... As an instrument of rationally organizing authority relations, bureaucracy was and is a power instrument of the first order for one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus...Where administration has been completely bureaucratized, the resulting system of domination is practically indestructible” (Weber, 1978, p. 987).

The indestructibility of bureaucratic structures prophesied by Weber seems no longer a stable truth. More and more corporations in America are experiencing the de-layering and flattening of bureaucratic hierarchies. Bureaucratic authority in the workplace suddenly seems less visible and repressive. Is it reasonable to see such changes as signifying the end of bureaucratic management, as some scholars seem to suggest (e.g., Kanter, 1991)? Does post-industrial management – with its flexible work systems – introduce extensive autonomy in the workplace, reducing the level of immediate worker control? The shift in the structures of workplace governance, I argue, is not from more to less governance. The new forms of management are increasingly embedded in technology itself without reducing the efficacy and effects of earlier bureaucracies. In particular, I identify the role of programming languages – a rather understudied component of the workplace – in the emerging complex of organizational governance.

In an ideal-typical sense, the new form of management – or what I call algocracy, i.e., the rule of algorithm – shifts from its industrial predecessor chiefly in two respects. First, domination is less and less distributed through elaborate worker hierarchies; rather, it is increasingly effected through information and software systems that structure the possible forms of work behavior. Second, algocratic governance appears to partly transform the early subject-object relationships, where a superordinate as an observing subject must watch over the work of a subordinate. This shift is marked by an authority relation enabled through information systems and networks, where all are subordinated as nodes in such networks. My argument relates the continued disintegration of vertical management to the emerging architecture of information systems.

I begin by discussing certain organizational transformations that are seen as undermining the importance of bureaucratic hierarchies and vertical integration. I pay special attention to the reduction in the layers of middle-management widely discussed in literatures of sociology as well as economics, business and management. I then distinguish among three modes of organizational governance – bureaucratic, panoptic, and algocratic – and emphasize the salient features of each in terms of three different ruling mechanisms: office, surveillance, and code respectively. The logic of algocratic forms of governance is explored methodically to demonstrate how algocracy differs from other forms. Although the chief contribution of this article is to organizational theory, the argument has its origins in empirical research conducted in New Jersey (U.S.A.) and Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon (India) in 1999-2000. Based on 50 formal and a similar number of informal in-depth interviews with programmers and executives of some 20 firms in the U.S. and India, this research focused on how India-based software companies provide a variety of software-enabled services to corporations in the U.S. This article uses some of the data collected from this research to provide clarity and illustration to what is primarily a theoretical endeavor. I end with some ideas about a research program that stems from this fresh space for questioning."