The notion of the ‘algorithm’ is now taking on its own force, as a kind of evocative shorthand for the power and potential of calculative systems that can think more quickly, more comprehensively and more accurately than humans. As well as understanding the integration of algorithms, we need to understand the way that this term is incorporated into organisational, institutional and everyday understandings. The discourse surrounding algorithms may then provide a focal point for analysing broader political rationalities and modes of governance. In this stream of work, the interest might not be in understanding the social powers of the technical systems, but in understanding how the notion of the algorithm itself has a kind of social power. The algorithm is now a cultural presence, perhaps even an iconic cultural presence, not just because of what they can do but also because of what the notion of the algorithm is used to project. This means that the algorithm can be part of the deployment of power, not just in terms of its function but also in terms of how it is understood as a phenomenon. Algorithmic decisions are depicted as neutral decisions, algorithmic decisions are understood to be efficient decisions, algorithmic decisions are presented as objective and trustworthy decisions, and so on. We certainly need to gain a greater view of the inside of the algorithmic systems in which we live, but we also need to develop an analysis of the cultural prominence of the notion of the algorithm, what this stands for, what it does and what it might reveal.
In a tentative mode, I would like to suggest that the term or notion of the algorithm should also be considered when attempting to understand the social power of algorithms. In some ways this power can potentially be detached from its technical and material form whilst still capturing something of the exteriority. As such, we would need to understand algorithms within their discursive practices and framings. The notion of the algorithm is evoked to influence and convince, to suggest things and to envision a certain approach, governmentality and way of ordering. Plus, the term is also part of wider rationalities and ways of thinking. Together then, this requires us to explore and illustrate the power of this term whilst also potentially using it as a focal point for opening up or revealing these wider rationalities. The notion of the algorithm is part of a wider vocabulary, a vocabulary that we might see deployed to promote a certain rationality, a rationality based upon the virtues of calculation, competition, efficiency, objectivity and the need to be strategic. As such, the notion of the algorithm can be powerful in shaping decisions, influencing behaviour and ushering in certain approaches and ideals. The algorithm’s power may then not just be in the code, but in that way that it becomes part of a discursive understanding of desirability and efficiency in which the mention of algorithms is part of ‘a code of normalization’ [Foucault, M. (2004). Society must be defended: Lectures at the collège de France, 1975–76. London: Penguin., p. 38]. The notion of the algorithm is part of the social power we should be exploring. The term algorithm carries something of this authority. Algorithms are, largely, trusted for their precision and objectivity. A certain rationality may well then be built into this perception of the algorithm. The discourse surrounding the algorithm might well reveal something of the wider political dynamics of which they are a part.