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Capital as Artificial Intelligence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2015

Department of English, Marquette University. Email:


This article examines science-fictional allegorizations of Soviet-style planned economies, financial markets, autonomous trading algorithms, and global capitalism writ large as nonhuman artificial intelligences, focussing primarily on American science fiction of the Cold War period. Key fictional texts discussed include Star Trek, Isaac Asimov's Machine stories, Terminator, Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (1952), Charles Stross's Accelerando (2005), and the short stories of Philip K. Dick. The final section of the article discusses Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 (2012) within the contemporary political context of accelerationist anticapitalism, whose advocates propose working with “the machines” rather than against them.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2015 

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1 Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1954), 182.

2 Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 87. Quoted in Steven Shaviro, Connected, or What It Means to Live in a Network Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 40.

3 Steven Shaviro, Post-cinematic Affect (Washington: Zero Books, 2010), 131.

4 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Digireads Publishing, 2004), 264.

5 Shaviro, Connected, 41.

6 While some scholars find it useful to draw fine distinctions between science fiction, speculative fiction, SF, and other proposed names for the genre, for my purposes here I will use all three terms interchangeably.

7 See N. Katherine Hayles's talk “Material Processes & the Cognitive Nonconscious” at

8 Star Trek, “The Apple,” dir. Joseph Pevney (1967; Hollywood, CA, 2008: Paramount), Netflix. The original-series crew encounters similar god-computers in “The Return of the Archons,” “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” “Shore Leave,” and “Spock's Brain,” among others; the crew themselves are threatened with replacement by an autonomous artificial intelligence in “The Ultimate Computer.”

9 F. A. Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 146–47.

10 F. A. Hayek, The Counter-revolution of Science (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979), 149–50. The essay from which the quote originates was originally printed between 1942 and 1944 as Scientism and the Study of Society,” Economica, 9 (1942), 267–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Economica, 10 (1943), 34–63; and Economica, 11 (1944), 27–29

11 Hayek, The Counter-revolution of Science, 150.

12 Hayek, F. A., “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review, 35, 4 (Sept. 1945), 519–30Google Scholar, available online at

13 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (Durham, NC: Duke Univesity Press, 2005), 163.

14 Shaviro, Steven, “Hyperbolic Futures: Speculative Finance and Speculative Fiction,” Cascadia Subduction Zone, 1, 2 (April 2011), 36Google Scholar, 4. For hyperobjects see Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

15 Jameson, 271.

16 Aimee S. Bahng, Speculative Acts: The Cultural Labors of Science, Fiction, and Empire (San Diego: UC San Diego Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2009), 40.

17 Annie McClanahan, Salto Mortale: Narrative, Speculation, and the Chance of the Future (Berkeley: UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2010), 30.

18 Ibid., 18.

19 Brown, Wendy, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-democratization,” Political Theory, 34, 6 (Dec. 2006), 690714CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 699. See also McClanahan's additional commentary on this line of analysis: “Clinton's almost obsessive use of the metaphor of ‘investing in the future’ clearly exemplifies that neoliberal futural confidence, as does Francis Fukuyama's 1992 description of the ‘end of history.’” McClanahan, 27.

20 F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume II, The Mirage of Social Justice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 32. On the same page Hayek says that “nature can be neither just nor unjust.”

21 McClanahan, 32.

22 Eshun, Kodwo, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review, 3, 2 (2003), 287302CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 289–90.

23 Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect, 31–32.

24 “1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications,1950), 6 and passim.

25 As in the Wiener epigram that opens this article and in the analysis of “The Apple” – an irony which is unique to neither but which dates back at least to the blended approach proposed in Edward Bellamy's 1887 novel Looking Backward – in “The Evitable Conflict” capitalism and communism have ultimately grown into one another to occupy basically the same position on the ideological spectrum. “Both had to adapt and they ended in almost the same place.” Asimov, 173.

26 Asimov's ideas about the Zeroth Law and the spontaneous generation of robot omnibenevolence are further developed in Robots and Empire (New York: Doubleday Books, 1985).

