On the use of machines

Midnight Notes was an obscure radical publication published int he 70s. One of the pieces that impressed me greatly was title “Prologue: On the use of Machines”.

Its thesis, roughly, was that the development of the steam engine (and its expression in physics, the field of classical thermodynamics) was associated with a redifinition of human labour, by and large, as “work equivalent to the work of a heat engine”. The development of computing machines, and its theoretical expression, Shannon’s information theory, was associated with a defintion of work as “work equivalent to the work of a computing machine”, and linked with the rise of the information work sector (think typists, computer programmers, etc).

Interesting stuff – it’s a while since I read it, from what I remember the maths was light on, but it struck me as a fascinating attempt to link thermodynamics, labour economics, and information theory.

What made me think of it was stumbling across the Amazon Mechanical Turk site. Here you have menial informational work by humans being harnessed as part of a computational engine. I can’t help but think of The Matrix, or comparing it with piecework textile workers stiching hems for 20c each at home.

Related – Farming out work in second life

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