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Life by Algorithms

How Roboprocesses Are Remaking Our World

Computerized processes are everywhere in our society. They are the automated phone messaging systems that businesses use to screen calls; the link between student standardized test scores and public schools’ access to resources; the algorithms that regulate patient diagnoses and reimbursements to doctors. The storage, sorting, and analysis of massive amounts of information have enabled the automation of decision-making at an unprecedented level. Meanwhile, computers have offered a model of cognition that increasingly shapes our approach to the world. The proliferation of “roboprocesses” is the result, as editors Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson observe in this rich and wide-ranging volume, which features contributions from a distinguished cast of scholars in anthropology, communications, international studies, and political science.
Although automatic processes are designed to be engines of rational systems, the stories in Life by Algorithms reveal how they can in fact produce absurd, inflexible, or even dangerous outcomes. Joining the call for “algorithmic transparency,” the contributors bring exceptional sensitivity to everyday sociality into their critique to better understand how the perils of modern technology affect finance, medicine, education, housing, the workplace, food production, public space, and emotions—not as separate problems but as linked manifestations of a deeper defect in the fundamental ordering of our society.

Catherine Besteman, Alex Blanchette, Robert W. Gehl, Hugh Gusterson, Catherine Lutz, Ann Lutz Fernandez, Joseph Masco, Sally Engle Merry, Keesha M. Middlemass, Noelle Stout, Susan J. Terrio

224 pages | 3 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Media Studies


"Providing an excellent survey of the algorithmically managed life, each chapter of this edited volume shines light upon a particular aspect of certain more or less familiar roboprocesses to show how algorithms are remaking the world. Highly recommended."


“‘The Machine Stops,’ E. M. Forster’s 1909 science fiction story, tells the tale of a human society collapsing when the technology upon which it has become dependent fails. Think of Gusterson and Besteman’s volume as ‘The Machine Starts,’ a collection of unsettling ethnographic accounts of the rise of algorithmic governance, of a world in which machines automate structures of social inequality in the service of distracted corporate profit, overreaching militarism, and a globally attenuating commitment to democracy. A necessary and sobering call to arms.”

Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“Compelling and original, this book examines several key issues that have previously failed to receive the serious intellectual rigor that they deserve. By focusing on many diverse domains of algorithmic implementation—from education to prisons, from the border to factory farming—Life by Algorithms gives readers an excellent and accessible overview of how the ‘algorithmic turn’ challenges many of our current understandings of the world.”

John Cheney-Lippold, University of Michigan

“A fine array of instructive studies that amount to a beneficent algorithm for understanding our times.”

Marshall Sahlins, emeritus, University of Chicago

“What can anthropology offer to contemporary debates about algorithms? Tackling the term in its broadest sense, this wide-ranging collection provides one answer: from finance to farming, from classrooms to courthouses, algorithms dehumanize, damage, and deskill the practices of everyday life. Life by Algorithms documents the calculative violence of bureaucratic rationality in its most recent computational form. For anthropological scholars of algorithmic systems, this book is sure to become an obligatory reference.”

Nick Seaver, Tufts University

Life by Algorithms brings together a number of excellent scholars who study the growing impact of computerized algorithms on our lives. For anyone interested in computerized algorithms, this volume is a welcome and timely contribution to an important emerging field.”

Eitan Y. Wilf, author of Creativity on Demand

Table of Contents

Introduction: Robohumans
Hugh Gusterson


Chapter 1. Automated Expulsion in the U.S. Foreclosure Epidemic
Noelle Stout

Chapter 2. Roboeducation
Ann Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz

Chapter 3. Detention and Deportation of Minors in U.S. Immigration Custody
Susan J. Terrio

Chapter 4. A Felony Conviction as a Roboprocess
Keesha M. Middlemass


Chapter 5. Infinite Proliferation, or The Making of the Modern Runt
Alex Blanchette

Chapter 6. Emotional Roboprocesses
Robert W. Gehl


Chapter 7. Ubiquitous Surveillance
Joseph Masco

Chapter 8. Controlling Numbers: How Quantification Shapes the World
Sally Engle Merry
Afterword: Remaking the World
Catherine Besteman
List of Contributors

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