Tech critics become technocrats when they overlook the daunting administrative density of a digital-first society. The author implores critics to reject structural dependencies on digital tools rather than naturalize their integration through critique and reform. At stake is the degree to which citizens must defer to unelected experts to navigate such density. Democracy dies in the darkness of sysadmin. The argument and a candidate solution proceed as follows. Since entropy is intrinsic to all physical systems, including digital systems, perfect automation is a fiction. Concealing this fiction, however, are five historical forces usually treated in isolation: ghost work, technical debt, intellectual debt, the labor of algorithmic critique, and various types of participatory labor. The author connects these topics to emphasize the systemic impositions of digital decision tools, which compound entangled genealogies of oppression and temporal attrition. In search of a harmonious balance between the use of “AI” tools and the non-digital decision systems they are meant to supplant, the author draws inspiration from an unexpected source: musical notation. Just as musical notes require silence to be operative, the author positions algorithmic silence—the deliberate exclusion of highly abstract digital decision systems from human decision-making environments—as a strategic corrective to the fiction of total automation. Facial recognition bans and the Right to Disconnect are recent examples of algorithmic silence as an active trend.
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Special thanks to Sarah T. Hamid, Sarah Dillon, Stephanie Dick, Richard Staley, Helen Anne Curry, Momin M. Malik, Mustafa Ali, Mary Gray, Sean McDonald, William Lazonick, Ernesto Oyarbide-Magaña, Ben Green, and attendees of the 2020 Istanbul Privacy Symposium.
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