Origin Stories: Plantations, Computers, and Industrial Control

Charles Babbage & his 19th c. blueprints for digital computation to industrial labor control & the creation of a regime of denigrated, disciplined “free” labor. All of which has its roots in plantation slavery.

Rum, Silk and $urveillance
I’ve lived in the Sugarcane House on a plantation in the USVI, seen the Jacquard loom & punch cards in Suchow CN, & am familiar with Enterprise Architecture of a worldwide company. This was a GREAT origin story!

Origin Stories: Plantations, Computers, and Industrial Control

by Meredith Whittaker


The blueprint for modern digital computing was codesigned by Charles Babbage, a vocal champion for the concerns of the emerging industrial capitalist class who condemned organized workers and viewed democracy and capitalism as incompatible. Histories of Babbage diverge sharply in their emphasis. His influential theories on how “enterprising capitalists” could best subjugate workers are well documented in conventional labor scholarship. However, these are oddly absent from many mainstream accounts of his foundational contributions to digital computing, which he made with mathematician Ada Lovelace in the nineteenth century.1 Reading these histories together, we find that Babbage’s proto-Taylorist ideas on how to discipline workers are inextricably connected to the calculating engines he spent his life attempting to build.

From inception, the engines—“the principles on which all modern computing machines are based”2—were envisioned as tools for automating and disciplining labor. Their architectures directly encoded economist Adam Smith’s theories of labor division and borrowed core functionality from technologies of labor control already in use. The engines were themselves tools for labor control, automating and disciplining not manual but mental labor.3 Babbage didn’t invent the theories that shaped his engines, nor did Smith. They were prefigured on the plantation, developed first as technologies to control enslaved people. Issues alive in the present—like worker surveillance, workplace automation, and the computationally mediated restructuring of traditional employment as “gig work”—echo the way that computational thinking historically emerges as a mode of control during the “age of abolition,” in the early nineteenth century. Britain officially abolished West Indian slavery in 1833, and Babbage was very aware of the debate on abolition. He was also aware of the questions that were roiling the British elite as they sought alternatives to enslaved Black labor—particularly the question of how to control white industrial workers who persistently rebelled against industrialization, such that they could produce at the pace required to maintain the British empire. Both Babbage’s influential labor theories and his engines can be read as attempts to answer these questions—ones that, knowingly or not, rearticulated technologies of control developed on the plantation.

Finding Industrial Labor Discipline on the Plantation

In legislation and labor policy, the concept of freedom is largely rooted in the contract: the textually stipulated (in)ability for people to come and go, to agree to terms and walk away from them, backed by law and ultimately state violence.4 In this formulation, workers and employers are understood to approach the contract as equals, each exercising their freedom to accept or deny a contract’s terms. However, this assumed freedom is curtailed in practice by structural power asymmetries that are enforced by technologies of worker control designed to achieve employers’ goals of extracting as much productive energy as possible. These technologies discipline workers’ bodies, motions, and mental habits. And their application enables labor regimes that can be termed “free” while simultaneously limiting workers’ agency and expression in the workplace, leaning on the contract as proof that workers freely chose such conditions.


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