[...] these divisions were constantly being reinforced, since they served a valuable purpose: they helped make exploitation seem justified, even natural.
Thus it was natural for the Irish to be paid less and live in appalling slums. It was natural for women to be paid less while also performing the unpaid work of raising children — children who went into the mills as young as five. It was natural to enslave human beings of African origin and put them to work harvesting the cotton that those mills turned into textiles. It was natural to dispossess and exterminate the Indigenous people who had formerly inhabited the land that became those cotton fields.
Capitalism doesn’t invent human difference, of course. Humans look different; they speak different languages; they come from different communities and cultures. But capitalism makes these differences make more of a difference to people’s lives. Differences become more differential. They become differences of capacity and value — differences in how much a human being is worth, or if they’re even considered human at all.
The political scientist Cedric J. Robinson argued that this difference-making has been a core feature of capitalism from the beginning — he called it racial capitalism for this reason. Feudal Europe was highly racialized, Robinson said. As Europeans conquered and colonized one another, they came up with ideas about racial difference in order to justify why, for instance, Slavs should be slaves. (In fact, Slavs were so frequently enslaved in the Middle Ages that they supplied the source of the word “slave,” in English and several other European languages.)
If racial thinking saturated the societies where capitalism first emerged, capitalism subsequently picked up these concepts and extended them. It generated deeper and more varied ideas about racial difference in order to justify the new relationships of domination that the imperative of accumulation demanded — particularly as Europeans began carving up Asia, Africa, and the Americas. “The tendency of European civilization through capitalism,” Robinson wrote, “was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate — to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”
Robinson’s insight helps clarify another crucial aspect of how tech operates. If tech intensifies capitalism’s contradiction between wealth being collectively produced and privately owned, it also intensifies capitalism’s tendency to slice people into different groups and assign them different capacities and values. Indeed, the two operations are closely related. “Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating,” says the theorist Jodi Melamed, “and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups.” The network for making wealth, in other words, relies on the engine for making difference.
That engine is now made of software. Differentiation happens at an algorithmic level. The abundant data that flows from mass digitization, combined with the ability of machine learning algorithms to find patterns in that data, has given capitalism vastly more powerful tools for segmenting and sorting humanity.
Way back in 1993, the media scholar Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. offered an extremely prescient view of how this works. He called it “the panoptic sort,” in a book of the same name. “The panoptic sort is a difference machine that sorts individuals into categories and classes on the basis of routine measurements,” he wrote. “It is a discriminatory technology that allocates options and opportunities on the basis of those measures and the administrative models that they inform.”