↳ Machine_learning

October 7th, 2019

↳ Machine_learning

The Balloon


Labor and mechanized calculation

Breathless media coverage of machine learning tools and their applications often obscures the processes that allow them to function. Time and again, services billed or understood by users as automatic are revealed to rely on undervalued, deskilled human labor.

There is rich historical precedent for the presence of these "ghosts in the machine." In a 2017 lecture, Director Emirata of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science LORRAINE DASTON examines the emergence of mechanical calculation, revealing a fascinating history of the interaction between new technologies and the methods of routinizing and dividing intellectual labor that emerges alongside them.

From the introduction:

"The intertwined histories of the division of labor and mechanical intelligence neither began nor ended with this famous three-act story from pins to computers via logarithms. Long before Prony thought of applying Adam Smith’s political economy to monumental calculation projects, astronomical observatories and nautical almanacs were confronted with mountains of computations that they accomplished by the ingenious organization of work and workers. What mechanization did change was the organization of Big Calculation: integrating humans and machines dictated different algorithms, different skills, different personnel, and above all different divisions of labor. These changes in turn shaped new forms of intelligence at the interface between humans and machines."

Link to the paper version of the lecture. (And stay tuned to the Phenomenal World for our upcoming interview with Daston.)

  • A 1994 paper by Daston entitled "Enlightenment Calculations" gives specific attention to the logarithmic tables of Gaspard de Prony, which sought to demonstrate the usefulness of the newly-invented metric system: "The tables marked an epoch in the history of calculation but also one in the history of intelligence and work." Link.
  • Matthew L. Jones, an historian at Columbia University, studies the history of calculation and computing. His 2016 book Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage traces the history of attempts to routinize, mechanize and apply the power of calculation. Link to the book, link to Lorraine Daston's review in Critical Inquiry.
  • Simon Schaffer's 1996 paper on the relationship between Charles Babbage's calculating engine and the contemporaneously emerging factory system. Link.
  • A syllabus prepared by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, authors of Ghost Work—a book about the "hidden" labor force behind many tech services—surveys the tech platform subcontracting labor market. Link.
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