Digital Materiality: Standardization 1

(This will be the first of two instalments on standardization.  Here I will elaborate the analogy between the rigour demanded of the materials in advanced electronics and that demanded by the people whole labour to produce them.  The second part will be the shared history of standards institutions, global industry and science)

Our current age of emergent computerized digital processes is commonly described as unprecedented, but if we look closely at the projections and the screens it becomes impossible to overlook the persistence of ancient principles at work there, in that which is displayed, but also in the material structure of the device itself which inevitably shows traces of its manufacture. Working backward from these principles, manufacture is still based on hegemonic control conditions, a kind of super-Taylorism which today includes many automated processes.

The manufacture of an electronic device requires precision, there is can be no freedom on the assembly line, if there were, the device would not work. Workers on assembly lines not only carry out the same operation over and over again for days on end, the must keep to a schedule they did not choose, and perform according to every more demanding productivity measures decided on by the “scientific” management representatives of the company investors. Marx described this kind of work as attractive to the capitalist because it is repetitive and unskilled, in principle it could be done by anyone with a little training, this ensures that there will always be others who could take over the job should productivity flag or political demands arise.  This is disciplined by what Kalecki described as the “disciplinary power of the sack”[1], the constant threat of unemployment by which the contemporary unskilled labourer submits. to the unfairly recompensed participation in production.

Division of labour into repetitive tasks is the basis of industrialization, and today’s so-called post-industrial economy. Everywhere where unions are unwelcome, wages are low and unemployment is high there will be industrial workers doing part work on advanced commodities under the most hegemonic and extreme conditions of exploitation possible under local laws. The globalized logistics chain and the introduction of global standardization regimes like, principally the ISO, ensure that capitalists can distribute their production around the world at will, routing around labour militancy and other threats to the profit margin.

Although capital must deal with the problem of sunk investments in immovable buildings, machines, and other infrastructures, reconfigurable supply chains allow it unprecedented power to route around, and starve, troublesome labour forces. By splitting workers into a “core” composed of permanent workers (often conservative and loyal) and a periphery of casualised, outsourced and fragmented workers, who may or may not work for the same firm, capital has dispersed proletarian resistance quite effectively.[2]

The workers sacrifice their freedom entirely during their work session. They submit their bodies to the task at hand and to the regime of the production facility. The psychological regulation they must exercise in order to keep working at an accelerated pace under stringent technical conditions (so as not to make mistakes) , they must offer as yet another unpaid contribution to the production process. Also assumed unpaid contributions to production are what Silvia Federicci calls “reproductive labour”[3], the caring, affective and nurturing that is necessary to reproduce the ability of the worker to contribute to production on a daily and even momentary basis.

“We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave -like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised.”[3]

As such, these workers, near the end of the production chain are truly wage slaves, completely submitting to the hierarchy of the production facility for the length of the working day. Unlike with slaves however, their employer takes no responsibility to see to their health and welfare. Anything they might need will have to be purchased, hired or rented from their salary. The salary frees the employer from enormous social commitment which, it is assumed, will be met independently by the employee. Under these conditions it is inevitable that a similarly desperate sector of society will emerge, to feed, clothe, house and see to the other needs of the employee with the lowest possible quality for the highest possible price[4]. In this way, contemporary wage slaves are exploited to the maximum by capital at work and in between.

It is important to remember thus that since investment in the facility (and in the surrounding businesses, and indirectly in the global production of necessities) is leveraged not on already carried-out production but only on current and future production continuing apace, the impact of labour stoppages can still have an enormous impact. However, because the interests of capital largely dominate the states where contemporary mass-production is concentrated, its representatives in the form of police or, tolerated local “security” mercenaries are usually rapidly invoked to get production going again.

