Metis and General Intellect

“The general intellect” can be interpreted as tacit craft knowledge embedded in individual cunning and social relations. This definition sets general intellect in contrast and opposition to formal information systems. Framing it this way may not be completely true to historic usage, but has some revealing consequences. It applies to either abstract information machines like traditional bureaucracies, or concretized ones, like specific computer programs. Craft and process arguments in software development are also a lens on this transformation of skills in cognitive capitalism, information valorization and their relationship with bureaucracy and flows of stupidity. To expand the general intellect is to accelerate.

The term the general intellect (sometimes general social knowledge) originates from Marx and was used by operaismo thinkers to grapple with the emergence of cognitive capitalism. Virno states:

Whereas money, the “universal equivalent” itself, incarnates in its independent existence the commensurability of products, jobs, and subjects, the general intellect instead stabilizes the analytic premises of every type of practice. Models of social knowledge do not equate the various activities of labor, but rather present themselves as the “immediate forces of production.”

They are not units of measure, but they constitute the immeasurability presupposed by heterogeneous operative possibilities.

They are not “species” existing outside of the “individuals” who belong to them, but axiomatic rules whose validity does not depend on what they represent. Measuring and representing nothing, these technico-scientific codes and paradigms manifest themselves as constructive principles.

From here I suggest general intellect as a form of tacit and social knowledge, of metis, defined in contrast to formal knowledge, numeric or systematic knowledge. The general intellect is cognition but it is not data. It is highly contextualized, by experience, locality and specific social relations. James C. Scott offers the knowledge embodied by a soccer team or a ship’s pilot as good examples of metis. He also uses it in contrast to systematic forms of knowledge used in high modernist, often Fordist projects of top-down political control, state or corporate.

At the economy scale, the general intellect also seems to have an intersection with the idea of “institutions” in economic development. Institutions established ongoing government policies but also more abstract things like property rights and the rule of law; they are not primarily buildings, but persistent social relations, not commoditized or readily transferable between nations. Acemoglu and colleagues found significant correlation between historic settler mortality and modern economic success, putting forward the type of colonial institutions as the causative link.

Though this is oppositional with computation as a form of knowledge, the two are complementary in production. Operators draw on the general intellect to make machines work and produce things. This is true of concrete machines, like a coffee maker, or abstract machines in the Simondon / Deleuze / Guattari sense. And machines, especially large abstract machines, make use of operator black boxes to be effective. Traditional bureaucracy before the advent of modern computers and networks is an example of an abstract information machine which uses human operators as black box components – for instance to persist information to longer term storage, by writing on paper.

If we look at the skilled cognition involved in designing complex machinery, such as computer programming, we find the general intellect in the sense of individual and organizational craft knowledge. The rise of agile software development techniques, emphasising teamwork and craft skills over Fordist or high modernist planning, is one example of this over the last fifteen years. Yet the act of programming depends very much on an individual mental model, as pointed out by Naur. Programming is not typing; the main productive activity in programming is building a coherent mental model, the actual executable code produced is a side-effect. “Programming in this sense must be the programmers’ building up knowledge of a certain kind, knowledge taken to be basically the programmers’ immediate possession” (Naur). The spread of algorithms and software throughout society would then suggest a shattering of the general intellect into millions of shards of specific intellects. The general intellect – the entirety of system relations – could decay even as systemic shards expand in sophistication.

None of this is deny a certain translatability from metis to formalized knowledge. It can all be boiled down to bits in the end. Translation for functional use is costly and lossy, though. The mechanics of deep learning parallel this metic transformation from formal data structures into occluded knowledge. To understand how a deep learning system internally navigates a problem space requires a separate systematic analysis alien to the learning mechanism of the algorithm. Deep learning is a localized preview of machinic metis.

A countertrend to the fragmentation of general intellect might be the success of open source, but the point of open source is precisely to make the executable details of machines more readily available through social processes. It is a common platform rather than a general intellect, where evolution of the platform happens through patches (explicit formal communication) rather than primarily through evolved social understanding, though those dynamics still exist. It is striking that open source communities are organized primarily around a specific machine or platform rather than user products. This is true from the GNU C compiler through to the Apache web server and git source control. They echo Simondon’s critique of objects made in capitalism not evolving but merely accumulating features. Simondon’s comments on technical culture also parallel general social knowledge:

Now that he is a technical being no longer, man is forced to find for himself a position in the technical ensemble that is something other than the position of individual.

The trend for computer programming to promote skilling up for designers but sometimes exporting deskilling elsewhere was noted by Mackenzie in 1984; it’s because capitalism is a valorizing process rather than a deskilling process per se. Likewise there are deskilling trends in the software industry around outsourcing highly specific work to remote or offshore teams, so long as it promotes valorization (increases shareholder value).

