Every day, it seems, we are assaulted by articles about AI, each more idiotic than the previous, whether in the form of the chittering of economic journalists or the pseudo-philosophical sub-Netflix chuntering regarding the “singularity” and other impending scenarios of doom for the human race. It is remarkable to see the abstract concepts of the Western Marxist tradition such as “alienation”, “reification”, “commodity fetishism”, “determinism” and so on come alive and skitter across the page or screen when this subject is discussed.
Drawing from the well of Italian operaismo – particularly figures such as Romano Alquati, Raniero Panzieri (as well as thinkers such as Alfred Sohn-Rethel) – which sought to enact a proletarian Copernican revolution in the understanding of the relationship between technology and the labour process, capital and the working class, Matteo Pasquinelli, in his new book The Eye of the Master: A Social History of Artificial Intelligence, offers us welcome relief. Professor of media philosophy at the University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe (HFG), but currently based at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (and introduced to me via McKenzie Wark, who has a sharp eye for promising scholarship), Pasquinelli offers us in this work a fascinating new, revisionist genealogy of AI, which ranges from Adam Smith, Charles Babbage, the English Ricardian socialists Thomas Hodgskin and William Thompson, and Karl Marx (the famous, much chewed-over lines in the Grundrisse, in particular) to Friedrich von Hayek, via the what to me are the unfamiliar debates regarding the self-organisation of organisms and machine, artificial neural networks, the Gestalt controversy and the “perceptron”. But, more than this, he informs his account with a “labour theory of automation” that reconnects this history of AI to struggles over the measurement, discipline, and intensification of work, from Taylor onwards.
A work of historicisation, demystification and political critique, The Eye of the Master will allow you to shut down any future tiresome dinner table conversations on the matter with the following quote, just before marching out: “What is AI? A dominant view describes it as the quest ‘to solve intelligence’ – a solution supposedly to be found in the secret logic of the mind or in the deep physiology of the brain, such as in its complex neural networks. In this book I argue, to the contrary, that the inner code of AI is constituted not by the imitation of biological intelligence but by the intelligence of labour and social relations”.
Sebastian Budgen, Editorial Director, Verso Books
Paris, October 2023
The Eye of the Master: A Social History of Artificial Intelligence is one of our November Verso Book Club reading selections! See more about the Verso Book Club here.
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