Ctrl Episteme – a review of ‘Control: Digitality as a Cultural Logic’ by Seb Franklin

Article Information

  • Author(s): Sandeep Mertia
  • Affiliation(s): The Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
  • Publication Date: 28th November 2017
  • Issue: 6
  • Citation: Sandeep Mertia. “Ctrl Episteme – a review of ‘Control: Digitality as a Cultural Logic’ by Seb Franklin.” Computational Culture 6 (28th November 2017). http://computationalculture.net/ctrl-episteme-a-review-of-control-digitality-as-a-cultural-logic-by-seb-franklin/.


Review of Seb Franklin, Control: Digitality as a Cultural Logic, MIT Press, 2015. 240 pp. 11 b&w illustrations. ISBN: 9780262029537

Computers (or the Internet) did not inaugurate, what Deleuze called, ‘control societies’1. Most of the efforts to theorize society following the advent and proliferation of computers have nonetheless, focused on the socio-economic changes associated with new technologies. Following Deleuze, the desire and frequency for periodization, to demarcate radical differences between the past and the present, has only increased in theories of post-Fordist production, information economy, network societies, and so on.

Seb Franklin’s Control: Digitality as a Cultural Logic tries to step back from the hubris of periodization by drawing attention to control’s ‘fuzzier sociocultural valences’. This book strives to theorize control as the “logic under which social worlds are reconceptualized as information-processing systems … [or] the logical basis of a worldview that imbricates literal practices of computation, the new organizational and infrastructural concepts these processes facilitate, and metaphors derived from the electronic digital computer and its processes with a system of value production that can produce profit only by exploiting and disposing human life” (p. xv, xviii). The argument follows the intensification and expansion of the logic of control from specific technical practices to a set of ‘generalized metaphors’ in political economy, management, literature, cinema, and beyond. In tracing the knowledge conditions and mutating logic of capital from 19th century labor theory of value and the emergence of cybernetics to the narrative logic of video games and programmability, Control brings together strands from political economy and philosophy, media theory, digital humanities, and history of computing, among others. The questions that drive this wide-ranging inquiry are: “What kinds of assumptions are required to understand people and their multiple, heterogeneous social interactions in terms of digital information and its processing and transmission? What historical processes would be necessary to operationalize these assumptions at the level of social and political orthodoxy? And what would be the socioeconomic and cultural implications of such a vision of the world functioning as an unmarked norm?” (p. xv)
In its attempt to conceptualize control as ‘the episteme grounding late capitalism’, and approaching it as a ground for contestation instead of cultural analysis, this book departs from – and expands the philosophical range of – scholarship on socio-technical histories like Manuel Castell’s The Rise of the Network Societies and James Beninger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society, to name but two. By examining the permeation and internalization of computer-human metaphors, Control adds fresh perspective to previous studies of the cultural politics of computing for example, David Golumbia’s The Cultural Logic of Computation. Further, its focus on ‘vague metaphors’ (and appropriation of ‘vapor theory’) to seek a synthesis with materialist analysis, places the book in an interesting contrast with the more materially situated works like Alexander Galloway’s Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s, Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics.
This book is organized in two parts. The first section, ‘Digitality without computers’ traces the historical emergence of control in the political economy of the 19th century and the post-war epistemic conditions of ‘cybernetic-capitalist logic’, which according to Franklin, lead to the ‘subsumption’ of social worlds through techniques of statistical forecasting and data modeling. The second section, ‘Digitality as Cultural Logic’ focuses on the control episteme from mid-twentieth century onwards. In addition to methodological reflections on studying digital culture objects, practices, and representation, this section maps the cultural framing of control in literature, films, and video games. Put together, the two sections assemble a wide range of historical strands and cultural forms to support the book’s pivotal claims about the correlation between digitality—characterized as constituted by processes of capture, classification, and exclusion—and the mutating logic of capital. Given the expansive breadth, this review only tries to parse a few bits from Control’s long array of critique of ‘digitality’, and its professed capitalistic, exclusionary, and totalizing episteme.

