Digital Labor

Orit Halpern


Dr. Orit Halpern is an assistant professor in History at the New School of Social Research and Eugene Lang College, and an affiliate in the Design Studies MA program at Parsons. Her research is on histories of digital media, cybernetics, cognitive and neuroscience, architecture, planning, and design. Her current book Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke University Press, 2014) is a genealogy of big data and interactivity. Her published works and multi-media projects have appeared in numerous venues including The Journal of Visual Culture, Public Culture, Configurations, Technology and Society, C-Theory, and at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. She has also published essays in numerous exhibition catalogs.

Strange Agency: A Brief History of Clouds and Crowds
This paper will examine the redefinition of intelligence and its relationship to the idea of self-organization from 1945 to the mid-1970’s. Linking together a history of rationality in the cognitive, neuro, and social sciences with cultural history, the paper will detail how collectivities, from insect communities to human crowds, went from being defined as dangerous, paranoid, and Fascist or Communist, to being a resource, the very site of political possibility and financial benefit, a medium to be “sourced” as in “crowd sourcing”. I trace how entities once described as stupid, dangerous, irrational and undemocratic became intelligent, networked, and valuable. The paper will focus particularly on the work of Herbert Simon, Fischer Black, Myron Scholes, E.O. Wilson, and other early pioneers in the human, ecological, and communication sciences who transformed ideas of agents and agency and developed new methods to measure and model organizations, networks, and societies. This epistemology of cybernetic behaviorism continues to inform contemporary notions of machine learning, and is regularly leveraged to in the interest of labor and profit in finance, data mining, and crowd sourcing.