Connecting the dots between early computing, labour history, and plantations

In this accessible longread, Meredith Whittaker takes us through complex and contested 19th century histories to connect the birth of modern computing to plantation technologies and industrial labour control.

Whittaker centers her story around Charles Babbage, who not only laid the groundwork for modern digital computing together with Ada Lovelace, but also advocated on behalf of emerging industrial capitalists and wrote extensively on how they could more effectively subjugate factory workers.

The piece reconstructs how Babbage’s work on both early computing as well as that on labour discipline are attempts to answer “the question of how to control white industrial workers who persistently rebelled against industrialization.”

Crucially, Whittaker discusses how the urgency of this question was to a large extent a consequence of Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 and the subsequent need to rationalize the productivity of its “free” industrial workers.

Through Babbage’s works, Whittaker builds upon ongoing research in the area that connects the history of early computing to the extensive literature(s) on racial capitalism, showing how technologies developed on plantations – division of labour, surveillance and central oversight – are foundational to the development of industrial labour control as well as the ‘calculating engines’ that formed the basis for digital computing. By retelling part of this history, Whittaker shows the need for asking fundamental questions about the structures of control at the core of computation and the worlds in which they are meant to work:

To do so, we must directly confront the unmarked presence of Black unfreedom that haunts “free” labor and reweave links that have been strategically severed between race, labor, and computational technologies.

In continuing to retrieve and retell these histories, the hope and ultimate aim is to “shift attention from tinkering at the edges of technologies of control to articulating futures that claim the right to redefine categories of freedom.”

See Origin Stories: Plantations, Computers, and Industrial Control at Logic(s).

Image by Chris Ballance from the original article.

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