Efficiency is murder

Last month I talked about how technology can function as a proxy for policy. And just last week, came a story that shows how much trauma and pain this dynamic can cause.

"...when Seiler’s [a 40-year old with cerebral palsy, and reliant on state support for basic care] home state of Idaho created an automated system – an algorithm – to apportion home care assistance for people with disabilities in 2008, it cut his home care budget in half. He faced being unable to even use the bathroom at reasonable interval."

This horrible combination of 'technology for efficiency' and the state bringing the hammer down on vulnerable populations got me digging more into two other ideas:

  1. 'necropolitics' and how it connects to technology and
  2. in turn, how 'efficiency' launders politics

The more I think about this the more complicated it gets in my brain space. I will probably keep writing about this, and welcome ideas in the comments. To my academic friends, apologies in advance for the probable Columbusing below...

Necropolitics

Once you learn what necropolitics is, it will be hard to unsee. In everything. I blame my friend Dr. Matt Mahomoudi for pointing me to it at all. Necropolitics, in a nutshell, is the power of the state to take actions and make policies that cause harm and death. The state has the power to allocate resources, punish citizens, and force conformity to systems in ways that result in social, political, and physical harm for individuals and communities.

I've been thinking about the implications of necropolitics for our current governance of technology. Because the choices made by those who procure, build, sell and distribute technology are also policy choices, this means that non-experts and unelected representatives are engaging in necropolitics when they build technology for states. And they are exercising this necropolitics on unassuming individuals and communities who have few mechanisms to push back or shape the decisions so viscerally affecting them.

How 'efficiency' launders politics

Managerialism has always bothered me. It's the idea that you can apply a cold set of objective skills and processes to improve performance of the state. But for who? To do what? And who decides? By asserting efficiency as a primary objective of technical design and development in state activity, we launder politics. Rather than having to explain why resources are so limited as to require cost-saving interventions, or articulate what services should be provided at what quality to which constituents, policymakers and politicians herald 'efficiency' as a generic good.

Governments want to deliver on 'efficiency' for the loudest, and to build credibility among constituents who have been brainwashed into thinking that a government budget is like the budget of a household. The media echo this reductionist worldview — reducing costs and increasing efficiency is great! Right? All of this adds weight to the system that is constructed to cause harm on those out of eyeline of power. It leads to facile and uncritical trust in anything with a veneer of technology meant to 'optimise' the state.

The power of the state isn't something to trifle with. It requires a legitimacy derived from representation, and a respect for the wide ranging effects that policy has. Increasingly it requires respect for the ways that technology encodes, changes, and hardens that policy.

Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant said “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” I would argue that there is nothing so harmful as prioritising efficiency over quality — especially when you are a state, inherently involved in the high stakes work of necropolitics.

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