Abstract

Algorithms have never been more influential, yet our collective understanding of how they transform massive networks of cultural power has not kept pace. This is especially true when it comes to economic algorithms, which operate as black boxes largely inaccessible to the majority of citizens whose worlds they continuously reshape. This essay offers a rhetorical approach to reading algorithms—not only to challenge the positivism and mathematical realism that naïvely apotheosizes algorithms and algorithmic culture but more importantly to become critical informants, scholars who can open up these black boxes for fellow citizens, examine the hidden assumptions therein, and study how they actively transform our social-material worlds. The essay’s exemplar is the 2008 financial crisis and a little-known algorithm called the Li Guassian copula, which played a major role in the spread of subprime mortgages. I argue that this copula puts on spectacular display the power of algorithms as principles of composition—actants that materially expand our social collectives even as they marginalize human agency and practical judgment with forms of technological rationality that, in the case of the Li copula, concentrated the networks of structured finance around a single decision apparatus, rendering those networks both larger and, contra conventional wisdom, more fragile.

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