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King's College London
Mechanical Slavery: Freedom, Subjection, Automation

This talk is about the strikingly constant presence of slavery in theories of automation. So constant is this presence that, I argue, it must perform some essential structuring function in relation to automation’s principal subjects: labor and machinery. So multivalent are slavery’s appearances in the corpus of automation discourse that they must reveal something fundamental—something structural—about the form of society in which labor and machinery emerge, interact, and become meaningful.

In writings on automatic machinery from the early nineteenth century onwards one finds: machines analogized to slaves, and sometimes simply called slaves; workers defined in contradiction to slaves and presented as slaves; intensified mechanization described as labor’s enslavement and emancipation; the absence of mechanization understood as enslavement and emancipation; ethical and practical appeals to democratize the production process underscored by way of references to slavery; and, perhaps most jarring, capitalists presented as slaves to labor. I name this bundle of metaphorical deployments mechanical slavery.

In the talk, I will theorize mechanical slavery through a reading of a single popular text—a profile of the cybernetician Norbert Wiener by the novelist of white-collar ennui Sloan Wilson. In that profile, the cover story for the March 1953 issue of The Saturday Review, Wiener displaced the social relations mechanical slavery implies onto an anxiety about freedom of thought as the characteristic that separates free persons from computing machines and, in his telling, slaves.


Seb Franklin is Reader in Literature, Media, and Theory in the Department of English at King’s College London. He is the author of The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatic of Value (2021) and Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic (2015).


This is an IN-PERSON ONLY event and the event is held on *FRIDAY*.