Newsletter #77: Human versus Machine, w/ Meredith Whittaker, Ed Ongweso, and Sarah West

By Maia Silber

Before it was a nearly obsolete Microsoft software, a “word processor” was the human secretary of the future. Heralded in 1970s office management periodicals, a new stenographic system promised to lighten executives’ workloads and reduce clerical staff sizes. Rather than dictate each individual letter he wrote to his personal secretary, a high-salaried “word originator” could now select a set of formulaic clauses corresponding to numerical codes input into an automatic typewriter; human staff would merely “process” particular names, addresses, and other variables. Once valued for their ability to write effective business correspondence, secretaries now needed only know how to fill in the blanks like Mad Libs.

“Word processing” and other much-advertised workplace technologies of the 1970s, wrote the revolutionary theorist Harry Braverman in his now-classic book Labor and Monopoly Capital, were not really novel innovations. Rather, they were means of doing with machines what capitalists had long done without them: discipline and control workers by alienating them from their work. Promising to free workers from toil, new workplace technologies only facilitated the process of deskilling that made their work drudgery in the first place. A machine, after all, could only replace a worker, whether on a factory assembly line or in an office, once her job no longer required creativity or craftmanship — in other words, once it no longer required her humanness.

The “AI Hype Machine,” as guests Meredith Whittaker, Edward Ongweso Jr., and Sarah Myers West argue on this week’s episode of The Dig, offers a fresh mystification of this longstanding truth. Whether celebrating it as humanity’s liberator or cowering from it as a sign of the so-called singularity, Silicon Valley represents AI as both as a radical new departure from technology’s history and the inevitable culmination of technology’s progress. These exaggerated framings obscure the banal reality that AI functions, much like other digital innovations of the recent past, primarily to enhance the power of the capitalist class that created and wields it. We shouldn’t mistake it, as even critics too often did in the case of gig platforms and facial recognition technology, as anything more than a new way of doing a very old thing.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

If there’s an optimistic note we might take from the depressing repetition of technological history, it’s that fighting Silicon Valley’s AI creations will require the old tools of class struggle as much as novel regulatory frameworks. Such struggles are already playing out in the labor movement: the Writer’s Guild of America, for instance, which began striking over payments for streamed content, is now demanding a ban on the use of AI to write film and television content. Such demands make clear that capitalists introduce new technologies at moments of labor ascendency and unrest. It seems like no coincidence that AI has arrived at a moment of unprecedented labor activism among “knowledge workers,” just as “word processing” arrived on the heels of clerical workers’ unionization. With technology, bosses aim to deny the existence of the humanity that workers assert.

The optimism in that recognition comes from this: we’re fighting not against technology, but for ourselves. We’ll win by insisting on the only real singularity, the capacity of the human spirit, joined with others, for creativity and comradeship.

Further Reading and Watching Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century is a masterful humanist reading of Capital, a history of scientific management, and an analysis of class formation in the 1970s. Jason Resnikoff’s Labor’s End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work is an excellent new intellectual history of automation. Desk Set is a very funny film from 1957 that spoofs the era’s automation discourse in ways that are sometimes regressive and sometimes radical, starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and a giant, smoke-chugging computer.

Topics: Capitalism Technology
Guests: Meredith Whittaker Edward Ongweso Jr