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.
Since the seventeenth century — to put it briefly — the discourses of natural rights and moral philosophy have provided some of the building blocks for an all-purpose definition of homo economicus. These discourses connect assumptions about the state of the world with presuppositions about human nature, and they have led to a long-lasting, radical change in the moral household and in the economy of human interrelations. This means, first, that modern homo economicus appears on the scene not merely as a rational subject but also as a passionate one, whereby these passions are regulated via a mechanism of interests. Second, he acts as a blind subject with limited knowledge. It is precisely through this blindness that he produces — unintentionally and unconsciously — harmonious social relations. For this reason, he follows a specific path in life. Homo economicus acquires wisdom through his ignorance and gets ahead in life thanks to his limited awareness and narrow horizons. Incidentally, a similar contradiction can be found in the plot structure of the German Bildungsroman: Wilhelm Meister, too, arrives at his rightful place in life precisely through his limited knowledge and the unintended consequences of his actions, as if steered there by an invisible, “higher hand” […] Third, homo economicus is an enemy of the state in a special sense. As far as he is concerned, the implementation of a good system — involving laws, institutions, administration, and so on — conflicts with the good implementation of systematicity itself. […] And fourth, this hostility to government interference does not detract, as might be expected, from homo economicus developing into an eminently governable character type.
Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 27.