Two of the major touchstones for discussions of algorithmic bias in librarianship are Matthew Reidsma’s 2016 article “ALGORITHMIC BIAS IN LIBRARY DISCOVERY SYSTEMS” and Safiya Noble’s Algorithm’s of Oppression from 2018. Both of these pieces discuss the encoding of particular social values within ostensibly “neutral” algorithms. Earlier this year, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented on built-in algorithmic bias, especially in facial-recognition software, she was predictably called out by engineers, computer scientists, and politicians, who want to believe - or claim for political reasons - that algorithms are “mathematically neutral”, pure expressions of disinterested reason. The question I am interested here is not that algorithmic bias exists, but the ways the values of particular actors - in this case software developers, engineers, and the corporations that employ them get encoded in the software in the first place. And I want to do this by looking at Marx’s theory of technology, and in particular the “fragment on machines” written in 1858.
In Capital, Marx tends to understand machinery as the embodiment primarily of past material labour. Because industrial machinery is produced using the same human labour as all other products, it holds the commodity value of all that prior labour, “paying it forward” into the value of the commodity it, in turn, is used to produce. Only human labour can produce new value, but the stored-up value of the machinery is transferred piecemeal to each individual commodity produced by that machine, which results in depreciation. Machinery has the added effect of reducing the amount of new labour time required for the production of commodities, which means that the addition of machinery or the invention of new machinery is able to replace human labour (i.e. automation), reducing its share of the production process and therefore its cost. As the cost of human labour goes down, the capitalist’s profit margins go up, at least until the use of the new machinery becomes generalized, and profits even out once more. However, because human labour is the only thing that can produce new value (machinery can only transfer existing value already embodied within it), over time - and mitigated by countervailing tendencies - the general rate of profit in capitalist society tends to fall.
In the “rough draft” of Capital that Marx wrote in 1857-58, the Grundrisse, he takes a less objective or scientific view of the process of capitalist production. Antonio Negri has characterized the Grundrisse as a book about “revolutionary subjectivity”, that is, what it is actually like to live in a capitalist society. One of the most interesting things in the Grundrisse is the constant antagonism between the dead labour of the means of production and the living labour of workers. In the “fragment on machines”, Marx foresees the end-result of the process described above. On the one hand, the increasing replacement of living labour by machinery could mean that capital will succeed in freeing itself from its requirement on (expensive, troublesome, antagonistic) labour, resulting in a capitalist utopia where profits are made automatically, by machine only, in the blink of an eye. This is the dream of neoliberal financial automation which played such a major role in the global financial crisis of 2007-9.
On the other hand, however, the reduction of labour time to zero means that “capitalism” as a system which functions by the extraction of surplus labour and whose very concepts of value and profit are constructed according to the difference between necessary and superfluous labour time, can no longer function. The very idea of “profit” becomes incoherent as full automation replaces the need for human labour at all. The adherents of “fully automated luxury communism” believe that at this point capitalism seamlessly transitions to communism, a communism in which all the conveniences of modern life are still in existence. In my opinion, this is a naive view, as the “fragment of machines” doesn’t present the two alternatives chronologically (one moving directly into the other), nor as deterministic, in the sense that either situation (or both, in a chronological sense) must come to pass. It is better to see in the fragment of machines a descriptive rather than a normative account of contemporary capitalism, where both the crushing alienation of modern technology and its liberatory potential coexist as one of the many unstable contradictions of capitalism.
What is significant in the fragment on machines, and what has provided the basis for many of the theories of “cognitive capitalism” is that machinery no longer merely represents the embodied manual labour of the industrial worker, but equally represents stored-up intellectual work. Eventually, this results in a situation in which manual labour - measured abstractly only as labour-time - takes a subordinate position compared with its dominance in the period of industrial capitalism. It is reduced to an “indispensable but subordinate moment, compared to general scientific labour, technological application of natural sciences, on one side, and to the general productive force arising from social combination in total production on the other side” (Marx, Grundrisse, 700). This is the moment of decentralized (“crowdsourced”) labour in the age of algorithms. Algorithms, just as much as James Watt’s steam engine, is the embodiment of intellectual labour in a commoditized form, entering as means of production or “virtual machinery” into our new production processes. Seen this way, algorithms are far from mathematically pure natural objects or raw materials, they are the embodiment of past (intellectual) labour which, unlike abstract manual labour, has no choice but to encode or embody the ideas, opinions, values of the workers themselves. Franco Berardi, in The Soul at Work, argues that it is precisely the differences between the personalities of intellectual workers (developed through education, training, experience, etc) that makes their labour (for now, anyway) irreducible to an abstract quantity like labour-time. Intellectual labour, unlike the atomistic abstract labour described by, say, Adam Smith, is not interchangeable.
In a famous passage in the fragment on machines, Marx characterizes these products of human ingenuity as socially embedded forces of production:
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital [i.e. machinery, software] indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.
Marx, Grundrisse, 706.
It is in this way that the tensions, antagonisms, inequalities, and contradictions are reified within the means of production. The transition from a regime of manual labour to one of immaterial (cognitive, intellectual, affective) labour requires capitalism to seek to automate such labour as much as possible (according to the logic developed in the industrial period). The automation of manual labour runs along a timeline from the steam engine and jenny to the most advanced industrial robots; the automation of intellectual labour a timeline from the earliest algorithms to the most advanced AI techniques (which are, after all, still algorithms).
I disagree with many of the theorists of cognitive capitalism that we are currently entering the phase of the disintegration of the capitalist mode of production. We are simply moving out of the period of artisanal algorithmic production into the period of mass production of algorithms (i.e software written by software, self-modifying software, learning software), which has been around for decades, but which has only really come into its own since 2011. Capitalism will need to follow its usual path of subsumption and automation, and the misery of the working class must continue to increase, and we must go through yet more cycles of economic crisis, before the final conflict between profit and human life finally comes to a resolution.
NOTE: the copy of the Grundrisse I’m working from is the Allen Lane/Penguin/New Left Review edition from 1973, translated by Martin Nicolaus.