If the Answer Was Information Technology…

December 10, 2013


…What Was the Question?

Most debates about the pros and cons of information technology fail to ask a basic question: what is information technology for? In order to understand information technology’s functions and effects on society, we need to examine its origins. This, in turn, requires a basic understanding of the systems that produce technology and their relation to capitalism.


In the 17th century, the medieval cosmology of the world as a single interconnected organism gave way to the idea of the world as a clockwork mechanism. Philosophers such as Francis Bacon and the founders of the Royal Society developed the experimental method of modern science. Partly because they no longer saw the world as alive, these writers developed a very explicit philosophy of domination and control of nature through technology, and the machine became the ruling ideal of western society.

The new regime, which can be called technocracy, although it is philosophically consistent with capitalism, needs to be seen as a separate system. This is what distinguishes our civilisation from those before it: a systematic application of science, in combination with capitalist social relations. The appellation ‘capitalism’ is inadequate – we live in technocratic capitalism.

Technocracy did not come into its own until the Industrial Revolution a hundred years later. Although driven by economic/geographical and political forces,  the Industrial Revolution established for the first time many of the aspects of technocratic modernity: control of people through control of nature; domination of people by machines and systems; power shifting to those who have mastery over technical knowledge; an emphasis on efficiency and measurement e.g. the imposition of clock time; and an ideological insistence that this process constitutes ‘progress’ for everybody.

The Luddite uprisings can be seen as a revolt not against machines but against the great Machine of the Industrial Revolution. The image of backward yokels obstinately resisting progress is a history written by the victors. In fact, the Luddites broke only those machines that were destroying their trades and livelihoods. Their motto was to put down all machinery ‘hurtful to Commonality’. Luddism is anti-technocracy, not anti-technology.

By the end of the 19th century, the ideology of laissez-faire was giving way to a thoroughgoing managerialism. At the level of the factory this was represented in the Scientific Management of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer famous for his studies on industrial efficiency and workers. By breaking down a complex task requiring skill into a number of small, repetitive unskilled tasks, Taylorism achieved not only the disciplining and subordination of workers to management, but the transformation of the factory into a more efficient integrated system. Central to this method was the collection and collation by managers of vast amounts of information.

The Information Revolution

As Frank Webster and Kevin Robins argue in Times of the Technoculture, this was the first Information Revolution, long before information technology, and it created the pattern for the rest of the 20th century. In a world dominated by systems (Taylor’s motto was, ‘In the past the man was first. In the future the system will be first’), information is central. It links elements of non-mechanical systems, whether they be computers, factories or what Lewis Mumford referred to as megamachines – large bureaucracies, corporations, the military etc.

The vision of the technocrats dominated the 20th century. In the capitalist countries, the key task became balancing supply and demand in the economy. Scientific marketing and advertising involving the collection of masses of information about consumer demand proliferated. This information became the lifeblood of corporations, ultimately leading to the development of the first computers by International Business Machines (IBM).

Information technology, as we would recognise it, emerged from the military demands of World War II and the Cold War. It was here that the discipline of cybernetics (the control of complex systems) first appeared. Primarily funded by the US military, the development of Cybernetics (a more sophisticated version of the machine paradigm) has been the driving force behind information technology from the second half of the 20th century until today.

As Webster and Robins point out, by the 60s the Fordist industrial system, which had culminated in the first half of the 20th century, was facing increasing criticism due to its overall rigidity. The 70s and 80s saw the emergence of the ‘post-Fordist’ paradigm, when computers began to spread into all aspects of life – first in the workplace and then, with Microsoft and Apple, into the home. Consistent with the more flexible and ‘smarter’ forms of regulation of complex systems offered by cybernetics, this technology allowed people, it appeared, to escape from the rigidity of Fordist life and to express their individuality and creativity.

As has now become clear, it enabled the economy of ‘flexibility’, of isolation and precarity. The atomisation and erosion of working class resistance to capitalism promoted by information technologies is an example of the way that technologies serves the fundamental logic of the system that generates them. Information Technology intensifies and accelerates the megamachine that is our society, resulting not in post-Fordism, but hyper-Fordism. Another process occurring throughout this period, for which information technology was essential, was corporate globalisation, requiring computers to manage the data management and communication needs of expanding transnational corporations.

Information technologies opened vast new markets of consumer gadgetry, fuelling a new engine of capital accumulation. They gave new impetus to the ongoing process of capital intensification (replacing labour costs with machinery). This has already had a massive impact on the employment market, with a series of ‘jobless recoveries’ from recessions being a major element in the creation of the ‘squeezed middle’. At present this trend is accelerating, with Artificial Intelligence and robotics already impacting on professional jobs, for example, the proliferation of stock trading by computer algorithms.

The establishment of an utterly transparent communication regime in which surveillance of the population can be automated has also been a major advantage to the state/corporate system. The ubiquity of surveillance was characterised by Michel Foucault as a panopticon, named for a prison system first proposed by Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which every inmate knows that they are under constant surveillance and so discipline themselves. We need only highlight the widespread acceptance that one’s Facebook data is being mined by corporations, and the general abandonment of the concept of privacy to see its effects.


The development of information technology is a response to the needs of the three main powers of technocratic capitalism: private capital, the state and the military. Information is the necessary technology, the core technology of technocratic capitalism, in contrast to nuclear, nano or biotechnologies, which are simply nice accessories. Information technology springs from the central logic of technocracy – the creation of control and order through systematic knowledge, and of capitalism – the domination of physical labour by intellectual labour, embodied as capital. Information is the lifeblood of systems, and it is capital.

Obviously, this does not mean that these technologies have no benefits. Neither is it that they are tainted to the point of uselessness by their basic functions in the system.  We just need to be clear about what that basic function is. It may be that in post-capitalist, post-technocratic society some use may be found for information technology. In the meantime, the best we can do is follow the advice offered by General Ludd in his recent communique: OFF YOUR COMPUTERS AND ONTO THE STREETS!

By Dave King | Dave King is the coordinator of the Luddites200, a group that has been organising celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings to honour the Luddites’ struggle and challenge the myths about them.


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