A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control

Cheney-Lippold J. A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control. Theory, Culture & Society. 2011;28(6):164-181. doi:10.1177/0263276411424420

The tracking capability of the web is being used to amass large amounts of information about each individual. Cheney-Lippold calls this "a new algorithmic identity," an identity inferred about otherwise anonymous individuals through algorithms. "It uses statistical commonality models to determine one's gender, class, or race in an automatic manner at the same time as it defines the actual meaning of gender, class, or race themselves." This article is aimed at examining the consequences of algorithmic identity.

Identities like gender are not inferred in the same manner as offline inferences (e.g., using appearance). Rather, they are inferring through web activity. Identities are being constructed on behalf of individuals rather than by them.

"Code as architecture works to structure the boundaries, as well as regulate the flows, of internet traffic ... Code is part of a dynamic relationship to the real world, one that can ‘automatically and continuously’ affect life chances offered to users based on a pre-configured but also reflexive programmed logic." Even in cases where code allows user facing choices, like selecting gender from a drop down menu, it is delimiting those choices in some way (e.g., only a select number of options, to reflect in the underlying database) and it is always formed by cultural discourse. Defining variables in code are not objective facts but culturally situated decisions. The author argues that defining a variable to identify particular groups operates "largely through the marketing logic of consumption." Such choices are rooted in marketing history, where class (and race) were determined by zip code. The statistical power of algorithms synthesized with the Internet transformed marketing as "consumer information was removed from the shackles of time-bound, decadal census data and began to float atop a constant stream of real-time web use that can be matched against existing behavior and identity models – like gender." Aggregated information might also lead to changes in a user's profile, easily allowing for transition from a classification of male to female for marketing purposes. Gender becomes a non-essentialist category that nonetheless reinforces its essentialism: the algorithm "de-essentializes gender from its corporeal and societal forms and determinations while it also re-essentializes gender as a statistically-related, largely market research-driven category.

He argues that the process of control is one of Deleuzeian societies of control, where power is often not directly enacted on the body but through "a series of guiding, determining, and persuasive mechanisms of power." Regulation in code "tether[s] the potential for alternative futures to our previous actions as users based on consumption and research for consumption." He calls this a soft biopower, the use of categories of biopower like gender being applied in more indirect processes, through categories that adapt to the dynamicism of original population controls. Pre-determined biases about gender, race, class, age, and more are reified online. "The softer versions of biopower and biopolitics supplement the discursive production of categories’ meanings, as it is also through data and statistical analysis that conceptions of gender change – not just through discourse and its subsequent naturalization." Users appear to have some level of freedom, but are also constantly conditioned. He writes:

"Instead of standards of maleness defining and disciplining bodies according to an ideal type of maleness, standards of maleness can be suggested to users based on one's presumed digital identity, from which the success of identification can be measured according to ad click-through rates, page views, and other assorted feedback mechanisms. The regulation of gender as a category then becomes wholly embedded within the logic of consumption, where categorical behaviors are statistically defined through a cybernetics of purchasing and research that marketers have deemed valuable for identification and categorization."