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Do Algorithms Shape Character? Considering Algorithmic Ethical Subjectivation

Author: Magalhães, J. C.
Published in: Social Media + Society, 4(2), 1-10
Year: 2018
Type: Academic articles
DOI: 10.1177/2056305118768301

Moral critiques of computational algorithms seem divided between two paradigms. One seeks to demonstrate how an opaque and unruly algorithmic power violates moral values and harms users’ autonomy; the other underlines the systematicity of such power, deflating concerns about opacity and unruliness. While the second paradigm makes it possible to think of end users of algorithmic systems as moral agents, the consequences of this possibility remain unexplored. This article proposes one way of tackling this problem. Employing Michel Foucault’s version of virtue ethics, I examine how perceptions of Facebook’s normative regulation of visibility have transformed non-expert end users’ ethical selves (i.e., their character) in the current political crisis in Brazil. The article builds on this analysis to advance algorithmic ethical subjectivation as a concept to make sense of these processes of ethical becoming. I define them as plural (encompassing various types of actions and values, and resulting in no determinate subject), contextual (demanding not only sociomaterial but also epistemological and ethical conditions), and potentially harmful (eventually structuring harms that are not externally inflicted by algorithms, but by users, upon themselves and others, in response to how they perceive the normativity of algorithmic decisions). By researching which model(s) of ethical subjectivation specific algorithmic social platforms instantiate, critical scholars might be able to better understand the normative consequences of these platforms’ power.

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João Carlos Magalhães, Dr.

Former Senior Researcher: The evolving digital society

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