babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

The Labour of the Head

This problem of the geography of intelligence depended on the fetishisation of the machines and the reification of the labour power exerted around them. As Raphael Samuel has demonstrated, mid-Victorian industrial mechanization was accompanied by the preservation, intensification and expansion of skilled manual labour throughout the economy. "The mid-Victorian engineer was still characteristically a craftsman, an artisan or mechanic rather than an operative or hand". [67] The representation of this dual process of the intensification of skill and the subordination of mechanization involved a remarkable balancing act amongst the commentators on the factory system. In the report of his Lancashire tour during the Chartist general strike of 1842, in which almost every cotton works was closed, Cooke Taylor premised that "the diffusion of the Factory System has created a larger demand than previously existed for intelligence and contrivance" among the workforce, and deduced that the machines themselves could not, or should not, be granted tyrannic power. "The operatives are stringently ruled by their own consent...So strange a combination of perfect despotism with perfect freedom never before existed, and to have produced such a state is one of the noblest triumphs of morality and intelligence". [68] The problem remained. Whose intelligence had produced this splendid state of voluntary servitude and supreme skill? Protagonists of the cotton masters had no doubt - it flowed from the machines themselves. Thus Edward Baines, a veteran lecturer against the Chartists on the benefits of rapid automation, argued in his history of the cotton industry that "all the precision, power and incessant motion belong to the machines alone, and the work-people have merely to supply them with work". The embodiment of skill within the automatic system was used to distract attention from the labour power exerted by the workforce itself. The most hostile critics of the machine economy, such as the Liberal Manchester medic Peter Gaskell, countered that it followed that any worker would be "reduced to a mere watcher or feeder of his mighty assistant", and that "the struggle carrying on between human power on the one hand, and steam aided by machinery, is gradually approaching a crisis". [69]

The terms of this critical struggle provided the vocabulary for all early Victorian accounts of the relation between skill, labour power and the machine. For the political economists, on whom Babbage drew so much, the property of skill was switched from its traditional place as an aspect of the customary life of the artisan, and transferred as a species of mental capital to the factory system itself. The claim that skill was a property of the artisan collective body had long warranted various forms of working-class resistance to mechanization and deskilling. The more heroic achievements of early Victorian engineering, including the Difference Engine, might be attributed solely to their named authors, such as Babbage, the managerial entrepreneur, but many artisans retained and expressed their sense of the skilful labour which they had devoted to these projects. The socialist Thomas Hodgskin, editor of the Mechanics' Magazine, lectured at the London Institute in 1826 that "the enlightened skill of different classes of workmen" had indeed produced higher improvements in machinery but that it was wrong to attribute "the productive power of this skill" to "its visible products, the instruments", and even worse that "the mere owners....who neither make nor use them imagine themselves to be very productive persons". Six years later in a London pub Hodgskin challenged Babbage on the Finsbury hustings about the fate of the public money which had been poured into the Difference Engine. [70] In response to such demands for recognition of artisanal skill, the Ricardian economists John McCulloch and Nassau Senior both saw artisan skill as a product of the intensity of the division of labour and not a quality imminent in, nor belonging to, the workforce itself. Richard Jones, Christian economist and close ally of William Whewell, argued that capital alone contributed "the formation of the human agency by which the continuity of labour is secured; the maintenance of the intellect which enlightens its application [and] the employment of power which resides either in a higher order of moving forces or in mechanical contrivance". According to Jones and his colleagues, manufacture's "sovereign power over the material world" was entirely dependent on "the eye of a superior enforcing everywhere steady and conscientious labour". [71]

These claims were highly consequential for the politics of intelligence. Intelligence just was the warrant of humanity's power over matter. Under the new orthodoxies of political economy, the surplus value extracted from the machines was the product of the intelligence of capital made real in the force of steam-driven engines. On this showing, "intelligence" itself was easily identified with just those qualities displayed by manufacturing capital and the subordinate "servants of the machine", notably foresight and vigilance. So when Whewell and Jones debated the right model of value in the 1840s, the Cambridge mathematician reckoned that in a cotton mill "the value of its produce must equal the value of the moving power plus the value of the mechanism". These analysts used the term "labouring force" to describe the former value, thus decisively shifting their model towards a general theory of machinery. Jones agreed: "we can have no measure of the power...employed in production unless we are familiar with the greater or less degree of perfection of the machinery and implements". The value of the factory system was therefore entirely to be located in the array of mechanisms deployed in the workshops and its intelligence was to be referred to the planning and the discipline with which these machines were managed. [72]

The aim of this polemic was to make the identity of intelligence and capitalist machine management self-evident. Socialist, radical and plebeian critics sought, in contrast, to make it nonsensical or disastrous. This made the problem of workers' intelligence vital in political debate. Trades union newspapers argued that "continued improvements in machinery" might increase the demand for manual labour but destroyed demand for "the labour of the head". Lecturers at the Mechanics' Institutes insisted that "if the body have lost its value, the mind must get into business without delay". Chartist pamphleteers announced that "the Duke of Wellington could have gained ten Waterloo battles easier than he could have learned to form one single nail to the perfection attained by some poor men in the forlorn and sooted smithy". [73] The pervasiveness of the language of machine intelligence was most marked in the more sophisticated socialist analyses, for in these texts claims for the liberation of the proletariat from the subordination of factory discipline simultaneously used, and assumed, the image of the human body as "living machinery". So when the pre-eminent socialist campaigner Robert Owen promulgated his New View of Society in 1816, he appealed to mill-owners' own interests in tending their workforce just as carefully as their "inanimate mechanisms": "the more delicate complex living mechanism would be equally improved by being trained to strength and activity", Owen charged, "that its mental movements might not experience too much irritating friction, to endeavour by every means to make it more perfect". Where the Lanark utopian judged that manufacturers would immediately understand the rationality of social improvement because they saw their workers as living machines, Engels reckoned that in Manchester the process which mechanized the very bodies and minds of the workforce would also radicalize their politics despite the capitalists' power. Machine systems helped divide the body into specialised, monstrous capacities. "No the operative's thinking powers". Engels straightforwardly rejected the meliorist claims of Cooke Taylor, Ure and their colleagues that machine superintendence was a form of leisure. It was rather a form of tedium. "The operative is condemned to let his physical and mental powers decay", Engels added; "if the operatives have nevertheless not only rescued their intelligence but cultivated and sharpened it more than other workingmen, they have found this possible only in rebellion against their fate and the bourgeoisie". [74]

Such remarks indicate the need to legitimate the discourse on the factory system produced in the 1830s and 1840s and its polemical vocabulary of machine intelligence. The processes of automation and co-ordination which had spawned the factory system had made the problem of the place of intelligence urgent. Proponents of machinofacture reckoned that the factory system was evidently a consequence of intelligent reason and thus providential and virtuous. They situated this intelligence in the complex relation between the fixed capital of the steam-driven engines and the mental capital of the millowners. The workforce itself was only judged a producer of value to the extent that it matched precisely the capacities of the machines. The qualities attributed to this intelligence were just those required from this form of superintendence, anticipation and meticulous scrutiny. This was the definition of intelligence which Babbage embodied in his machines and the sense of intelligence which he reckoned those machines displayed. He even claimed that these were the virtues of divinity.


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