Christian Pentzold

This essay aims to study how subjectivity, autonomy, agency, and empowerment become defined and reconfigured in novel human-machine encounters and, more broadly, in societies which in large parts are kept going and sustained by complex digital infrastructures. With a view to communication, automation converts the production of content, the distribution of information and messages, the curation of media use, and the governance of our networked lives into machine operations. All of these areas are increasingly shaped by algorithmically-driven processes and automated agents. They help to automate the selection and filtering of news feeds and search engines, they attribute relevance and popularity, perform content moderation and fact-checking. Automated agents like social bots participate in organizational communication such as customer service and, as a potential force of manipulation, also seem to intervene in election campaigns. The most recent iteration of technologies and products labeled as AI are driven by ambitions to delegate physical motoric functions, cognitive processes, decisions, and evaluations to increasingly autonomous and capable technology. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that automation is not a one-way transfer from humans to machines. Rather, we also witness environments where people come to act in an automatic fashion, where human contributions feed into processes of automation and help to improve technological systems and optimization processes that we have become used to call “machine learning”.