The operation of “robots” or machines are simplifications of the operations of human and animal labour. As such, Taylorist simplification and specialization of production tasks leads to automation. However, according to Marx, automation is unattractive to the capitalist since the automaton is purchased and then set to work, it is not exploited, but simply does its task without generating any profits. Profits can only be derived from exploiting living labour. The automaton make up the cost of its purchase by replacing the equivalent exploitation salaries the workers who would have otherwise done the work would have gotten, again without generating any profit.

Under contemporary conditions of globalization where one small sector of the planet’s population dominates the rest, not only militarily but through imposing forms of industrial production and consumption which permanently disrupt other tradition practices of subsistence, solidarity and community production, the result is an endless flood of desperate workers whose are willing to work under conditions so rudimentary and for wages so low that it is simply cheaper for the capitalist to employ them than to automate their jobs away. This is again evident at the base of the electronics production chain, where the mineral ores are exhumed from mines.

It is by now well known that at mines producing mineral resources for high technologies Dickensian conditions maintain. Workers, disenfranchised from their own land through corrupt local government, militias employed by mining companies, pollution, war or other calamity find themselves digging ore from the ground at the end of a gun barrel, only for the privilege to stay alive. These people are completely stripped of rights and are not even wage slaves, this is Marx’s primitive accumulation going on right now as you read this. The fullness and richness of human experience which is vaunted to be emancipated through digital technology is not afforded to most who contribute labour to the production chain. And there can be no affordance for that or else the entire system would collapse and the devices will cease to work. The waste of human potential is the hidden price of the unleashed potential of the device users. Ironically today, just as labour union pension plans can invest in labour bashing mining companies, the wage slave is also able to enjoy the emancipatory potential of the device made through its submission to the fundamental discipline of the production.

“… In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, big chunks and little pebbles of tantalum (coltan), cassiterite (tin), wolframite (tungsten), and gold are pulled by hand from cold, sludgy mountain rivers, often by children, and eventually they make their way into the device component supply chain.(22)  In 2009 a few mines here produced 13 percent of the world’s mined coltan, an inert metal used in ubiquitous tiny capacitors, especially for cell phones. (23) From this same land, the Belgians took ivory, the Americans cobalt, and now billions of Earthlings everywhere carry little bits of Africa around with them in their pockets. The financial rewards of mining and trading in electronics have contributed to devastating effects in the region, including overlapping civil wars in the DRC and next door in Rwanda (from 1998 to 2003, upward of 5 million people died in the Congolese civil war, making it by one measure the deadliest conflict since World War II). (24) Extraction and export of minerals, both legal and illegal, have been controlled and taxed by competing militias and organized crime; away from the relative stability of the cities, these groups continue to terrorize local populations and use the proceeds of this export trade to finance ongoing wars over local territorial positions. The smoldering conflict is a war partially financed with the manufacturing capital of smart phones and laptops; inevitably, the smooth skin of the device demands gore to feed its gloss. Deforestation in the pursuit of new sources of coltan in remote areas populated by gorillas has also led to an increase in the trade and consumption of bush meat, a quasi-cannibal economy.” [5]

Just like you can’t eat bread made of wheat freshly harvested from the field, you can’t make electronics with minerals straight out of the mine. The nutritive properties in the wheat must be made available to our metabolism through various processes which abstract the nutritive elements, especially the soluble proteins, etc and remove those elements which impede digestion, the stalks, the rusks, in many cases the bran. Flour, the most comestible basic wheat product, necessitates enormous waste by volume, luckily, in the case of wheat waste, this material is not only biodegradable, but wheat-eating civilisations have over centuries develop practical uses for what is leftover from flour production.

Minerals for electronics must also be refined for them to provide the reliable functionality expected of them by the producers and the consumers of electronics. If the material is not pure, it will not behave reliably according to its function in the design of the electronics. The inside of an electronic device is an assembly of extremely specialized materials each behaving precisely according to specialization because they have been refined to extreme purity.

