Knowledge in Action

Thoughts about Berliner Gazette’s Winter School Silent Works. The Hidden Labor in AI-Capitalism

In 1620, one of the “fathers” of modern science, Francis Bacon, published Novum Organum, considered one of his masterpieces. In this book, he presented science as a technique capable of giving human beings dominion over nature. As the book’s title suggests, humans have developed a new organ, reason, with which we can extract nature’s hidden secrets. Alongside a set of tools such as logic, experimentation and scientific observation, humans can probe, analyze and observe nature to extract its hidden truths. With this, Bacon established the rules of what would later be known as the experimental scientific method or empiricism that lies at the heart of the European Enlightenment. Bacon considered experience an essential form of knowledge through which the general laws and the behavior of nature could be understood. In the ultimate instance, nature was to be mastered. As the writer Minna Salami reminds us, for Bacon, reason was God’s gift to humans to do so.

The origins of the modern European scientific paradigm are based on the idea that knowing is synonymous to dominating. Knowing is equal to controlling; knowledge=power. Nature, which was regarded as something untamed and therefore dangerous, could finally be subdued. Its secrets could be revealed. Feminist authors such as Carolyn Merchant and Silvia Federici have already pointed out that Bacon, in addition to being a man of science, worked for the Inquisition and had another mission: to violently extract other kinds of secrets, those held by other savages, the witches, women who had esoteric knowledge that did not fit well with the newly established scientific method. As with nature, they too could be probed and analyzed in order to be tamed. If they refused to give away their secrets they could be burned to death. Esoteric and pagan forms of knowledge were to be eradicated, as reason set out to conquer the world. 

Let’s move in time and space. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a Persian mathematician, geographer, astronomer and astrologer who has gone down in history for revolutionizing mathematics by inventing algebra. He lived between the years 780 and 850 and wrote the book Compendium of calculus by completion and comparison, an eminently didactic work, which shows how algebra can be applied to solving problems in everyday life. As Flavia Dzodan reminds us, part of al-Khwarizmi’s research work was funded by Caliph Al-Ma’mun, since he enjoyed having his horoscope read to him, and al-Khwarizmi had developed a powerful system to calculate the position of the planets in relation to the stars: he could predict exactly when the sun would rise and set. He created a system to forecast and give a sense of control over the events that were to come. The words algebra and algorithm are derived from al-Khwarizmi’s book, which was translated from Latin in the 12th century.

It is not surprising that a system of knowledge based on the idea of control and domination quickly fell in love with a system of calculation that facilitated the prediction of things to come. Algorithms enable us to translate actions into procedures. They consist of a set of defined and unambiguous, ordered and finite instructions or rules to solve a problem, perform a computation, process data or carry out other tasks or activities. Modern European thought was perfectly coupled with an Arab mathematical system. The old Europe did not hesitate to appropriate a mathematical system that perfectly complemented the scientific method. The imposition of reason as a hegemonic way of knowing the world was a central element of the Enlightenment; alongside utilitarianism, it would give rise to what we would later know as instrumental reason. 

The modern European epistemic regime that we have inherited is still articulated on the basis of knowledge-domination, wisdom-control, prediction-determination. Capitalism, since its origins, embraced this formula as it set out to know/dominate a different kind of force of nature: the labor force. Science, technology and techniques were combined to extract labor from the body of workers in the most efficient and profitable way. Bodies needed to be disciplined, workers controlled and outcomes predicted to generate a perfect machine whose only aim was to organize labor to extract surplus value. 

The logic of extracting the maximum profitability with the minimum investment has been standardized as a way of organizing production. The untamed body of the worker has been subjected to multiple attempts at rationalization. Algorithmic capitalism or AI-capitalism – a term that the Silent Works’ curators Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki simultaneously coined with tech-theorist Nick Dyer-Witheford, albeit with slightly different intentions – is just another permutation of Taylorism, Fordism and other procedures to know/control/make the workforce profitable. That is why it is so urgent to develop forms of knowledge that are based on the idea of knowing-as-liberating. Utilitarianism can only be confronted by excess, by promoting wilder forms of knowing—ways to apprehend reality that do not seek domination but rather to make things more complex, open up possibilities and break chains of determination. With the rise of platform capitalism, algorithmic control over communications, the introduction of AI into the workspace, the uberization of labor, the precarization and invisibility of work, the submission of searches and links to opaque algorithms, the introduction of devices of listening and control in all telephone terminals, and ultimately, the submission of life to the principles of algorithmic control and prediction, we need new ways of knowing and understanding reality capable of opening spaces of freedom, emancipation and justice.

We must accept that the problems we confront are so multifaceted, so complex and so crossed by heterogeneous factors that trying to solve them with a unique solution only shows how modern thought has permeated and limited our ability to understand reality. It is in this sense that the Silent Works project helps us to become entangled and address issues such as the invisibility and precariousness of contemporary work as a result of the arrival of algorithmic control systems and AI to the workplace. It does this from a complex and open perspective. The project, which is now online, includes and combines talks, artistic projects, interviews, debates, critical analysis and poetic proposals in order to open this problem up to be approached from multiple sensitivities and perspectives. As the project organizers argue, the hegemonic narrative that urges us to believe that “labor is becoming extinct due to the rise of full automation, dominant narratives and power structures is concealing the fact that labor is undergoing deep transformations. Thus, labor as a buried reality needs to be excavated from beneath these very dominant narratives and power structures.”

Silent Works invites us to engage with this problem from a diversity of perspectives, enabling creative proposals to be interwoven with activist strategies, poetic approaches with more academic types of analysis. The project presents us with a large set of outputs and a heterogeneity of approaches, creating spaces for reflection accompanied by proposals for action. The project includes sound essays, interviews and documentaries. It helps us understand that the capitalism-prediction-control link cannot be broken unless we address its operational and affective elements. It is in this context that, echoing Flavia Dzodan, we should recover the most esoteric forms of knowledge that were present at the birth of algebra. Those forms of non-rational knowledge which knowing-controlling has always opposed. Untamed forms of knowledge, that escape the logic of prediction and procedure. Knowledge in action. Beauty and excess. Ways of knowing that can give a voice to those who suffer from the imposition of algorithmic logic at work. To the invisible bodies entangled in distribution and logistics chains. To the workforce regulated by apps, algorithmic calculations, geo-locations and notifications. For those of us who continue to get a thrill in the morning when we see the sun rise, and at night when we see the moon shine in the sky.

You can find Silent Works video talks, artworks, texts, workshop projects, and audio documents tackling AI-capitalism’s hidden labor on the Silent Works website. Have a look here:

Jaron Rowan is a writer, researcher and teacher. He is currently Head of Research at BAU, Design College of Barcelona. He has given numerous talks and workshops at cultural institutions and centers for contemporary art. His publications include Emprendizajes en cultura (2010), La tragedia del copyright (2013), Memes: Inteligencia idiota, política rara y folclore digital (2015) and Cultura libre de Estado (2016).

Foto: Sylvia John

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