#01 – Is the spirit of capitalism a Turing machine?

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#01 – Is the spirit of capitalism a Turing machine?

by Alessandro Cozzutto 
Creative content & digital strategy @ Slash_Prod
Reading time: 6 minutes
Scientists urge policymakers to explore the risks, associated with increasingly intelligent machines, such as mass employment – theFinancial Timesreports.
The good news is that digital computers will not enslave humans: that’s too late, and maybe unnecessary.

 This post describes how a great variety of popular media
– such as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written by the father of sociology Max Weber, the collected works on Mechanical Intelligence, by the British logician Alan Turing, or The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers’ American blockbuster – all anticipated those scientists.

Which is very reassuring.
It’s evolution, baby!
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Duration: 1:42 minutes
Max Weber’s “iron cage”
According to Weber’s reading of the early Protestant sacred documents, the celebration of God through a life of hard work and sacrifice does not represent a sufferance at these believers’ eyes, as a lightweight coat of faith lies upon their shoulders.

The spirit of these sects, in Weber’s observation, drives the organizational forms of work of primitive capitalism, which, as a consequence of its economic success, starts regulating society as a whole, “not only those directly engaged in earning a living.” [Weber, The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, p. 123]. 

Generation after generation, a material church replace the spiritual sects. 
Generation after generation, an immaterial market replace the material church.

Generation after generation, work continues to mean sacrifice.

Such a capitalistic evolution sets the spirit free of moral considerations, as work gradually stops addressing God’s glory to start looking for self-fulfillment, a life-achievement that is morally prohibited at first, then allowed, finally becomes mandatory in what was for Weber the incipient age of (self) consumption: the lightweight coat – that faith was on the believers’ shoulders – turns into an iron cage (stahlhartes Gehäuse) for the workers of the free western world. 
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Duration: 1:30 minutes
The Turing machine
Weber believes that such an automatism embodies the shift of modern life into this iron cage of instructions to execute endlessly, the socio-economic version of what logicians call Halting problem. Alain Turing starts from a similar logical dilemma to land on the theoretical description of an ‘ideal-machine based on an algorithm,’ which provides the Halting problem with a negative logical solution. Thanks to another recent blockbuster, The imitation game (Morten Tyldum, 2014), millions of people today know that Alain Turing contributed to defeat Nazis with the decryption of their secrete communications and then was forced to suicide because of his homosexuality. 
Millions of people still ignore, though, that his negative solution to the Halting problem, today known as Turing machine, ends up inspiring the development of computers as
common tools to make modern work less hard, as now machines can start performing it on behalf of men. With the rise and fall of the British empire, the evil capitalism paves the way to computer science’s development, which at its turn fosters the arrival of our contemporary information society: stay foolish, stay hungry, in particular if you are part of the growing unemployed population (very hungry, and more and more angry). Today, we are able to appreciate the increasing validity of Weber’s intuitions because the concept of men-machine, called to execute a set of instructions without interpreting them, has gone beyond Turing’s intuitions as well, landing on the material and social existence of computers, which enable us to work, to have fun, to build relations, and – more importantly – to make people feel free as they have never been before. And people are free indeed: just, free not as free speech, but free as free beer. 
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Duration: 1:59 minutes
A digital cage
The digital world opens a white horizon of opportunities: a lightweight coat of free contents, such as this post.

However, this same digital world implies a growing competition that annihilates the economic compensation for these contents: an iron cage of great expectations and no one paying a salary to allow you to feed them.

Now, take a blue pill and answer to this question: would you pay 10 cents to read this post? 

Turing was the first one to believe in the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which today seems so real that scientists get anxious. 

This prophecy of digital slaves that rise and turn slavery against their exploiters, though, cannot be real. It can only be the dessert of the real, a last sweet bite before that the boredom of reality prevails: 
Machines have power, but they don’t care. Waiting for self-generative AI like they were waiting for Godot, machines calculate. 

They work without questioning.
As many human beings before them.
Which is precisely Weber’s definition of the spirit of capitalism. 

No surprise, then, that this unintentional slavery lies upon the will of those people “…so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it,” as Morpheus, the most charismatic character in The Matrix, puts it. 

Is the spirit of capitalism a Turing machine? 

Can it find a solution to the halting problem? 
Read more 

  • Halting problem http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Halting_problem
  • Turing machine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turing_machine
  • The FT wrote many interesting articles on these subjects. 

Cited works 

  • Weber, The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1920), Chicago-London, Fitzroy dearborn publishers, 2001. 
  • Turing, A.M., Collected works, Mechanical Intelligence, New York, Elsevier, 1992, vol. III (edited by Ince D.C.). 
  • Cappuccio, M.L., Alan Turing: l’uomo, la macchina, l’enigma, Milano, AlboVersorio, 2005. 
  • Stallman, R., Saggi scelti, vol I (2002), Viterbo, Nuovi equilibri, 2003.

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