Our postdoctoral researcher Massimo Airoldi has recently published a short article on the website of Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an important cultural institution based in Milan. The article, written in Italian, discusses the “dark side” of online algorithms – a hot topic in contemporary social theory, which is also at the core of Lifestyle Research Center research activities.

Algorithms are everywhere. From consumption experiences to financial markets, these computational recipes featured by digital platforms are increasingly powerful, since they manage the circulation of information in almost any field of human life. Building on a growing and multidisciplinary literature, Massimo Airoldi individuates the following three main dimensions of algorithmic power:

1) Opacity. Algorithms are black boxes designed by private companies, which silently work as a sort of “technological unconscious” underlying our everyday digital existences. This informational asymmetry recalls the Foucaultian metaphor of the “Panopticon”, evocated by the philosopher in “Surveiller et punir”;

2) Ideology. Algorithms should not be considered as neutral technical devices. On the contrary, they are the products of human decisions, which are themselves historically and culturally rooted. The values and interests of tech companies like Facebook and Google are embedded in the code, and thus systematically reproduced through algorithmic labour;

3) Normalization. Algorithms do not have the power to decide on their own. They learn from our behavior while, at the same time, influencing it. For this reason, they generate a sort of loop based on the “production of prediction”, whose ultimate output is not easily calculable on the long term.


Post by Massimo Airoldi, Postdoctoral researcher at Lifestyle Research Center, emlyon business school.

The original version of the article: Tre dimensioni del potere algoritmico