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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Discussion of Seminar Theme: Hidden Labour (Part II)

Wednesday 16 September 2020, 15:00–17:00 BST


iraniCo-facilitator: Prof. Lilly Irani (UC San Diego)

Discussants: Prof. Daniel Greene (University of Maryland, College Park), Bruno Moreschi (University of São Paulo) and Gabriel Pereira (Aarhus University)

Moderator: Dr. Sarah Dillon (University of Cambridge)

Assigned texts

Additional readings, if desired:


This session returns us to the Seminar theme of Hidden Labour. In June, during our first meeting on the topic, Prof. Matteo Pasquinelli, in conversation with Audrey Borowski, Cindy Lin, and Prof. Matthew L. Jones, introduced a set of conceptual maneuvers used across eras to reconfigure modes of manual and mental labour under the guise of autonomy. He took interest in the genealogy and materiality of Deep Learning in particular, and in the automation of labour required to mimic aspects of human perception and classification.

If that event focused on the how of Hidden Labour, meaning the abstract dynamics involved in these reconfigurations, this month's Reading Group will focus on the who, meaning the actual peoples who have faced strain, exclusion, and/or violence due to the development and use of tools purported to provide a scalable 'standing reserve' of universal human agency. Prof. Irani and our discussants will bring to light how styles of computing have historically served (and continue to serve) as strict and imposing styles of labour management, particularly for those in the Global South.

Event summary

Prof Irani explored questions not just about how labour is hidden but whose labour is hidden (or, for historians in particular, whose histories the histories of AI tell), and considered the importance of Gramscian 'organic intellectuals,' drawing especially on Kate Crehan's account of Adam Smith in those terms. Prof Irani engaged with the articulation and shaping of emerging forms of work, and the need to identify interlinked campaigns to shape the future of AI through solidarity with wider groups of organic intellectuals. She made the point that researchers' works should support and strengthen these efforts, and emphasised the importance of countering the perceived inevitability, naturalness, or universality of AI by situating such tools in their given context.

In that vein, Prof Greene focused on the companies and regulators that shape the future of work, with particular reference to the choices they make: what kinds of workers are valued; what kind of work is valued; and how this work is systematised. He described AI as both a product of this dynamic of disaggregation and a producer of it. In his words, capitalists (such as those involved in managing the gig economy or automated hiring) 'take workers apart and put them back together.'

He offered the following two provocations to the group:

  1. What is artificial about AI?
  2. What does contemporary AI owe to prior modes of production?

Continuing further, Bruno Moreschi and Gabriel Pereira presented on two projects developed with the Group on Artificial Intelligence and Art (GAIA). Each demonstrated the importance of locality and context in relation to the labours powering AI, and asked participants to detail how the operations of hidden labour related to AI as geopolitical rather than evidencing imaginaries of a homogenous and depoliticized 'global' workforce.

  1. The first project found that Brazilian turkers: (i) are more similar to turkers in India than in the US; (ii) have payments dependent on the dollar exchange rate; (iii) cannot receive payments to bank accounts but in Amazon Vouchers; (iv) that 30% rely on AMT to make ends meet; (v) and that some Brazilian turkers have made informal attempts to mobilize and unionise.
  2. The second project, called 'Changes with Turkers,' bridges research, artistic practice, and activism. It first involved the creation of an online website which ran for two weeks, where people could visit and ask questions of turkers and where turkers could communicate with one another. The turker participants will be co-authors on the forthcoming book.

Works cited (in the chat)

Artificial Intelligence

Critiques of Design Thinking

  • Budds, Diana. 'How One Florida City Is Reinventing Itself With UX Design'. Fast Company, 31 October 2016.
  • Holtzblatt, Karen, Jessamyn Burns Wendell, and Shelley Wood. Rapid Contextual Design: A How-to Guide to Key Techniques for User-Centered Design. The Morgan Kaufmann Series in Interactive Technologies. San Francisco: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, 2005.
  • Kimbell, Lucy. 'Beyond Design Thinking: Design-as-Practice and Designs-in-Practice'. Presented at the European Academy of Management, Liverpool, May 2009.
  • Kimbell, Lucy. 'Rethinking Design Thinking: Part I'Design and Culture 3, no. 3 (November 2011): 285–306.
  • Laurel, Brenda, ed. Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003.
  • Vinsel, Lee. 'Design Thinking Is a Boondoggle'. The Chronicle of Higher Education 64, no. 35 (2018): B6.

Narratives that Counter Managerial Discourse

  • Bassett, Caroline, Sarah Kember, and Kate O'Riordan. Furious: Technological Feminism and Digital Futures. Digital Barricades. London: Pluto, 2019.
  • Crehan, Kate A. F. Gramsci's Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Omodeo, Pietro Daniel. Political Epistemology: The Problem of Ideology in Science Studies. Cham: Springer, 2019.
  • Sims, Christo. Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism. Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

Supply Chains

  • Ajunwa, Ifeoma, and Daniel Greene. 'Chapter 3 Platforms at Work: Automated Hiring Platforms and Other New Intermediaries in the Organization of Work'. In Research in the Sociology of Work, edited by Steve P. Vallas and Anne Kovalainen, 33:61–91. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019.
  • Berry, Daina Ramey. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.
  • Dubal, Veena. 'The Time Politics of Home-Based Digital Piecework'SSRN Electronic Journal, 2020.
  • Prassl, Jeremias. Humans as a Service: The Promise and Perils of Work in the Gig Economy. First edition. Oxford, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Rosenthal, Caitlin. Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  • Silver, Beverly J. Forces of Labor: Workers' Movements and Globalization since 1870. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Tsing, Anna. 'Supply Chains and the Human Condition'Rethinking Marxism 21, no. 2 (April 2009): 148–76.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Dynamics including Race


  • Foucault, Michel, and Paul Rabinow. The Foucault Reader. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
  • Gramsci, Antonio, Joseph A. Buttigieg, and Antonio Callari. Prison Notebooks. Vol. 1. Paperback ed. European Perspectives. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011.
  • Gramsci, Antonio, and David Forgacs. The Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Irani, Lilly. 'The Hidden Faces of Automation'XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 23, no. 2 (15 December 2016): 34–37.
  • Linebaugh, Peter. 'All the Atlantic Mountains Shook'Labour / Le Travail 10 (1982): 87.
  • Penn, Jonnie. 'AI Thinks like a Corporation—and That's Worrying'The Economist, 26 November 2018.
  • Rosenfeld, Sophia A. Common Sense: A Political History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011.

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