Alienation and Autonomous Machineries

story © Michael Betancourt, April 2, 2016 all rights reserved.


By considering how machine labor as an extension of human action--as the mechanical amplification of human labor--becomes the digital, the machine does not augment but supplant. This removal of the “human intermediary” whose importance "Taylorism" (aka "scientific management," proposed in The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911) removes from production (assembly-line labor is instrumental, not intelligent) is part of a continuous trajectory from tasks organized around repetitive action (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization) into the automation of actions in digital automation where computers leave only a limited role for humans. Taylor’s approach elides the individual’s expertise in performing their work, replacing it with decisions made by management--in the process eliminating their agency. This transformation renders human labor an appendage to the production process, necessary but incidental to the activity being performed—actions that are prescribed and fully delimited in advance of the work being done. It transforms the labor into an unintelligent rendering of managerial agency as the thinking required in production is no longer the domain of labor. For Taylor’s analysis the human decision is the “problem” to be removed from the production process, just as human labor (in the form of wages) is the expense that must be minimized to maintain profitability.

In removing the worker’s engagement in deciding the methods for doing a task and replacing those choices with a methodology produced through an empirical study it would be possible to increase efficiency enormously; a critical analysis that seeks to isolate and identify the essential actions for production, and become reified as the autonomous semiotic (and algorithmically determined) production via the organization and structure of cybernetics: the translation of this approach into an algorithm enables the elimination of human labor entirely and its replacement by digital technology. Alienation emerges within this framework as the expression of a set of semiotic codes that are indifferent to an established order; these altered codes are recognizable from the vertigo they can provoke. The emergence of digital technology (and by extension digital capitalism) is not a rupture with the historical processes of industrial capitalism but a amplification of its priorities reified in the productive methods and fragmentary protocols of industrial manufacturing.

The intransigence of unintelligent automation offers an illusion of objective, disinterested action: it masks the assumptions that take shape as the system itself, a reflection of the separation of agency and action that organizes autonomous systems generally. The gulf between the implementation of system protocols and the creation of those protocols emerges as this “objective” autonomous performance in which the machine does only what it has been constructed to do, and nothing more. The collateral results of these machines activity mirror their limiting protocols, since only those potentials that were anticipated (or planned) during the design and construction of the autonomous system find any place within it once built. For human labor, this separation is the foundational moment for the alienation of human labor from its agency, a division that becomes explicit in the Taylorist rationalization and organization of (human) labor into precisely regimented activities, each isolated and independent of each other: the fragmentation of the assembly line. ​Scientific management requires an active suppression of intelligent action by human labor, replaced by a rote, unintelligent process, one immediately recognizable as contiguous with the action of the digital, revealing the direct link between the industrial assembly line and autonomous machines. This fragmentation into discrete, quantified units that enable a specific type of discursive and analytic action informs the cybernetic approach, explained by the British pioneer of cybernetics William Ross Ashby in his book Introduction to Cybernetics as "fragmentation." This approach clarifies and strengthens its conception through a process of logical refinement that necessarily rejects the ambiguities of human action in favor of automation. It is not the vast differences between Ashby and Taylor, but their convergence in a logic of control and restriction that reveals the pervasive impact of capitalist eventualities that are reified in the digital:

Often a change occurs continuously, that is, by infinitesimal steps, as when the earth moves through space, or a sunbather’s skin darkens under exposure. The consideration of steps that are infinitesimal, however, raises a number of purely mathematical difficulties, so we shall avoid their consideration entirely. Instead, we shall assume in all cases that the changes occur by finite steps in time and that any difference is also finite. We shall assume that the change occurs by a measurable jump, as the money in a bank account changes by at least a penny. Though this supposition may seem artificial in a world in which continuity is common, it has great advantages in an Introduction and is not as artificial as it seems. When the differences are finite, all the important questions, as we shall see later, can be decided by simple counting, so that it is easy to be quite sure whether we are right or not. Were we to consider continuous changes we would often have to compare infinitesimal against infinitesimal, or to consider what we would have after adding together an infinite number of infinitesimals—questions by no means easy to answer.

[Ashby, W. Ross. Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, 1957) p. 9.]

Ashby’s process of “rationalization” is a productive model of sampling and isolation that unifies the industrial fragmentation of the assembly line with the protocols of digital automation. Control is the focus. Predetermined rules for assembly and permutation assume the same productive role as the fragmentation of physical action into discrete, sequential tasks. Control follows from an a priori definition where the identification of procedures depends on the results to be produced. It is not a “given.” This protocol produces radically different results depending on how the object being examined has been defined: the results are logical, but also fully contingent on the initial conditions of the analysis; at the same time it alienates that work from its functional and historical context, allowing a limited range of technical and aesthetic propositions and eliminating the others as “external.”

​The claims of rupture with physical and historical models common to the aura of the digital acts to obscure this common foundation, enabling the fantasy of the digital as a self productive domain independent of historical processed and earlier capitalism. This recognition counters the rhetoric of disruption accompanying the aura of the digital’s separation of physical and immaterial, revealing digital automation as an amplification that enacts the same elision of human agency as the industrial assembly line. Digital capitalism reflects an internalization of these demands, as well as a reification of earlier capitalist priorities. Digital capitalism is an invisible, ubiquitous and implicit reiteration of this ideology at both the heuristic level of praxis and in the theorization of that practice.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  April 2, 2016  all rights reserved.

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