Algorithmic Governmentalities - An Inquiry into the Contemporary Modes of Government of the Living Systems

Liaison Faculty Member

Babak Rahimi, Department of Literature,


Razvan Amironesei (Program for the Study of Religion) 

Marcel Henaff (Departments of Literature/Political Science) 

Lilly Irani (Department of Communication)

Julian McAuley (Computer Science Department)

Kamala Visweswaran (Department Ethnic Studies) 

Babak Rahimi (Department of Literature) 

Graduate Students

Jessica Aguilar (Literature, UCSD)

Jacob Hellman (Communications, UCSD) 

Caleb Scoville (Sociology, UCB)

Sean Morgan (Political Science, UCSD) 

Ike Sharpless (Political Science, UCSD) 

Danny Weltman (Philosophy, UCSD) 

Yiwen Wang (Literature, UCSD) 

Goals and Themes

Cybernetic Algorithms or the Aliveness of Information. The impetus for the formation of this multidisciplinary UCSD inter-faculty research group is the recognition of a theoretical need to develop and formulate new conceptual vocabularies which account for two interrelated problems: the emergence of a new informational paradigm instantiated by cybernetic algorithms and the increasing technological securitization of natural processes. The two problems form what we call the ‘contemporary government of the living systems’. Our overarching objective is to develop the international scope of our comparative analysis by placing in a global context our inquiry into the ethical and political issues of contemporary algorithmic governance. We plan to do so by creating at UCSD an enduring intellectual space for a meaningful international and multidisciplinary intellectual community around this topic of crucial contemporary importance.

Facebook’s use of algorithms in the last presidential election1, Google's selfish ledger2, China's social credit score3, LAPD’s data driven algorithms to forecast and prevent urban crimes4, are all disparate examples which indicate a pressing problem: the political and ethical role of data driven algorithms in shaping in producing a new technical configuration which is reshaping the relation between life and government. In this respect, Michel Foucault’s classical analysis of biopower, biopolitics and security constitute crucial conceptual precedents. His account of disciplinary surveillance (2011), the analyses on neoliberalism, biopolitics and security in his 1978-1979 Lecture courses (2014, 2011) along with his first volume of the History of Sexuality (1998) place the problem of the government of the living population as a new object for intervention, management, and control. While this type of research continues to be generative in its own right (V Lemm & M Vatter, 2014), our research group seeks to explore the relation between government and life beyond these seminal Foucaldian contributions. In particular, we aim to frame the political government of life systems from a critical investigation of the relation between the symbolic life of cybernetics and biological/natural life of technologically intensive environments.

As many before us have noted, politics is about the diverse practices and forms of action that people engage in response to an ever-changing dynamism that is the condition of human plurality. We call a political account of data technology, #datapolitik. Here, we self-consciously invoke the tradition of realpolitik in political science research, but only by name. That is, #datapolitik mimics the power dynamics of the more familiar realpolitik. But unlike realpolitik, #datapolitik’s power is the soft(ware) power of algorithms that tracks, captures, and propagates the enduring ephemeral reality we call data. The way in which data is articulated as mattering for the cybernetic engineers and mathematicians of the mid-twentieth century, is that the detail of information (or datum) is a hylomorphic substance that is self-predicating or auto-behaving. Our claim is that information is alive; it is a substance that behaves. A preliminary characterization of #datapolitik advances three provocations: a) We have yet to develop the critical tools to acknowledge and engage the power dynamics of #datapolitik; b) Surveillance is not only the wrong metaphor, but the wrong way to think about the power dynamics of #datapolitik; and c) #datapolitik is a form of police power grounded in cynegetic practices of predation that rely on tracking and capture. This is an underappreciated form of police power that requires careful attention and consideration.

Our focus is primarily conceptual and theoretical in aiming to illuminate key issues posed by algorithmic cultures. To put it differently, rather than adapt critical vocabularies from other technical media and transpose them upon our current scenarios we think it is important that we investigate the dynamics and limits of the contemporary the relation between digital media in order to at once expand and reshape our account of the present. We begin with the notion of “life systems” understood less as the irreducible property of given natural organisms, but rather involves the productive result of a set of interconnected biological, technological, political and ethical relations. One broad underlying question that this group is asking is: what is the epistemological status of technologically “living” objects in the age of security? Or more precisely, one could ask what are the conditions of possibility for objecthood (i.e. that which allows for a technological object to qualify as an object) to be alive? That is, in what terms can we understand today that information is alive? More broadly, how can techno-scientific instruments and machines become alive and also act alive? A conceptual investigation applied to specific techno-scientific kinds of ‘objecthood’ and ‘aliveness’ as relations that constitute the government of living systems is, thus, necessary. As a way to foster a diversity of perspectives and approaches of our work on algorithmic governance we plan on engaging the work of Francisco Varela, Fernando Flores, Eden Medina, among others.

Our research group seeks to produce scholarly publication, including digital tool development/refinement, programmatic initiatives (e.g., curriculum development), and the completion of external grant proposals or applications. As for publication, we aim to produce an edited volume based on the proceedings with a major university press. We also seek to provide:

1) educational enrichments such as mentorship to graduate and undergraduate students

2) curriculum development, record the content of the meetings

3) and explore the possibility of doing podcasts.

4) create a vibrant epistemic community of scholars at UCSD (faculty and graduate).

5) create the opportunity for faculty to provide meaningful mentorship to interested students.