A Computational Commons: Solidarity Through Automation?

“In our age, capital is emerging as a form of computation. What about the common?”
Matteo Pasquinelli – Capital Thinks Too

Political action in the age of algorithmic management doesn’t mean resisting automation – it means working intelligently with it to create a partially automated commons.

Investment management firm Bridgewater Associates have tightened the grip of algorithmic micro-management further than previously thought possible. Variously dubbed “The Book of the Future”, “The One Thing”, and the “Principles Operating System”, Bridgewater Associates’ recently unveiled management strategy is reminiscent of mechanisms of control dating back to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian “We”, published in 1921. This panoptic management strategy, in short, is to fully automate the employee management of Bridgewater Associates’ – a hedge fund managing over $160 billion worth of assets – and fittingly serves as a condensed image of 2016’s surreal brand of hyper-accelerated digi-capitalism. This automation will be enacted in accordance with founder Ray Dalio’s machinic perspective on the world; since humans are merely complex machines, the most efficient way to manage these machines is by another machine. The machine in question – “The One Thing” – is an algorithmic reproduction Dalio’s brain, which will act as a proxy for him. Decisions concerning the hiring and firing of staff, as well as minute-by-minute human-resources management (down to the specific time that phone calls should be made by employees), will be doled-out by the system, in order to remove any “human emotional volatility” that may impede upon the company’s efficiency.

Whilst previously established narratives of resistance to the dehumanizing aspects of economic entities such as Bridgewater Associates were based upon an understanding of reality as dominated by human-led, ideological forces, Dalio’s latest move has further accelerated the already impressive speed at which this picture is dissolving into a plateau of directionless white noise. The paranoid world of memetic warfare, weaponized narratives, and techno-economic feedback loops is now the reality in which we find ourselves.

Bridgewater Associates secluded headquarters (Wikimedia Commons)

We must thus learn how to (re)act in this new age of algorithmic management. This is no longer resistance to an imposed – and opposed – ideology, but instead a struggle against the total mathematization, quantification, and atomization of the individual by algorithmic micro-management. Whilst this could be understood simply as a re-conceptualization of problems that have been re-hashed by critical theorists since Marx, Matteo Pasquinelli’s writings on cognitive capital and the fact that “capital thinks too”, provide a more nuanced, immediate appreciation of the current situation; a more intelligent way to navigate the issue of “think[ing] a form of capital that is already thinking you”. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly than this, Pasquinelli’s work highlights the fact that the commons – the place in which potential resistance can gestate – is itself endangered by this new form of algorithmic techno-capitalism. Reaction and resistance must thus take place on two (admittedly interconnected) fronts: the commons must be protected so as to provide a haven in which future emancipatory actions are planned, whilst simultaneously, those individuals instantiating the commons must be protected from the dominating pressure of algorithmic micro-management by the commons’ already-damaged defenses.

Pasquinelli’s discussion of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s work in the field of economic philosophy is of particular importance here. The “molecular contamination” of the very structure of how we conceive of the world by monetary forms – the aforementioned trio of mathematization, quantification, and atomization – leads to an understanding of contemporary digi-capital as a form of computation. Since one can only – according to Sohn-Rethel’s logic, and evidenced by the failure of movements such as Occupy – change a system from within, the question of how change can occur in a scenario such as that faced by Bridgewater staff becomes a difficult one to attempt to answer. Solidarity is curtailed by excessive individuation – by the contamination of our conception of the world by capital – before it can arise. Yet discussion of solidarity becomes moot when a group is unable to access the spaces in which change can be catalyzed. How then to organize and resist the flow of economic logic organizing the rest of society? How to interact with cognitive capital without being contaminated by it? Algorithmic management is yet another instance of what could easily become algorithmic governance. Although the representatives and employees of Bridgewater are hardly those one would expect to rebel against the system of global finance – to transgressively act from within – a worrying precedent is being set: the ability to cast oneself as an individual, political subject – perhaps as a practitioner of freedom, to clumsily borrow from Foucault’s final lectures at the Collége de France – is endangered.


However, models of resistance to this new form of management can be found, within which individuals are neither overly managed nor curtailed in exercising their autonomy. It is important to remember that technology is simply an amplifier of pre-existing power structures. Algorithmic management of anything – or even the automation of an existing situation – is neither inherently atomizing nor emancipatory. Whilst the avenues for action in the age of algorithmic management are shrinking for those trapped in traditional management hierarchies, novel avenues for emancipation are emerging from rapidly-blooming, decentralized business structures that are also algorithmically managed.

Platform cooperatives offer a space for transgression of the sort outlined by Foucault in his Collége de France lectures as being the only form of resistance available to those existing in a system of neoliberal, capitalist rationality. Although Foucault was directing his discussion towards neoliberal economics, and we are searching for a form of resistance in the era of cognitive capital highlighted by Pasquinelli, platform cooperatives could offer a commons in the age of cognitive digi-capitalism. Algorithmic management of the sort outlined by Bridgewater is obviously damaging in terms of potentially affecting the very nature of the subject being managed, by affecting the structure of their mentality. Yet decentralized algorithmic management – such as the Green Taxi cooperative discussed by TreborScholz – can lead to emancipation of a sort via a reinstatement of the commons itself. Platform cooperatives could be the future redoubts of those fleeing the dissolution of the previously existing commons. This is especially important given that the uptake of platform cooperativism is occurring in tandem with some traditional management structures taking even more radical steps towards full automation by removing the humans from business altogether.

This is not to say that decentralized forms of algorithmic management necessarily lead to a flattened hierarchy regarding power – plenty has been written before regarding emergent power structures within even supposedly democratic, decentralized systems ( I recommend the illuminating analysis of Bitcoin by Paul J. Ennis for those interested in this emergence). Decentralized systems do however seem to be the only spaces in which algorithmic management doesn’t necessarily lead to a dissolution of the potentially reactive individual – the practitioner of freedom in the age of digi-capitalism – and the commons itself. The potential for individual action thus (ironically) requires one to take the perspective outlined by second-order cybernetics; only by taking a system-level perspective – and planning therefrom – can we engender situations in which individuals can assert a measure of control over their surroundings. We must create our own feedback loops within the broader loops of the existing system of cognitive capital. The behavior of systems – no matter how local – affect the behavior of the broader system they are constructed within, and thus affect every locale within it, even those on the periphery.