Plantations, Computers, Control

Meredith Whittaker

Logic(s) Magazine


“The blueprint for modern digital computing was codesigned by Charles Babbage, a vocal champion for the concerns of the emerging industrial capitalist class who condemned organized workers and viewed democracy and capitalism as incompatible”

“Babbage’s proto-Taylorist ideas on how to discipline workers are inextricably connected to the calculating engines he spent his life attempting to build”

“the engines—“the principles on which all modern computing machines are based”2—were envisioned as tools for automating and disciplining labor”

“Their architectures directly encoded economist Adam Smith’s theories of labor division and borrowed core functionality from technologies of labor control already in use”

“The engines were themselves tools for labor control, automating and disciplining not manual but mental labor”

“Babbage didn’t invent the theories that shaped his engines, nor did Smith. They were prefigured on the plantation, developed first as technologies to control enslaved people”

“Industrial methods of worker control were prefigured on plantations, which sought to maximize the labor of enslaved Black people otherwise unmotivated to produce value for those who kept them captive”

“The transfer of methods developed in slavery onto contractually governed “free” white labor regimes was aided by the structural similarities of plantation slavery and industrial factories”

“Plantation management guides routinely circulated among British capitalists, and an industry of preformatted accounting books, templates, and manuals was widely available in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often commingling with literature on industrial management”

“The severance of labor histories and technologies of worker control from their emergence on plantations circumscribes our capacity to identify contemporary predicaments around the nature of work and its relationship to race”

“Babbage’s early nineteenth-century theories of worker control helped shape industrial factory management and predated methods later codified under the term “scientific management” by Frederick Winslow Taylor”

“Babbage documented his ideas on labor discipline in his famous volume On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, published a year before Britain moved to abolish West Indian slavery”

“In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne demonstrates that power over enslaved people was executed through bureaucratic technologies that divided enslaved workers, prescribed their routines and motions, and calibrated their movements with the goal of managing and controlling “every moment of enslaved life.””

“Her work clarifies the interplay between the strict division and quantification of life and labor on plantations, and how such segmentation served to make enslaved people observable to overseers and managers”

“The fragmentation of production, whether in the field or the factory, shifts power away from those doing the work to owners who benefit from defining and overseeing a coherent view of workers and the labor process”

“Such a view doesn’t emerge on its own. Rather, it is produced through records, metrics, and standardized assessments—and we must understand the term “record keeping” to be a synonym for “surveillance.””

“Monitoring and quantification of work and workers was the first, and arguably most important, step in populating plantation records”

“Worker surveillance and control was also a central feature of Babbage’s theories. A chapter in Babbage’s treatise advises readers on what “data” those wishing to understand and manage factory operations should gather”

“For both Babbage and plantation managers and overseers, such surveillance fed into the design and redesign of labor arrangements, alongside distinct regimes of violence and discipline calibrated to increase profits and productivity”

“Division and stipulation of the labor process also serves to enable “fine tuning” based on the aggregate of such surveillance, creating a feedback loop of managerial oversight and discipline that has at its core plantation logics that view workers as quantifiable, fungible, and amenable to being arranged and rearranged from above”

“By representing people and their activities as quantifiable commodities, those wishing to exert control can do so while retaining plausible deniability about the collateral consequences of their decisions”

“In the context of slavery, trafficked and enslaved Black people were ranked, rated, and priced for sale or loan based on classifications that had as their central criteria the value of a person’s perceived productive capacity”

“Babbage also proposed mechanisms of worker valuation. In what labor scholar Harry Braverman termed the “Babbage principle,” Babbage detailed how dividing a complex task into simpler component parts, and designating these simpler parts “low skilled,” could justify paying the people who perform each part less”

“At the heart of the Babbage principle sits the implied right of an employer to define the value of work and the worker, and to do so by controlling the scope and method of the labor process”

“Babbage acknowledges that skill, like plantation valuation, is ultimately an index of how much profit a person is assumed to be able to produce. It is a reflection of the imperatives and judgment of capital, not the person who performs the work or the nature of the work they perform”

“Racial categories structure who is deemed able to possess skill to begin with, while marking a lack of skill as a condition of unfreedom and thus a condition of Blackness”

“In Babbage’s framework, (white) industrial workers are assumed to possess (some) skill, and thus to exist outside of the category of unfreedom ascribed to Black enslaved people. His application of labor division in the project of “deskilling” workers can be read as an effort to reduce, but not eliminate, workers’ freedom (skill). Babbage accomplished this by claiming for employers the right to define “skill,” alongside the right to structure the labor processes in order to strip as much “skill” as possible from “free” workers”

“Such practices of “deskilling,” theorized by Babbage, serve to accomplish and naturalize significant feats of control and degradation while maintaining the presumption of freedom”

“In 1830, precisely when Babbage was completing On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, a new and fierce wave of protest under the banner of the Swing Rebellion ripped through the country. White British workers burned agricultural equipment, destroyed industrial machinery, and distributed radical critiques of industrialization, resisting the encroachment of industry into traditional modes of labor”

“Nor was it a remote prospect that such rebellion would succeed: the French Revolution’s overthrow of the aristocracy was fresh, and it both inspired rebels and provoked alarm among British elites, who feared a repeat”

“The British slave trade was outlawed in 1807, and the years between 1807 and 1833—when British West Indian slavery was officially abolished—were a period of distressed debate in Britain, accompanied by regular uprisings across British plantations. These were also years that Babbage was actively developing his engines and his theories of worker control”

“For the British political class, the issue of slavery and abolition abroad and growing industrialization at home was “at its root, a labor problem.””

