Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan reviews The Digitally Disposed

Seb Franklin. The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Value. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 254 pp.

Review by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

29 June 2022

Promises of “universal service” justified dispossessing racialized lands and labor in the construction of North American railways, telegraphs, and other routes that still guide media infrastructure today. Horror films like Poltergeist (1982) and Candyman (1992) fashioned intrigue from these histories of the dispossessed, showing spirits rising up through TV sets and in condo developments. These films (and no insignificant amount of work in media studies) regard the racialized foundations of media infrastructure as an unfortunate prelude, no longer actual except as spectral disruption to the media present. Seb Franklin’s The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Values exemplifies a wider, ongoing countertrend to grasp the insistent actuality of racialized dispossession in media and infrastructure. To familiar sources of posthuman media theory like Kittler and Hayles, Franklin brings further insights on the racialized dimensions of humanism drawn from writers including Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartmann, and Frantz Fanon. Though Franklin’s broad theoretical and historical scope sets high demands on the reader, it rewards that effort with original insights of broad interest to media studies, literary studies, infrastructure studies, cultural studies, and science studies.

Across twelve chapters spanning topics including video art, literature, logistics, and mathematics, Franklin reads key artifacts of computation according to a theory of digitality, which he characterizes as an informatic capitalism that differentially exploits ethnicity, gender, class, and race while obfuscating its operations through technology. For example, Franklin interprets information theorist Claude E. Shannon’s celebrated account of how to build reliable communication networks from unreliable parts as an informatics of capitalist value, which he shows at work in racialized and gendered labor markets, global supply chains, and literary works.

Franklin’s biggest gamble is methodological: He meets the globalizing and universalizing scope of informatic domination with a theoretical framework equal in scale. Yet his critical project logically demands that he root his account of digitality in concrete and local situations so as to not simply mirror homogenous and abstract informatics. As the book proceeds and the elements of Franklin’s analytic come together, critical space for that concrete analysis increasingly comes to the fore. Of particular note are his accounts of techno-disciplinary social theories including those of mathematician Charles Babbage (credited with inventing programmable computers) and the protocybernetic sociometry of J. L. Moreno and Helen H. Jennings. Through discriminating, situated readings, Franklin teases out how a logic of “digitality” and “disposal” takes shape at the sidelines of science and capitalism—among street musicians and in workhouses, for example, which become laboratories for dreams of efficient systems to reengineer racially coded and lower-class bodies. These readings resonate with a larger strength of the book, Franklin’s knack for identifying overlooked fragments from a scientific career—a one-off encyclopedia entry by Shannon, a later-suppressed first edition of Wiener’s popular gloss of cybernetics in The Human Use of Human Beings (1950). He elicits from these works clues of still largely neglected economic and racial histories shaping digital infrastructures today.