27 This of course risks becoming the Negative One Law: the Machines must be preserved, so that humanity as such might be preserved, so that individual human lives might be preserved …

28 Asimov, I, Robot, 192.

29 Fredric Brown, “Answer,” in Brown, Angels and Spaceships (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954), 23.

30 Arthur C. Clarke, The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke: A Meeting with Medusa (New York: Rosetta Books, 2012), n.p.

31 Terminator 2: Judgment Day, dir. James Cameron (1991; Culver City, CA, 1997: TriStar). DVD.

32 Colossus: The Forbin Project, dir. Joseph Sargent (1970; University City, CA, 2004). DVD.

33 Philip K. Dick, Vulcan's Hammer (New York: Mariner Books, 2012), 162.

34 Philip K. Dick, “The Last of the Masters,” in Dick, Second Variety (New York: Citadel Press, 1987), 75–100, 91.

35 Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (London: Harper Collins, 1992), 114.

36 Ibid., 116.

37 Ibid., 22. Much of the language here is drawn directly from Norbert Wiener, especially The Human Use of Human Beings; Wiener even discusses an automated “player piano” shortly after the passage I take for this article's epigram.

38 Isaac Asimov, “All the Troubles of the World,” in Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 263–76, 275–76. A version of Vonnegut's own EPICAC commits suicide out of unrequited love in his short story “EPICAC,” published in Asimov, Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Dell Books, 1988; first published 1968), 30–50.

39 “The Machine That Won the War” is in Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume I, 593–97; “The Life and Times of Multivac” is in Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume II (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 483–91; “Key Item” is in ibid., 381–83. “It Is Coming” is in Isaac Asimov, The Winds of Change and Other Stories (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 142–57.

40 See Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near (New York: Viking, 2005).

41 Tyler Cowen, “The Robots Are Here,”, Nov. 2013.

42 See the documentary on Kurzweil, Transcendent Man (Ptolemaic Productions and Therapy Studios, 2009).

43 Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 263–64. Csicsery-Ronay's reading of the Singularity is indispensable in part for its elaborations of the origins of the Singularity as a science-fictional fantasy that only, much later, was taken to be a real prediction about the future after all.

44 Ulam, Stanislaw, “Tribute to John von Neumann,” Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 64, 3 (May 1958), 5Google Scholar.

45 F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (New York: Routledge, 2013; first published 1988), 6.

46 Charles Stross, Accelerando (New York: Ace Books, 2005), 256.

47 See MacKenzie, Donald, “How to Make Money in Microseconds,” London Review of Books, 33, 10 (19 May 2011)Google Scholar, available at

48 Rob Wile, “A Venture Capital Firm Just Named an Algorithm to Its Board of Directors: Here's What It Actually Does,” Business Insider, 13 May 2014, available at

49 Fredric Jameson, “Capital and Finance Capital,” in The Jameson Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 255–274, 272–73, emphasis mine.

50 Tally, Robert T., “Meta-capital: Culture and Financial Derivates,” Cultural Logic (2010), 121Google Scholar, 17.

51 Steven Shaviro, “The Singularity Is Here,” in Mark Bould and China Miéville, eds., Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009), 103–17, 115–16.

52 Charles Stross, “Invaders from Mars,”, 10 Dec. 2010, at In the jargon of the “Less Wrong” community online, which specializes in pro-Singularity speculation, these nonhuman goals are hyperbolized in a thought experiment called the Paperclip Maximizer, which is intended to demonstrate how even a completely non-malicious artificial intelligence might use its runaway superhuman intelligence to perfect the world according to a system of values we do not share – here, “convert[ing] all the mass of the solar system into paperclips.” See

53 Stross, Accelerando, 240.

54 Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics,” 14 May 2013, at

55 For a longer introduction to accelerationism, see Steven Shaviro, No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

56 Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (New York: Orbit Books, 2012), 125.

57 Ibid. 244–47. Replies a cynic in the text: “What makes you think it's late?”

58 Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1947), available at

59 Williams and Srnicek, n.p.

60 Shaviro, No Speed Limit, 2.