Organized Session

Technopolitics, Capital, and Knowledge

Organizer

Hippolyte A. Goux

University of California Los Angeles

Chair

Victor Seow

Harvard University

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Session Abstract


Historians of science and technology have carefully attended to the political consequences of technological systems. This junction of social organization and technology-now called technopolitics-has been described as the production of a nearly autonomous system, or as a system shaping the political. Less satisfactory in these studies has been their treatment of the economic. What is called economy is both a system of power and the basis for the material production and reproduction of society. It is in many ways a feature unique to capitalism. Yet the economic cannot be reduced to just a system of power, or technological structures-although it contains both. The papers featured in this panel demonstrate that the relation between justice and infrastructure cannot be understood without a proper consideration of economy. In part, technology and economy are mediated by knowledge practices. Historians of science must address this question in conjunction with historians of technology.

Presenter 1

Knowledge Work and Automation: Peter F. Drucker and the Management Response to Technological Change, 1950-1990

Erik Baker

Harvard University

Abstract

In the 1950s and 1960s, economists, social critics, labor leaders, business executives, and politicians in the United States engaged in protracted debate about the consequences of industrial automation. Many observers believed that the advance of automation would force an imminent societal choice between catastrophic unemployment and the systematic reduction of working time without loss of pay. In the past half-century, however, working time has creeped upwards even as pay has stagnated, without the massive raw unemployment statistics anticipated by postwar critics -- all while the computerization of industrial production processes has accelerated. In this paper, I use the career of the Austrian-American management theorist and consultant Peter F. Drucker to explore how business in the United States averted the crisis that automation discourse presented as inevitable. Drucker argued that automation simply meant that workers would have to abandon the outdated assumption -- kept alive by labor unions' systems of pensioning and seniority -- that one could expect to perform the same kind of work for one's entire working life. One would have to embrace what Drucker called "continuous learning," characteristic of the kind of employees Drucker influentially termed "knowledge workers." Knowledge workers would have to conceive of themselves as "entrepreneurs," constantly seeking out new opportunities as technological and economic developments rendered existing jobs obsolete. Drucker helped to popularize new legal and organizational structures, including outsourcing, subcontracting, and franchising, to institutionalize this vision of entrepreneurial knowledge work. The history of Drucker's engagement with automation underscores the extent to which the consequences of technological change are embedded not only in political but economic logics and processes, contested and moulded by labor and capital alike.

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Presenter 2

The Economics of Computer Science Education

Sanaa Khan

University of California, San Diego

Abstract

This paper addresses the economic interest convergences that fund and promote diversity in STEM education, asking: what market forces allow for social reproduction to occur in computing education? How do schools serve as places in which economic inequality are entrenched through market efforts? What is the influence of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on this form of education? Techno-utopianism exists as an insidious form of free-market capitalism, in which social problems could be stopped if only we could get everyone to participate. "When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place," Mark Zuckerberg stated in a Facebook address. Belief in the free market, the open forum and technological progress went hand-in-hand during the Cold War era, when the United States weaponized scientific discovery against the Soviet Union. Powerful scientists protested against government regulations, and loudly insisted that instead the free market's technological progress would save. The Internet was developed as a mode of communication in case of nuclear war and expanded as a computer network that linked university research centers with the defense departments. Markets may have spread the technology throughout the world, but the state and the military have shaped our relation to technology. And when considering the ways in which markets, the military and the state have warped education to suit their own needs, this foundation of computing is not comforting for educators.

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Presenter 3

The Ordering of Economic Things

Hippolyte A. Goux

University of California Los Angeles

Abstract

This article studies economic knowledge as a social relation. By situating the function and form of this knowledge in its specific institutional settings, we may grasp these representations neither as mere theories nor as discourses that produce economic reality, but as channeling and expressing the contradictions in the capitalist social formation. In order to illustrate this dimension of economic knowledge, I follow the metamorphoses of French state planning after 1945. The post-war planning tools, in conjunction with the institutions of the French state, meant that material and human resources were not being used in accordance with the capitalist value-form. Rather than being called to valorize value, they were treated primarily in their materiality as use values, rather than obeying the abstract logic of economic value. From the rediscovery of totalizing representations of the economy in Leontieff tables and National Accounting, there was a turn in the late 1960s towards models which re-incorporated ideas about economic general equilibrium, and increasing efforts to reassert capitalist economic rationality using standardized decision-making and cost-benefit analysis. "Rationalization" of investment decisions imposed the capitalist value-form both as social technology limiting political and administrative decision-making, but also through the content of the calculations.

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Panel Discussion