- Toward the Elimination of Subjectivity:From Francis Bacon to AI
we are living in a world being remade in the image of numbers. Everywhere we turn we encounter techniques and technologies of quantification and ubiquitous talk of algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), metrics, audit, statistics, and more. They have become a part of the fabric of daily life and business, of economic and institutional routine. No domain or discipline is free of their influence or immune to their spreading deployment. The highly touted virtues of this remaking are familiar: increased efficiency and productivity, institutional accountability and responsiveness, health and safety, and ease and convenience. While these are compelling practical benefits, the turn to quantification, indeed its relentless imposition, cannot be explained in terms of merely functional or instrumental value. Deeper ethical and philosophical commitments are driving current ambitions. To bring these commitments into focus, I want to consider some historical context.
In the fervent embrace of the technologies of quantification, we are seeing an intensification of one of the master trends of modernity. For centuries, fueled by a desire for certainty and human betterment, a way of representing knowledge and persons in both science and administration (the two are closely linked) has been working itself out. Its trajectory has been toward an ever more austere understanding and increasing prizing of "objective" knowledge. This is a knowledge ideally free of our subjectivity and our embodiment; free, that is, of all those personal qualities that make us who we are; a [End Page 845] "knowledge without a knower" that can, in turn, be the basis for the conquest of nature, the taming of chance, the amplification of human powers, and the efficient and lawlike administration of social and political life.
Human history is complicated, contingent, and layered, so speaking of a master trend or the unfolding of the logic of philosophical commitments risks an indefensible oversimplification and determinism. My goal here, however, is to trace a moral commitment, an epistemology, and an accompanying logic of representation for which I think it is justified to speak of a master trend, even while acknowledging that historians have shown that developments toward objectivity, quantification, and the effacing of the subject have not always been linear, univocal, or uncontested. And, importantly, as philosophers of science have stressed, representations of science have often been inconsistent with the actual practices of science. In drawing out this genealogy, I will focus on figures who articulated a unified view of science (natural and social), its all-encompassing epistemology and method, and its utilitarian and moral ends. From the seventeenth century forward, modern science has had great social ambitions and has never been content with drawing limits on its proper domain. As the pioneering statistician Karl Pearson once observed, "The goal of science is clear—it is nothing short of the complete interpretation of the universe" (1911, 14). The moral end that animates the whole project is of a universal beneficence, and this humanitarian stance has infused visions of the role of science whether the imagined picture of the good society is liberal or illiberal. The goal has been to get to an impartial knowledge, a knowledge beyond dispute, which will invariably conduce to human benefit.
The deep commitments at work in this history continue to shape our world, our scientific practices, and our technological choices. In this history, we see reasons for the unbridled enthusiasm and sense of inevitability that surround algorithms, AI, and other forms of quantification. They promise to make good on old and cherished promises. [End Page 846]
THE ADMINISTRATION OF THINGS
In "Two Concepts of Liberty," his famous inaugural lecture as the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, Isaiah Berlin observed that when the ends of life are agreed upon, the only questions left are the possible means. And these questions, he says, are not "political but technical," capable, that is to say, "of being settled by experts or machines." This is why, Berlin continues,
those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological...