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Chapter: I T Revolution Forum
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Tessa Morris-Suzuki 1 Excerpts from 'Robots and Capitalism'; published in 'Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution', edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirsch and Michael Stack, published by Verso, 1997; page 16.
Jim Davis & Michael Stack 2 Excerpts from 'The Digital Advantage'; published in 'Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution', edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirsch and Michael Stack, published by Verso, 1997; page 121.
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Que sera sera ... we can only dream of a world free of want: where the promise of science is fulfilled; where knowledge is unleashed as a social force. We would like to believe that such a future is on the horizon of Bengal. However, to seize this vision, it must be taken up, struggled over, articulated, popularized and made into a material force.

But what can 'Future Vision' do? For too long, the debate about social change has been focussed around old world concepts of a world fast disappearing. We must pose the proper questions, not just towards understanding the world we live in, but towards changing it. New ideas are needed to annihilate the accumulation of exhausted ideas.

Hopefully, 'Future Vision' will contribute to that effort. Join us ... send us your contributions and thoughts: mailto: sankalpatrust@hotmail.com.
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1. Excerpts from 'Robots and Capitalism' by Tessa Morris-Suzuki; in 'Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution', edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirsch and Michael Stack, published by Verso, 1997; page 16.
A single image, captured in countless recent press photographs, expresses a central paradox of contemporary capitalism. The picture is one of a worker, typically a highly skilled spray painter, guiding the arm of a robot through the motions of a precise and complete task. The machine - a continuous-path play-back robot - will then be able endlessly to replicate the exact movements of the human being. Almost certainly, the worker who has been selected to teach the robot is the most experienced or the most efficient of this section of the factory's workforce. According to one's point of view, the picture may be seen as representing the ever-progressing triumph of technology, or the ultimate irony of automation - the mechanization of a dreary and potentially dangerous job, or the moment at which years of carefully acquired skill are transferred to an inanimate object, and the human individual is simultaneously rendered redundant ...

Robots and the limits of Capitalism
But beyond this, the image also symbolizes a crucial issue for our understanding of the present nature and future destiny of the capitalist system. It confronts us with the instant at which living labour ceases to be involved in the productive process, and therefore, according to the labor theory of value, the instant at which this fragment of the productive process ceases to generate surplus value. Envisaging the same event repeated hundreds of times - as it has been in the past few years - we seem inexorably to be propelled towards the conclusions put forward by Ernest Mandel.

In his work Late Capitalism, first published in the early 1970s, Mandel argued that the process of automation constituted the critical contradictory force within the development of capitalism:

    ... we have here arrived at the absolute inner limit of the capitalist mode of production. This absolute limit ... lies in the fact that the mass of surplus-value itself necessarily diminishes as a result of the elimination of living labor from the production process in the course of the final stage of mechanization-automation. Capitalism is incompatible with fully automated production in the whole industry and agriculture, because this no longer allows the creation of surplus-value or valorization of capital. It is hence impossible for automation to spread to the entire realm of production in the age of late capitalism.
The vision of automation as the end of capitalism is not a new one. Mandel's views are clearly rooted in Marx's concept of capitalist development: a process blindly generating, through its own progressive yet self-destructive forces, the seeds of a socialist society, 'where labour in which a human being does what a thing could do has ceased'. Indeed, the Marxist notion of automation as the harbinger of the end of capitalism has found an echo - albeit in a typically woolly and indistinct echo - in the writings of neoconservative futurologists such as Daniel Bell. Bell has painted a picture of a post-industrial or information society in which, not only manual labor, but also the centrality of private property and profit maximization will, it appears, gradually and painlessly wither away: '... the social forms of managerial capitalism - the corporate business enterprises, private decision on investment, the differential privileges based on control of property - are likely to remain for a long time. And yet, the functional basis of the system is changing and the lineaments of a new society are visible ... In the new society which is emerging, individual property is losing its social purpose ... and function stands alone.'

... The present situation is obviously very far from the state of total automation which Mandel depicts as the limit of capitalism. But if we accept his view that automated enterprise can make profits only parasitically, by absorbing the surplus value created in other parts of the economy, and that the rising level of automation must therefore be accompanied by increasing exploitation of the remaining labour force or by falling average levels of profit, then it would seem that major capitalist economies are rushing towards their doom like Gadarene swine ...

The Fission of the Labor Process
Automation has traditionally been viewed as a linear process by which machines grow larger and larger, and workers fewer and fewer, until all that remains is the single megamachine - monument to the hollow victory of capital - presiding over a factory devoid of human laborers: 'An organized system of machines to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, in place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs'.
In actual fact, though, the phase of automation which began to gather momentum in the 1970s was not simply the direct continuation of the prolonged historical process of mechanization, but was based on a principle which marked a radical departure from earlier forms of the development of machinery. This principle is the separation of hardware from software: a separation which may be seen as constituting a revolutionary fission of the labor process itself.

To understand the nature of this fission we need to consider, very briefly, the relationship between knowledge, labor and machinery. We can begin by observing that all labor involves the purposeful application of human knowledge to the natural world. In its simplest form, this application occurs directly without the intervention of tools or machinery, as when the women of hunter-gatherer communities picked reeds and grasses and wove them into baskets. Tools, and later machines, contain not only labor but also knowledge: they preserve and diffuse slowly accumulating human understanding of ways by which labor can be made easier and more productive. So knowledge has been a crucial element in production at all times, but for much of history its significance has been obscured by the fact that it could play a part in production only when embodied in the worker or in the machine.

The separation of knowledge from labor and machinery, and its emergence as an independent commodity and element in production has been a gradual process dating back to the very beginnings of capitalism. Essential steps in the process were popularization of the printed book, and later the creation of patent and copyright systems. These latter measures were crucial because the special properties of knowledge (its lack of material substance; the ease with which it can be copied and transmitted) mean that it can only acquire exchange value where institutional arrangements confer a degree of monopoly power on its owner.

Software represents a special form of the commodification of knowledge. Its origins go back at least to the invention of the jacquard loom in the 19th century, but it was only with the development of computing in the 1950s and 1960s that it began to have real economic importance. Software in essence consists of instructions for performing a particular task, and a major technological key to the growth of computing was the creation of means by which these instructions could be readily stored and fed into a machine. It is this technological key, applied to industrial production that provides the impetus behind the current wave of automation.

The distinctive characteristic of the robot is its ability to be programmed to perform a number of different tasks, or to vary its action in response to changing external circumstances. For this reason, robots, unlike conventional mass production techniques, are particularly applicable to the production of small batches of varied products. In the earliest robots, movements were controlled by altering electrical connections in a plugboard. More recent versions are programmed by the playback system (described at the beginning of this article) or by a 'teach box' in which buttons or a joystick are used to define the movements of the machine. But increasingly, the trend is towards large automated systems - so-called 'flexible manufacturing systems' - controlled by software written in specialized programming languages. This enables robots to perform complex and coordinated actions, and to mimic more closely the flexibility and responsiveness of the human worker.

The significance of the application of software to manufacturing, therefore, is first that a single machine may be made to vary its movement without alteration to its mechanical structure; but second, and most important, that the worker's knowledge can be separated from the physical body of worker and may itself become a commodity. Until now, the productive process has always implied the bringing together of machinery and human labor (in whatever proportions.) Those who controlled the process extracted more labour from their workforce than they paid for. But it was still correct for Braverman to observe that :
"labor, like all life processes and bodily functions, is an inalienable property of the human individual. Muscle and brain cannot be separated from the person possessing them ... Thus, in the exchange, the worker does not surrender to the capitalist his or her capacity for work. The worker retains it, and the capitalist can take advantage of the bargain only by setting the worker to work."

But with the use of software in production the situation is fundamentally altered. As can be seen in the case of the spray-painter and the play-back robot, the worker does in a very real sense 'surrender to the capitalist his or her capacity for work'. The physical coming together of worker and machine is sundered, and we are left with, on the one hand, machines which work automatically, endlessly responding to instructions provided by workers who may be physically far removed from the production site; and, on the other, the increasing channeling of living labor into the process of designing, composing and altering those instructions themselves.

[Reminder from Essem: This presentation is only an extract. Please read the full article for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.]

Comment # 1: Received from:

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2. Excerpts from 'The Digital Advantage' by Jim Davis and Michael Stack; published in 'Cutting Edge: Technology, Information, Capitalism and Social Revolution', edited by Jim Davis, Thomas Hirsch and Michael Stack, published by Verso, 1997; page 121.
'Information Superhighway' and 'National Information Infrastructure' are popular labels applied to recent political, technical and economic trends in the communications and information industries ... The data packet traveling digital networks is the boxcar of the Information Economy. The deployment of digital communications and transport thus has economy-wide repercussions ... 

Communication is the transfer of information from one store to another. For communication to take place, the sender and receiver must agree on a vehicle of conveyance. This is the signal, a detectable physical phenomenon such as staccato pulses of light traveling through glass fiber or sound waves through air. An agreement must also exist between the communicators as to how the signal represents information ("Two knocks mean yes, one means no"). This is the code. For example, the computer networking standard called ethernet is a code that specifies how computers signal data over connecting wires. Language is thus a social agreement on the physical expression of mental compositions.

The Digital Rendition
A digital rendition of information is first of all a signal coding suited to machine perception and handling. The digital representation uses an alphabet complete in two characters. The characters are at either end of physical representable extremes: on or off, negative or positive, low voltage or high voltage. Any degrees between the two poles are rounded off to one of the extremes. As such, the digital representation is an abstraction. The symbols 1 and 0 are attached arbitrarily to the two physical extremes as an aid in denoting digital sequences. The discrete physical location where these digital characters manifest themselves is in the bit.

The more bits that are allocated to the rendering, the more degrees of detail that can be represented. These degrees correlate with machines and media resources. Finer, more detailed renderings consume more resources. Terms such as 'sampling rates' and '24-bit color' describe the degree of renderable detail of which the particular recorders and playback machines are capable.

Although a digital rendition involves a compromise between the continuous phenomena of nature and the pointillist representation of the digital bits, the technical advantages of bits yield compelling economic arguments for widespread and rapid digitization:

  • digital is a 'universal rendering'
  • digital machines are relatively cheap replacements for labor; and 
  • digital rendering is resource-conservative.
A 'Universal Rendering'
We live amidst a babel of information representations, a variety of technologies having having been developed to record various types of phenomena. Visual images have been written on photosensitive film. Sound has been saved as analog scratches on petroleum derivative platters, or as analog patterns on magnetic tape. Statistics, reports and other information have been recorded as language codes on paper.

When phenomena are written digitally (coded into sequences of 1s and 0s), the recorded image floats free of the method or capture and its complementary object media. Digitized images, sound and other forms of data may instead be stored by any number of methods: electromagnetically, optically or even as punched holes in paper. At the levels of 1s and 0s, all recordings are equal in their representations. A compact disc can contain music, video, text or a mixture of all three. Economies of scale push down the cost of recording, storage and playback. With a medium-independent rendering, storage can be chosen on the basis of factors such as retrieval speed or longevity, not on the content that is being stored. In the same manner, digital channels, whether wired or wireless, are information indiscriminate. Multiple conduits like cable, fiber or microwave can transport the digital rendition: each has its advantages and drawbacks. But where before there might have been only one means of conveyance, now what is being carried no longer dictates the mode of delivery.

With digital's discrete representation, once digitally rendered , a copy may be made across media and machine-verified for exactness. Digital copies are exact copies: a copy of a copy of a copy will be identical to the original. Copying - analogous to 'printing' on an offset press, or 'pressing' phonograph records - is extremely cheap, using virtually no human labour or materials in the process, as digital machines transfer the original digital sequence to new media. This benefit applies irrespective of what is being copied, whether it be a $700 QuarkXPress computer software program, a sound recording of John Cage's 4' 33", or an image of the Mona Lisa with a mustache.

Digital Machines
Computers are machines that record, manipulate and play back digital representations, operating at speeds and levels of discernment beyond the abilities of humans. The steady decline in the price of computers has made the rapid spread of digital rendering feasible: the $149 Nintendo 64 video-game player is more powerful than a $14 million 1976-era Cray-1 supercomputer. As a writer in Scientific American  observed at the beginning of the decade, "Computers have grown so powerful and cost-effective that they can found nearly everywhere doing nearly everything."

There is nothing mystical about computers. Computers are simply sophisticated machines, acting on  electrical signals at specific, addressable locations. A machine's action can be made conditional upon physical phenomenon such as feedback from other areas of the machine, or on signals fed from the outside, for example, by a human operator. So also with computers: an exterior agent may send a signal such that, in concert with defining etchings and in consideration of just-previous conditions, the computer produces a well-defined result (which is also a signal). This output may be saved in other computer chips, or in some storage medium for later recall. Amplified, this signal may play a sound or turn a servo motor in a robot. joint. With a multiplicity of possible input combinations and feeding sequences, computers may - as theorized by Alan Turing - 'solve almost any logical or mathematical problem' ...

The penetration of production and distribution by digital machines is already profound. Increasingly, sophisticated tasks are represented in software in a wide range of industries. Programmable digital switches and voice-recognition software have been used to decimate the ranks of telephone operators. Movie locations and actors can be digitally added to film and animated, saving production companies time and money (and labor) as more of the shoot is done under controlled conditions in the studio. A $100 software program holds sufficient balance between cliché, new variables and rough prose to replace a $1,500-a-month sports reporter. Aircraft and other industrial design work can be done within a virtual, computer-constructed reality - Boeing's 777 airliner as designed, modeled and tested digitally before any planes were built. The phrase 'dark factories' - where the lights are rarely turned on, because no humans work the production lines - describe the emerging production site.

Resource Conservation
As noted above, recorded information consumes material resources. Although the digital representation is verbose (for example, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange - ASCII - uses eight 1s and 0s to represent each character of the alphabet), the simplicity of digital encoding allows designers to exploit basic physical phenomena. As advances are made in material sciences, digital bits can be stored in smaller and smaller spaces. For example, contemporary magnetic media (similar to recording tape or computer disks) can fit 570 billion bits - approximately 35 million typed, double-spaced pages - onto a surface area of one square inch. While a letter symbol rather than its digital representation can be stored on magnetic media, the machinery for placing it there, and later retrieving it, is technically more complex. This would compromise developments in miniaturization, a profound source or resource conservation. The scales mentioned here have shrunk and will continue to shrink: '[IBM's] first hard disk drive, the RAMAC 350, introduced in 1956, stored 4.4 megabytes (million bytes) on 24-inch platters in a box the size of a washing machine. Today it is possible to store as many as 3.5 billion bytes on a multiple-platter disk drive the size of a paperback book.

Digital representation makes possible savings in more than just computer hardware:

    [At] Northrop Corporation's plant in the US ... thousands of photographs are taken to document every step in building a plane. "The adoption of the SONY Electronic Photography system has eliminated the need for 1.2 million gallons of water a year in processing photos, as well as the electrical energy required to heat the water to 90 degrees ... Additionally, more than 5,000 gallons of annual hazardous waste have been eliminated ... Expected savings are more than $4.3 million over the next five years.
Information also consumes resources when it moves. Before communications were electrically encoded, transport and communications were tightly bound. Disseminating information meant transporting the information medium: the person or paper had to be carried over land and sea to its destination. Transportation and communications systems began to diverge with the invention of the telegraph as electrical pulses began conveying information over distinct channels, across vast distances, at great speed, and at dramatically reduced cost. Independent communications channels grew rapidly, and were later fueled by radio and telephone technologies.

Both wired and wireless communications channels now carry digital signals instead of the traditional analog ones. Communications are increasingly cast in the universal digital mold, because digital communication has compelling advantages that are difficult, if not impossible, to realize in analog mode: compression technologies increase data throughput, sending more information in the same amount of time; error-correcting algorithms ensure accurate transmissions, reducing the need to retransmit messages ; encryption technology scrambles the information content so it is concealed from unintended readers, providing an efficient security mechanism; while switching instructions may be encapsulated in the message - like an address on the outside of an envelop - to enable automated delivery over intelligent networks ('packet switching'). Fiber optics uses laser-generated digital light pulses to carry greater capacity at lower cost and at lower maintenance than the copper cables it is fast replacing. Digital wireless networks are static-free and allow technical tricks that squeeze more capacity out of the available electromagnetic spectrum. Consequently, space is being allocated on the spectrum for digital versions of current analog transmissions: digital high-definition TV (HDTV), digital cellular packets and digital audio radio service.

Most of the compass of human experiences - voices, images and even smells - can be captured in various degrees of verisimilitude in object media: all representations can be reduced ultimately to the esperanto of 1s and 0s. Once digitized, information acquires the digital advantage: a universal rendering that is resource conservative, cheap to store and transport, and easy to copy, meter and manipulate. Digital rendering thus liberates information from the constraints of any particular medium and raises the possibility of the liberation of 'information' from the constraints of scarcity and rationing by price: easy and cheap replicability means that whatever can be digitally rendered can be made universally available ...

Although digital technology is expensive to install - usually requiring the complete replacement of previous-generation technologies - digital storage and distribution costs are qualitatively different. Unlike traditional transport and communications, a digital infrastructure consumes relatively little in the way of energy, resources or labour, regardless of the load ...

As in the past, contemporary industry is both shaping and being shaped by transportation and communications systems. Present day communication and transport technologies enable capital to make the entire planet its playground, allowing production to be dispersed to the peripheries for the exploitation of cheap labor and lax environmental laws. New systems of production organization, enabled by recent developments in communications, have also emerged with such names as 'virtual corporation', the 'temporary company', the 'flattened organization', and 'telecommuting'. Finally, just as the railroads were were the leading industry of the 19th century, telecommunications will be America's foremost export and the world's number one business by the year 2000 ...


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