The Eye of the Master: A Social History of Artificial Intelligence

July 10th, 2023

OUT NOW for → Verso Books

The special skill of each individual machine-operator, who has now been deprived of all significance, vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity in the face of the science, the gigantic natural forces, and the mass of the social labour embodied in the system of machinery, which, together with these three forces, constitutes the power of the ‘master’.
— Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 1867.

All human beings are intellectuals… although one can speak of intellectuals, one cannot speak of non-intellectuals, because non-intellectuals do not exist… There is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded: Homo faber cannot be separated from homo sapiens.
— Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks [1932].


What is AI? A dominant view describes it as the quest “to solve intelligence” – a solution supposedly to be found in the secret logic of the mind or in the deep physiology of the brain, such as in its complex neural networks. The Eye of the Master argues, to the contrary, that the inner code of AI is shaped not by the imitation of biological intelligence, but the intelligence of labour and social relations, as it is found in Babbage’s “calculating engines” of the industrial age as well as in the recent algorithms for image recognition and surveillance.

The idea that AI may one day become autonomous (or “sentient”, as someone thought of Google’s LaMDA) is pure fantasy. Computer algorithms have always imitated the form of social relations and the organisation of labour in their own inner structure and their purpose remains blind automation. The Eye of the Master urges a new literacy on AI for scientists, journalists and new generations of activists, who should recognise that the “mystery” of AI is just the automation of labour at the highest degree, not intelligence per se.


“We are surrounded by stories about AI threatening jobs, as if it were a power haunting labor from outside and above. The Eye of the Master radically challenges such a view. What Matteo Pasquinelli demonstrates is that labor is at root of the historical development of AI. Tales of expropriation and resistance, automation and struggle crisscross the pages of this passionate book, which is at same time an amazing academic achievement and a political weapon to rethink the politics of AI.”
— Sandro Mezzadra, professor of political theory at the University of Bologna and co-author of The Politics of Operation (2019).

“In this original and extremely timely book, Matteo Pasquinelli offers nothing less than a long-range history and critical analysis of a labour theory of automation and knowledge. He uses detailed studies both of the remarkable accounts of general intellect and the extractive and exploitative organisation of the industrial workplace produced in nineteenth-century British political economy and of the challenging developments of models of machine intelligence and computational systems developed in the mid-twentieth century United States to unlock the sources and meanings of the politics of artificial intelligence. The work shows how Marx’s depiction of the development of the social individual under industrial capitalism provides indispensable resources for making sense now of what artificial intelligence means, and the forms of economic and political order that its embodiment of knowledge and control express. At a moment when apostles and prophets of machine intelligence proclaim both a utopian world of effortless control and a catastrophe of extinction, Pasquinelli’s patient and clever work provides a crucial insight into the past and future of AI monopolies and their consequences.”
— Simon Schaffer, professor of history of science at Cambridge University and author of ‘Babbage’s Intelligence’ (1994) and ‘OK Computer’ (2001).

“Artificial Intelligence and its impact on society is on everyone’s lips, but how was AI shaped by society in the first place? This amazing account of its emergence, starting with the evolution of labor division and automatization, is a must-read. Pasquinelli’s book not only shows us where we came from but also how we might escape the problematic consequences of this evolution.”
— Jürgen Renn, director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin) and Founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology (Jena).



  • Out in English for Verso (10 October 2023).  For inquiries about foreign rights, contact Federico Campagna at Verso. Currently being translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish.

  • [de] Das Auge des Meisters: Eine Sozialgeschichte Künstlicher Intelligenz , Münster: Unrast, March 2024. 
  • [it] Nell’occhio dell’algoritmo: Una storia sociale dell’intelligenza artificiale. Roma: Carocci, December 2024.


For a review copy, please contact publicity at Verso.





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