Did the machines win?

Over on nettime-l, a list for those who once thought “tactical media” was the way forward, the old question of men and machines has been revived with due acknowledgment to Marshall McLuhan. One contributor exclaimed that “of course the machines won” and another said this was “simplistic Luddite rubbish”. This was my response.

I can’t speak for Mark Stahlman, but I don’t imagine that anyone who can write so interestingly would dream of a world without machines. “Machines” should rather be taken as a metaphor for the organized attempt to reduce human beings to working on machines or like machines. Will machines serve people or people serve machines? At some risk of oversimplification, Marx’s project was based on the observation that what matter in our world are people, machines and money. As things stood then and still do, money buys machines and people work on them. The political task is to reverse the order, to put people in charge of machines and money. Marx hoped that machine production might generate the social conditions for this revolution and so do we. Maybe we can dispense with the apparatus of party, classes etc, but that is history.

Philip Mirowski’s cumbersome but essential book, Machine Dreams: How economics became a cyborg science, explains how operations research (OR) in World War 2 spawned a family of social models built on an analogy with machines: cybernetics, game theory, systems theory etc. These were incorproated into the management of production and of society more generally, nowhere more than in the United States. The economists, building on a mathematical revolution of the 1940s, launched by Tinbergen and Koopmans during the war, happily adopted this family of approaches. Their version of it was “rational expectations” theory or the “efficient market hypothesis” and we all know what happened next. In this sense the twentieth century, and especially its last half, saw the machines win.

But not irreversibly. Thomas Sargent was just interviewed about his Nobel prize this year. Even the economists are no longer triumphalist in the face of the damage done to the world economy by governments and corporations blindly following the dictates of the rational expectations model. Sargent admitted: “We experiment with our models, before we wreck the world.” If I share the aspiration to build a human economy fit for all of us, it would not be one without machines or money. It would just put human interests first.

You can read this long and interesting article from the Globe and Mail, “Economists have met the enemy and it is economics“.

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Category: Human economy