Algorithms as Fetish: Faith and Possibility in Algorithmic Work



Algorithms are powerful because we invest in them the power to do things. With such promise, they can transform the ordinary, say snapshots along a robotic vacuum cleaner’s route, into something much more, such as a clean home. Echoing David Graeber’s revision of fetishism, we argue that this easy slip from technical capabilities to broader claims betrays not the ‘‘magic’’ of algorithms but rather the dynamics of their exchange. Fetishes are not indicators of false thinking, but social contracts in material form. They mediate emerging distributions of power often too nascent, too slippery or too disconcerting to directly acknowledge...