The frustrations of working in or with a bureaucracy are often those of being a black box cog in a larger abstract machine, either through alienation from the meaning of the work, or because the work actually causes an undesirable effect which conflicts with personal goals, or even the stated goal of the organization itself. That is a form of stupidity but relates to all bureaucracy. Deleuze and Guattari say in capitalism:

The apparatus of antiproduction is no longer a transcendent instance that opposes production, limits it, or checks it; on the contrary, it insinuates itself everywhere in the productive machine and becomes firmly wedded to it in order to regulate its productivity and realize surplus value which explains, for example, the difference between the despotic bureaucracy and the capitalist bureaucracy.

eg in a despotic state the army may come and confiscate food and labour from a subsistence farmer when fighting a war, but in capitalism this military anti-production is in the form of a military-industrial complex, production interleaved with anti-production. Yet those critiques could apply to Soviet socialism too; only capitalism manages to create demand and ensure lack in the midst of overabundance.

Deleuze takes stupidity as an inability to dissociate from presuppositions, sense rather than common sense. Contemplating flows of stupidity, I am reminded of the slogan of engineer Jesse Robbins for making useful things in corporate bureaucracies: “Don’t fight stupid, make more awesome”. This could also serve as an accelerationist slogan, and can be critiqued the same way. Are you pushing forward as an elite ignoring politically hard problems, or are you building a concrete alternative solution that will attract change? Are you wasting time trying to change a system accelerated beyond human comprehension, or are you using accelerated human components to build a new system?


Acemoglu et al – The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development
Beck et al – Agile Software Development Manifesto
Deleuze and Guattari – The Anti-Oedipus
Garton – Excavating the Origins of Accelerationism
Land – A Quick and Dirty Introduction to Accelerationism
Mackenzie – Marx and the Machine
Naur – Programming As Theory Building
Scott – Seeing Like A State
Simondon – On The Mode of Existence of Technical Objects
Virno – Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus, in Radical Thought In Italy
Williams / Srnicek – #accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics


Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

Mass Gentrification

You can sit in a building in West Coast Park in Singapore and get a reasonably clear view of America.

On one side, you can find a drive-thru fast food vendor with a full carpark, selling fries and burgers. On the other, you see a cafe nestled in the trees of one of the largest and nicest parks in the city.

Both are branches of an American multinational. The cafe food and coffee is tasty enough for a franchise; it’s easy to get worse food at more expense. The burgers are fresh.

Look right: Red state. Look left: Blue state. HBO / Fox. New York / Dallas. Thesis / antithesis.

Now, not only are these two eateries under the same roof, but they’re actually the same company – McDonald’s, and its McCafe offspring. (How it achieved a pocket monopoly with no neighbouring hawker centre is another question.)

When McDonald’s was founded, people mostly got paid to exercise. There were more blue collar, manual jobs. Cheap meat, from the first wave of agricultural mass production, was a welcome boon. Now we get paid to sit still at an office, and incomes have increased to a point where, in a rich or middle income country, it is easy to be poor and fat. It’s so easy it’s rather undesirable and déclassé – hence the backlash against fast food brands in recent years. Books and films like Fast Food Nation are as much passive economic data points as active shifters of public opinion. The threat of regulation shouldn’t be discounted, but is itself only made possible by a cultural shift.

So the popular palette has shifted, and a corporation that likes profit has shifted to match it. This hasn’t just happened on the cafe side, either. They have, for instance, healthier Happy Meals – same insidious toy hook, apple pieces instead of fries. Premium options are always good for businesses like McDonald’s with large rent and labour costs relative to the cost of their food. In the past this is why upsizing was useful. Now that leaves us terrified of being giant tubs of heart-seizuring lard, you have options like the Mighty Angus Burger, which is a more expensive cut of meat. “It’s a little bit fancy,” the Australian ad campaign runs.

Posh things have got cheaper and are more widely consumed. So cheap you can buy them at McDonald’s. This is now widespread. It’s almost the entire business model of Starbucks and Gucci. This was not so clearly the case during our journey from the Industrial Revolution. Things were often cheap and standard but not as nice as the craftware they replaced – at least what little you could afford. (Social poshness is a relative good and as scarce as ever.) 

This is not an original observation, though the scale of it is, mayhaps, not appreciated enough. Marx, Schumpeter, or any economic historian could tell you about it. I asked an economist for the short technical name for it, and he replied “capitalism”.

Amusing as that is, capitalism drove price drops and standardization as much as it drove the current push to quality. I prefer the term mass gentrification. The process of luxurious unattainables becoming commodities.

For all the recent chatter of capitalism being destroyed by its own contradictions, I’m not quite sold. It has a history of transcending them.

“Are you having the thesis or the antithesis?” I asked, as my wife returned to the table at one tentacle of global McCapitalism. “The synthesis,” she said. “And it’s good.”