Actuarial Judgment and Decision-Making Machines: Introducing Rouvroy’s Algorithmic Governmentality

The relation between machines and judgment in the legal sense is already somewhat actualized in terms of “actuarial” judgment: in parole boards, for example, the “judges” are given a computer-produced risk-probability based on preexisting statistics and the convict’s behavioral pattern. The “judgment” they render is thus really not ought to be considered on a par with legal judgment in the non-actuarial, more common form. Antoinette Rouvroy, the French philosopher of law who has coined the phrase “algorithmic governmentality,” has given an insightful talk on the subject, which I believe is available in written form, entitled “Governmentality in an Age of Autonomic Computing: Technology, Virtuality, and Utopia” (there is also another talk, “Algorithmic Governmentality and the End(s) of Critique,” available on the web for free).

She meticulously analyzes the forms of governmentality that are increasingly dependent upon predictions made from large data-sets by autonomic machines. Examples include risk-assessment of individuals to identify likely terrorists or offenders early on and preempt crime, as well as the already mentioned actuarial decision-making in certain legal settings. The most important issue here as well as in every discussion regarding the data-technologies is the notion of protocol and the “standardization” of the data produced by different profiling resources (these include Facebook as well as state-related polls and profiling projects): not only is the human being to be reduced to a (huge) number of data-fields (name, age, …) processable by “intelligent” and autonomic machines (the latter are defined by their autonomous decision-making; the more common examples are AI enemy players in games and shopping-bots, not to mention the Google PageRank and Facebook’s now (in)famous NewsFeed), but the data thus produced are to be standardized according to protocols and pooled together to form data-mines as “complete” as possible, making for more “accurate” predictions, whether about potential criminality in the “risk society” or the personalization of ads and services.

The decisions and predictions made by these autonomous agents is the result of turning the human being (and the world) into a black-box, whose internal life, intentionality, and states of mind are simply made to do not exist, at least where it matters. They are thus not in any way comparable to human judgment, although their end-result can be made to approach human judgment to determinable degrees. The most concise way to describe the difference between the two is to say that machinic decision-making does not know anything of the “excluded middle” and (perhaps) syllogism in general: it is absolutely singular and does not bypass the universal-individual continuum characteristic of judgment.

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Monads and Cybernetic Organs

Leibniz’s monads do not have “windows” through which they could perceive the world; their milieu is unknowable to them. Yet they continue to function in perfect “harmony” with one-another, which is very crucial, given that according to Leibniz the whole world is made up of monads. Leibniz, whose invention of the integral calculus and life insurance alone might make him a fit candidate for the progenitor of the modern world (in which we are still living, although a bit less each day), explained the monads’ blindness through reference to their perfect design: being omni-scient and ditto-potent, God factored in all the world in its entirety in the workings of each monad and it is as such that each could be said to contain or reflect the whole world. The cult of design, the cult of the engineer, is only an extension of the ideas that gave birth to the Monadology. Leibniz is the progenitor of the modern world of engineering and design; his is a revival of mathematics in its true meaning: fore-knowledge. Heidegger explains the modern age as the time where the “principle of sufficient reason (ratio)” holds sway, a principle first stated by Leibniz (“nothing exists without a reason”). It is the same Leibniz who comes up with the idea now known as algorithmic complexity, of understanding as compression. He is the prime representative of the modern efficiency.

It was not until the WWII that modelling-prediction gained an alternative: real-time, feed-back driven prediction: cybernetics was born; the idea to end all ideas. For an introduction to what comes next see my presentation at the General Organology Conference held at the University of Kent in 20-22 November 2014 (the link will be up soon).

With the cybernetic organ (prosthesis), we are facing the exact opposite of a Leibnizian monad: the Leibnizian monad is the result of ultimate design, the kind of design only a God could be capable of: EVERYTHING has been factored in so that it functions smoothly without needing to see anything at all; it has no windows and yet functions perfectly. The cybernetic device, however, is the opposite of that. Not that it does away with blindness, like so many of the Capitalists and would-be technopriests might wish, but rather, it displaces the blindness: rather than being a blind work of perfect design, it becomes a seeing work of no design that turns a blind eye to the essence of its “object.” Instead of the blind monad, we get the black-box. What silently disappears in the process is human-ness, the capacity for thought and the possibility of science as knowledge of causes, of the “why” and the “what.”