Machinic Capitalism and Network Surplus Value: Towards a Political Economy of the Turing Machine

by Matteo Pasquinell

Gilbert Simondon once noticed that industrial machines were
already an information relay, as they were bifurcating for the first time
the source of energy (nature) from the source of information (the
worker). In 1963, in order to describe the new condition of industrial
labour, Romano Alquati introduced the notion of valorising
information as a link between the Marxist concept of value and the
cybernetic definition of information. In 1972, Deleuze and Guattari
initiated their machinic ontology as soon as cybernetics started to exit
the factory and expand to the whole society.
In this text I focus again on the Turing machine as the most
empirical model available to study the guts of cognitive capitalism.
Consistent with the Marxian definition of machinery as a device for
the “augmentation of surplus value”, the algorithm of the Turing
machine is proposed as engine of the new forms of valorisation,
measure of network surplus value and new ‘crystal’ of social conflict.
Information machines are not just ‘linguistic machines’ but indeed a
relay between information and metadata: in this way they open to a
further technological bifurcation and also to new forms of
biopolitical control: a society of metadata is outlined as the current
evolution of that ‘society of control’ pictured by Deleuze in 1990.

One can of course see how each kind of society corresponds to a
particular kind of machine—with simple mechanical machines
corresponding to sovereign societies, thermodynamic machines
to disciplinary societies, cybernetic machines and computers to
control societies. But the machines don’t explain anything, you
have to analyze the collective apparatuses of which the
machines are just one component. — Gilles Deleuze

1. Industrial machines were already information machines
“The industrial modality appears when the source of information
and the source of energy separate, namely when the Human Being is
merely the source of information, and Nature is required to furnish
the energy. The machine is different from the tool in that it is a relay:
it has two different entry points, that of energy and that of
This insight by Gilbert Simondon on the second
industrial revolution is not meant to underline a continuum between
different technological age, to say that informationalism is the same
of industrialism, but on the contrary to spot, as Gilles Deleuze and
Felix Guattari would record, a bifurcation of the technological
lineage, or machinic phylum.
The subterranean history of information
appears to surface even earlier. Information can be found haunting
also the instruments of the first industrial revolution: the Jacquard
loom (invented in 1801) was in fact a mathematical device controlled
by a punched card almost identical to the one standardised by IBM
as data storage device in the 20th century. George Caffentzis has
remarked that this invention influenced Charles Babbage’s Analytical
Engine itself and that it precedes the invention of the steam engine:

Like it or not, Babbage was working on his Calculating Engines
before Sadi Carnot published his Reflexions on the Motive Power of
Fire (1824)—the beginning of classical thermodynamics—and
certainly by 1834 Babbage had theorized the universal computer
or, anachronistically, the Turing Machine. Consequently, one
cannot say that the theory of heat engines antedates the theory
of universal computers.

In their steam-punk novel The Difference Engine William Gibson and
Bruce Sterling perform the thought exercise to imagine at the time of
the British Empire the rise of information technologies on the mere
basis of mechanical engines (!) instead of electricity. Of course those times were not mature to trig an information revolution and to understand the cognitive component of the new forms of production, as Caffentzis himself notices:

For Babbage and his supporters the connection between the
Jacquard loom and the Analytic Engine was exactly that, a
transposition from an industrial setting to a mathematical one,
instead of an indication of a third, mathematical-industrial space
that characterized the labor process in general.

Caffentzis engages in an interesting history of the first information
devices to argue against Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s
conceptualisation of the so-called immaterial labour. But paradoxically his overview can be used to reinforce their hypothesis of cognitive capitalism in proper Marxian terms, as it will be discussed later. Caffentzis’ article however is important to remind that a common ground is missing between media studies and political economy, Turing machines and Marxism.

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