The Silicon Cage: “Legitimate” governance 100 years after Weber

I presented this paper at the Data Power conference at the University of Bremen in September 2019.


In “Politics as a Vocation”, the lecture that he gave one hundred years ago, Max Weber offered what would become one of his most influential ideas: that a state is that which “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. Such use of violence, Weber argued, is legitimated in one of three distinct ways: by “tradition”, by “charisma”, or by the “virtue of ‘legality’ … the belief in the validity of legal statute … based on rationally created rules”.

In this centennial year of Weber’s lecture, much has been made of Weber’s prescience regarding modern-day charismatic demagogues. Yet it is in the conceptualisation of “legal-rational” legitimacy that greater purchase may be found when we grapple with the use of data and algorithms in contemporary society. As I will argue, the “iron cage” that Weber identified, which serves to constrain human freedom through the coercive combination of efficiency and calculation, has been supplanted. Today, we instead occupy what might be called a “silicon cage”, resulting from a step change in the nature and extent of calculation and prediction relating to people’s activities and intentions.

Moreover, while the bureaucratisation that Weber described was already entwined with a capitalist logic, the silicon cage of today has emerged from an even firmer embedding of the tools, practices and ideologies of capitalist enterprise in the rules-based (we might say algorithmic) governance of everyday life. Alternative arrangements present themselves, however, in the form of both “agonistic” and “cooperative” democracy.