Tin, used in solder for electronics, when removed from the ground is mixed with a variety of other metals and materials. In that condition, the ore only exhibits a faint indication of its electricity conductive properties. To bring out these properties, the ‘impurities’ are removed through a process called smelting. Smelting uses heat and other chemicals to decompose a base metal from the ore in which it is found.  This process, because it produces various bi-products, some toxic and dangerous is usually undertaken close to the place of original extraction. Smelting operations leave behind “wastelands” of economically insignificant “tailings”, waste products which are utterly unredeemable because there is no epistemology of the that part of the process.

Just as the tin in our electronics is refined so as to behave (slavishly) exactly according to specification, great diversity of human being is constrained to machinic roles in the production of advanced technology. The was clearly perceived by the “father” of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener:

“…mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human slavery. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor … It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save …” [6]

Invisibly, “beneath the API” [7], people actually labour as a function or part of computerized processes. The capitalist narrative of social “progress” through high technology is intentionally narrow. “freedoms” we are promised are always predicated on “unfreedoms”, discipline and order, unseen or overlooked, in the inner workings of the apparatus the provides the freedom. The shadow of this freedom is waste. Waste is freedom without agency.

There is always a trade-off between freedom and order.  Despite official pronouncements affirming the dignity and rights of all human beings, certain populations have for generations been subordinated to playing machinic roles in techno-industry. The great accomplishments of (post-)modern technology is predicated on the waste of the intellectual, creative and inventive potential of generations of human beings through imperialism, slavery and colonization.



[1] Michal Kalecki, (1943) Political aspects of full employment, Political Quarterly, vol 14, no 4 : 322-331


[3] Silvia Federici: see “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Perspective”  The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest,  In the Middle of a Whirlwind: 2008 Convention Protests, Movement & Movements

[4] a historical example from Marx’s Capital Vol.1 Part 6, footnote 52:

“One example. In London there are two sorts of bakers, the “full priced,” who sell bread at its full value, and the “undersellers,” who sell it under its value. The latter class comprises more than three-fourths of the total number of bakers. (p. xxxii in the Report of H. S. Tremenheere, commissioner to examine into “the grievances complained of by the journeymen bakers,” &c., Lond. 1862.) The undersellers, almost without exception, sell bread adulterated with alum, soap, pearl ashes, chalk, Derbyshire stone-dust, and such like agreeable nourishing and wholesome ingredients. (See the above cited blue book, as also the report of “the committee of 1855 on the adulteration of bread,” and Dr. Hassall’s “Adulterations detected,” 2d Ed. Lond. 1862.) Sir John Gordon stated before the committee of 1855, that “in consequence of these adulterations, the poor man, who lives on two pounds of bread a day, does not now get one fourth part of nourishing matter, let alone the deleterious effects on his health.” Tremenheere states (l. c. p. xlviii), as the reason, why a very large part of the working class, although well aware of this adulteration, nevertheless accept the alum, stone-dust, &c., as part of their purchase: that it is for them “a matter of necessity to take from their baker or from the chandler’s shop, such bread as they choose to supply.” As they are not paid their wages before the end of the week, they in their turn are unable “to pay for the bread consumed by their families, during the week, before the end of the week,” and Tremenheere adds on the evidence of witnesses, “it is notorious that bread composed of those mixtures, is made expressly for sale in this manner.” In many English and still more Scotch agricultural districts, wages are paid fortnightly and even monthly; with such long intervals between the payments, the agricultural labourer is obliged to buy on credit…. He must pay higher prices, and is in fact tied to the shop which gives him credit. Thus at Horningham in Wilts, for example, where the wages are monthly, the same flour that he could buy elsewhere at 1s 10d per stone, costs him 2s 4d per stone. (“Sixth Report” on “Public Health” by “The Medical Officer of the Privy Council, &c., 1864.” p. 264.) “

[5] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, MIT Press, Cambridge 2015, p. 82

[6] Norbert Wiener (1965) Cybernetics. MIT Press, Cambridge, p.27