Labour, Energy and the Colonial Geography of Artificial Intelligence

by Larry Lohmann

first published 24 August 2022

This exploratory working paper attempts to place the energy-intensive project of mechanizing interpretive labor known as artificial intelligence (AI) in the context of the longer trajectory of post-18th century industrialization and the capitalist appropriation of human and nonhuman work.

Insisting on the material nature of mental work, the physical nature of information, and the political nature of thermodynamics, the working paper proposes viewing AI, like more conventional forms of industrialism, as a set of entropic, globally-distributed machines for labor exploitation concentrated in private hands and dependent on specific geographic patterns of colonialism and ecological fatigue.

In particular, it examines the contradictory relations through which interpretive ‘dead labour’ crystallized in AI machine networks and platforms recruits, partners with, and degrades enormous quantities of both ‘living labour’ and thermodynamic energy in order to perform its repetitive tasks.

As in the the 19th-century industrial revolution, the geography of this process is better understood by treating energy not as a singular resource extractable from various zones and then used up in other zones of an essentially invariant landscape, but as the political reorganization of entropy gradients and exchanges across the borders of nonequilibrium systems.

The working paper aims to open up fresh lines of inquiry into of the ‘digital natures’ that AI shapes and the living labor that helps constitute it.