Inscrutable Processes: Algorithms, Agency, and Divisions of Deliberative Labour

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Abstract
As the use of algorithmic decisionā€making becomes more commonplace, so too does the worry that these algorithms are often inscrutable and our use of them is a threat to our agency. Since we do not understand why an inscrutable process recommends one option over another, we lose our ability to judge whether the guidance is appropriate and are vulnerable to being led astray. In response, I claim that guidance being inscrutable does not automatically make its guidance inappropriate. This phenomenon is not restricted to algorithms, and there are many social processes which we should conform to but are similarly unable to judge for ourselves. I provide a framework for how we can depend on inscrutable processes by introducing a distinction between knowing conformity (where I understand what justifies the guidance) from mere conformity (where I merely do what I am told) and showing how mere conformity is often positively valuable because it allows for extended processes that in turn allow us to accomplish more than we could on our own. This is in effect a division of deliberative labour, which I argue is something commonplace but not often recognised, of which algorithmic guidance can be an example.
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Archival date: 2021-02-19
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