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Algorithmic Piety? The Creation and Use of Algorithms for the Good and Just in Islamic Finance

Attached to Paper Session

The nascent field of algorithm studies is rife with examples of how machine learning algorithms applied in fields from criminal justice to finance exacerbate social injustices (Noble 2018; Benjamin 2019). How does the human behind non-human algorithms understand, anticipate, or react to these results of algorithmic processes? What are some of the values that are attributed to algorithms, and what are forms of life that create and promote the use of algorithms? My paper examines finance companies’ claims that algorithms operate for the “good” and “just” in Muslim contexts. Investment companies, especially those that rely on financial technology, for example, are using algorithms to screen stocks and funds to provide socially responsible, ethical, sustainable, and impact investments. In this context, investment companies claim that not only do the accumulation and circulations of capital serve the good and just, so too do the algorithms behind those circulations. The main question of this ethnographic research is: How are algorithms made, designed, and owned through claims to serve various understandings of the good and just in financial settings, especially those structured by religious principles and pieties?

This paper draws on ethnographic research at American Muslim organizations that are creating new forms of capitalism in the name of contributing to individual and social well-being, including two investment-based companies, a crowdfunding platform, and a community-funding organization. During my conversations with the technology, product, and marketing teams at two of my fieldsites (US-based Islamic financial technology companies that operate in more than 100 countries), I recognized that new forms of capitalism are connecting not only investment and philanthropy but also algorithms to questions of justice and ethics. These companies claim that algorithms are useful tools that make it possible to have a greater impact on our communities and to take better care of the self, society, and nature. Algorithms in these contexts are claimed to augment human decisions under the control of human influence, as they cannot solve complex problems alone. This paper is motivated not only by my interest in understanding the ethical reasoning behind the use of algorithms but also by my larger research interest in imagining alternative socialities amidst overly criticized products and systems.

Working at the intersection of technology, capital, justice, and religion, my paper on algorithmic piety will contribute to scholarship on critical approaches to algorithms and capitalism through the lenses of racial, gender, and environmental justice. Critical works on algorithms, for example, have painstakingly demonstrated how algorithms exacerbate racism and sexism, among many other forms of injustice. Algorithms raise some other questions as well, such as the fear about the replacement of human judgment with machine intelligence, the elimination of the role of intention in automation processes, and attempts to manipulate human behavior that would threaten privacy. However, these crucial works on algorithms have not engaged with the human element behind the algorithms. My paper aims to contribute to this literature by analyzing how the designers, makers, and owners of these algorithms foreground certain algorithms through questions of ethics and justice. In addition to these critical works, my ethnographic research contributes to the theorization of ethical self-formation in the anthropology of religion and ethics by examining forms of life instead of focusing solely on the morality of the computation systems, and by connecting ethical decisions to understandings of justice in the use of algorithms in the setting of finance. Lastly, my paper contributes to ethnographic accounts at the intersection of Islam and economy by focusing on the accountability of capitalist and computation systems to exploited and racialized communities.

This paper consists of three parts. The first part examines the reasoning behind financial screening methods that rely on algorithms in these companies. The second part explores the use of algorithms in customer relationships and questions of privacy. And the third paper focuses on human and non-human relations, with an emphasis on moments when these companies require human interference in the use of algorithms.

In conclusion, this paper aims to contribute to scholarly conversations on the use of algorithms by examining how algorithms are being made, designed, and owned through claims to benefit individuals and solve social issues in finance settings, even as these claims overlook the larger financial structures and operations in which these algorithms are located.

References:

Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Cambridge: Polity, 2019.

Noble, Safiya. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, New York: NYU Press, 2018.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

This paper examines finance companies’ claims that algorithms operate for the “good” and “just” in Muslim contexts. The main question of this paper is: How are algorithms made, designed, and owned through claims to serve various understandings of the good and just in financial settings, especially those structured by religious principles and pieties? This paper aims to contribute to scholarly conversations on algorithms by examining how algorithms are used through claims to benefit individuals and solve social issues in finance settings, even as these claims overlook the larger financial structures and operations in which these algorithms are located. This paper draws on ethnographic research at American Muslim investment and giving-based organizations that are creating new forms of capitalism.

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