“British policymakers looked for effective models of labor discipline to pacify and control working populations, in hopes of producing workers capable of laboring at the scale and standards necessary for Britain to maintain its place”

“he understood the centrality of the “labor question” to discussions of abolition—particularly the question of how, in the absence of brutal enslavement, workers could be disciplined such that they could continue producing for capital without threatening profits”

“Babbage’s work developing theories of factory labor control and his lifelong pursuit of his calculating engines can be read together as two approaches to answering the same question: how to standardize and discipline work in service of capitalism and the British empire”

“Babbage envisioned his engines as tools of empire, justifying his requests for extensive government funding based on their prospective use in building navigational tables for the British navy”

“Division and rationalization of labor—specification of each piece of a given job in order to render the work process (and the people doing it) observable, quantifiable, and controllable “from above”—was, for Babbage, the enabling condition for automation”

“To design his Difference Engine, Babbage drew on templates for labor division created by Gaspard de Prony, France’s leading civil engineer. Babbage saw the engine as “the mechanical analogue of de Prony’s system.””

“As part of a postrevolutionary effort by the French government to standardize measurements across the nation, de Prony endeavored to build a massive set of complex logarithmic and trigonometric tables for the French Cadastre. When he accepted the task, de Prony wasn’t sure how he’d do it—there simply weren’t enough mathematicians to carry it out”

“de Prony encountered a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and, inspired by the text, he applied labor division to the task of calculation. He segmented human “calculators” into three hierarchical levels, with the largest and “least skilled” level comprising sixty to eighty clerks”

“A scant handful of “most skilled” mathematicians worked to develop the instructions that those in the middle and bottom levels were tasked to follow”

“Babbage’s Difference Engines were explicitly designed to automate the work of the “least skilled” mathematicians—the sixty to eighty former hairdressers—encoding templates of labor division and control”

“Babbage’s second engine, the Analytical Engine, was designed with Ada Lovelace. Directly prefiguring modern computation, it owed a particular debt to another industrial-era labor-automation device that also relied on rigid structures of labor division: the Jacquard Loom”

“An evolution of older mechanical-loom designs, the apparatus used punch cards to standardize and enforce complex weaving patterns, while regimenting and disciplining the workers tasked with attending them”

“It was the punch cards, inspired by the loom, that constituted the “program” that the programmable Analytical Engine was designed to operationalize”

“The advantages of the Analytical Engine compared to the earlier Difference Engine are also described in terms of their capacity to do (or automate) more labor than their predecessor, while at the same time regimenting the work of their human operators”

“The engine encodes instructions from overseers (“the first layer”), and workmen are tasked not simply with obeying instructions but with tending a machine programmed to enforce obedience”

“Both of Babbage’s engines were also designed to surveil the workmen who would be tasked with attending them. Their design complexity was vastly increased, and their feasibility decreased, by Babbage’s insistence that they print out the results of their calculation throughout the process”

“Such reflexive documentation is helpful for debugging errors. But it is also, unequivocally, a mechanism for worker surveillance, recording the progress and potential missteps of whoever would be employed to operate the engines”

“While the bulk of Babbage’s writing sings the praises of automation and mechanization, the benefits he names always accrue to capitalists—including the disciplinary check that automation provides “against the inattention, the idleness, or the dishonesty of human agents.””

“The architectures of Babbage’s engines are bound with his theories of labor control, and his engines served as one of the multiple mechanisms by which he sought to discipline workers. And at the root of his larger project of industrial labor discipline lie plantation logics and technologies”

“The links between computation, plantation technology, and industrial labor control raise questions well beyond who gets to control systems of automation and computation in the present, assuming that systems controlled by those with benevolent intentions will produce positive outcomes”

“Dan Mcquillan, Resisting AI: An Anti-fascist Approach to Artificial Intelligence (Bristol, UK, Bristol University Press, 2022), 25; Nathan Rosenberg, Exploring the Black Box: Technology, Economics, and History, (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1994), 24-46; Sun-ha Hong. “Prediction as extraction of discretion.” Big Data & Society, 10, no. 1 (2023); Matteo Pasquinelli. “On the origins of Marx’s general intellect.” Radical Philosophy 206 (2019). 43–56; Stein, Dorothy K. “Lady Lovelace’s Notes: Technical Text and Cultural Context.” Victorian Studies 28, no. 1 (1984). 33–67; Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “World Machines: The Steam Engine, The Railway, and The Computer.” Log, no. 33 (2015). 54–61”

“Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)”

“Ursula M. Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1999)”

“The Difference Engine was envisioned as a complex automated calculator that would use the method of divided differences to compute polynomial functions, useful for producing complex mathematical tables much used in navigation. The Analytical Engine was designed to offer flexibility that the Difference Engine did not, allowing those operating it to “program” the engine via punched cards. Modern computing only moved away from the punch card in 1970s, and the Analytical Engine laying out the basic architecture for digital computation that persists today, introducing separate memory (“mill”) and processing (“store”) components, and an input/output system, all choreographed via the program encoded on the cards. Neither were completed during Babbage’s lifetime”

“James Essinger, Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)”

“Luigi Federico Menabrea, Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, trans. Ada Lovelace (1843; repr., n.p.: Quaternion, 2020)”

“In her detailed notes which accompanied her translation of Menabrea’s article, Lovelace assures readers that while its powers (to automate and displace labor) are great, the Engine will remain under “our” control: “It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” Here we see a perfect encapsulation of the tension between the will to automate and control others’ and the fear that such automation could potentially expand to control “us” as well as “them.””

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