Algorithmic IF … THEN rules and the conditions and consequences of power

Neyland, Daniel and Möllers, Norma. 2016. Algorithmic IF … THEN rules and the conditions and consequences of power. Information, Communication & Society, 20(1), pp. 45-62. ISSN 1369-118X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

The introduction to this special issue suggests we need to develop ‘a greater understanding of what might be thought of as the social power of algorithms'. In this paper, ‘social power’ will be critically scrutinised through a study of the entanglement of algorithmic rules with contemporary video-based surveillance technologies. The paper will begin with an analysis of algorithmic ‘IF … THEN’ rules and the conditions (IF) and consequences (THEN) that need to be accomplished for an algorithm to be said to succeed. The work of achieving conditions and consequences demonstrates that the form of ‘power’ in focus is not solely attributable to the algorithm as such, but operates through distributed agency and can be noted as a network effect. That is, the conditions and consequences of algorithmic rules only come into being through the careful plaiting of relatively unstable associations of people, things, processes, documents and resources. From this we can say that power is not primarily social in the sense that algorithms alone create an impact on society, but social in the sense of power being derived through algorithmic associations. The paper argues that this kind of power is most clearly visible in moments of breakdown, failure or other forms of trouble, whereby algorithmic conditions and consequences are not met and the careful plaiting of associations has to be brought to the fore and examined. It is through such examinations that the associational dependencies more than the social power of algorithms are made apparent.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Surveillance/privacy, algorithms, association

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Sociology > Centre for Invention and Social Process (CISP) [2016-]


10 March 2016Published Online
15 February 2016Accepted

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

14 Apr 2016 14:05

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:17

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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