Algorithms with Chinese Characteristics

New forms of algorithmic governance are set to transform both the Global North and China. But which variant will prove most effective?

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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A quick thought this week.

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal argued that Amazon is transforming the nature of work and production in the industrialised world. Writing in that paper, the technology reporter Christopher Mims even gave the set of practises via which this is happening a name: Bezosism (£).

What is Bezosism?

Essentially, it means the tech-enabled surveillance of workers, and analysis of performance data to create targets and identify those who don’t hit them. In Amazon warehouses, workers are continually monitored; those who are are slower than the facility average are sent an algorithmically-triggered warning. Too many warnings, and you’re out. Meanwhile, back in New Week #22 we saw how Amazon is installing surveillance cameras in the cabs of its delivery vans; the company wants to apply the same close surveillance to its drivers as it does warehouse staff.

In the early 20th-century, Henry Ford transformed industrial capitalism with mass production and the moving assembly line. The WSJ contends that Bezos is Ford’s 21st-century equivalent. He has invented, it says, a new form of algorithmic management.

Bezosism is diffusing through the world of work, rewriting the source code of the global industrial machine. It could be Mr. Bezos’ most important legacy.

This week the California senate passed a bill that, while mentioning no names, takes direct aim at all this. The bill would force Amazon and others to disclose the metrics it uses to grade worker performance, and would ban penalties for time off-task, including bathroom breaks.

It’s hard to stifle a cheer for legislation that aims to liberate workers from the need to pee in bottles in order not to incur wrath of their algorithmic overlords.

Reading about Bezosism, though, I’m also reminded of a recent Sunday note: The People’s Republic of Tech. In that instalment, I wrote about the unprecedented experiment in techno-governance currently taking shape in China.

A recent policy document, the Implementation Outline for the Construction of Government Under the Rule of Law, allowed a window onto that experiment. It details the CCP’s plan to connect all parts of government via a network of online platforms that will administer vital functions of the state. Those platforms – which will include private sector Big Tech firms – must all share data with central government, which will use AI to analyse it and continually refine decision-making.

Remind you of anything?

China is building a new kind of techno-state. And the strategic thinking that underlies it sounds a lot like Bezosism. Or, if you like, Bezosism With Chinese Characteristics. The CCP is prosecuting this mission with ever-greater zeal. This week the government announced that it will break up Jack Ma’s giant Alipay payments app; user data will be ported to a new entity, which will be co-owned by the state.

What is the underlying lesson, here? A world of ubiquitous sensors, data, and AI changes everything. It rewrites the source code not only of the industrial machine, but of sovereign governments, too.

The coming decades will be shaped by these truths, just as the 20th-century was by Ford’s production line.

But in the Global North and China, two different variants of Bezosism are incubating. Liberal democracies are embarking on a long journey to put limits around algorithmic governance in both the private and public spheres; those limits are intended, however imperfectly, to protect individual freedoms and human dignity. Meanwhile, the CCP wants to harness the power of The Algorithm and then let it rip.

I can’t help wondering: which system will prove more effective? It’s hard to avoid the dark possibility that the CCP’s emerging form of public-private and unrestrained Bezosism may prove, in some senses, a more effective system for the management of human affairs than anything we’ve seen before. In that case, the Global North will face a choice: does it stick to its values, or ditch them in favour of a system that seems more dynamic?

I don’t want to overstate this comparison. There is, of course, a great deal of difference between Amazon and the CCP. But the underlying thread here, this emerging and hugely powerful new form of algorithmic governance, is real. And we’re about to witness a contest of historic significance between two different versions.

How does this story end? The truth is, none of us can yet know. But NWSH will keep watching, and working to make sense of it all.

Thanks for reading; I’ll be back on Wednesday as usual. Until then, be well,


P.S Thanks to those of you who joined the NWSH Slack group last week. If you didn’t, and you want to continue the discussion on Amazon, algorithmic management, and the CCP, then sign up for the Slack here!