Prologue to the Societies of Control
In his famous polemical essay, Post-Script on the Societies of Control, Deleuze characterizes ‘modulation’ as the defining feature of control societies. He sees the displacement of the factory by the corporation, the dispersion of raw material driven production to the marketing and assembling of parts and finished products, and the unbundling of the mass/individual pair into ‘dividuals’ and ‘samples, data, markets or ‘banks’’, as the markers of a new ‘control’ era capitalism. The logical shift, he states, is from disciplinary enclosures that were like ‘molds’ to controls that are like a modulation, “a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmutate from point to point.”2 Interestingly, the concept of ‘modulation’ in Deleuze’s thought is not always concerned with the persistence of capitalism 3. Nonetheless, it is this particular characterization of ‘control as a modulation’ with the digital—considered here as the logic of discretization—as its logical substrate that Franklin draws upon to assert that “the dividual is the subject digitized. And control is the episteme of the dividual” (p.9). This is one of the key points of departure for Franklin’s inquiry on the concealed historical relationship between control and individuation.

Juxtaposing Lev Manovich’s description of the uniform scale of discretization that undergirds new media and computing, and Marx’s concept of abstract labor, Franklin suggests that “two stage process of sampling and quantization might be understood in terms of rationalized labor time and the compression of the fullness of lived experience according to the conditions of imposing this time”(p.11-12). He uses this uncanny connection to argue that the formalization of labor through the processes of quantification and mechanical time, in the bounded time-space of the factory in mid-nineteenth century sits behind the dream of capital—universal digitalization and valorization, which proceeds through control. In other words, the expansion of the boundaries of labor from that of the individual to potentially all of human activity, reflected in concepts such as ‘immaterial labor’ and ‘cognitive capitalism’, signals, according to Franklin, the “historical production of the human as a network of discrete decisions” (p.19).
To outline an archaeology of control, Franklin carefully delineates several layers of the little-known history of the valorization of computational logic in the nineteenth century, most notably around Charles Babbage’s concept of the division of mental labor, and the use of the first electrical tabulating system for compiling census data. Babbage, as we know, was heavily invested in making what became a precursor to the modern computer.

He was also absorbed by the application of his calculating engine to the division of labor, and visited many factories across Europe to observe their production processes. According to Babbage’s own writings, cited by Franklin, his desire to build a computer was co-constitutive of his motivation to apply a division of labor to mental operations “to regulate the interior economy of a manufactory.”(p.23) Babbage’s concept of the division of mental labor was essentially a way of optimizing high-skilled tasks for high-cost workers and low-skilled tasks for low-skilled workers; a precursor to Taylorist management techniques. He also wrote that such an optimization is “capable of being usefully employed in paving the road to some of the sublimest investigations of the human mind”(p.23); signaling a conflation of the factory and the computer, not just at the level of clock-time but also of cognitive activity. So the computer, or the principle of digitality, according to Franklin, was imbricated in labor theory of value and optimization even before the formal invention of the modern computing machine. He contends that the discretization and valorization of labor processes through organization of individual bodies and their movements in factory, office and beyond reveals “digitization as a precondition to subsumption.” (p.24) It is the cultural logic of such ‘digitality’, defined here as a “mode of capturing individual and social behaviors for the purpose of valorization”(p.8), that this book tries to theorize.

Cybernetics: The Black Box Inc.

Franklin’s argument about the transmutation of specific technical practices into a general social and cultural logic is most convincing in the context of cybernetics. He invokes Peter Galison’s ‘War Against the Center’ to note the slippage from thinking about the “enemy bomber pilot as a kind of feedback machine that could be mimicked electronically”4 to modeling more abstract domains of human physiology, mind, life, and even the ‘world system as a whole’ as a cybernetic system. He follows the implication of techniques of feedback and statistical forecasting that emerged in cybernetic research, in a range of other developments including social and behavioral modeling, game-theoretical economics, informatic capitalism via targeted advertising, finance, and so on. These are of course, also implicated in deeper epistemological and affective shifts in the post-war era, which seem to have reformulated the foundations of temporality, perception, and reason, beyond the logic of capital5. Nonetheless, Control engages with some specific aspects of cybernetics to foreground the epistemic shifts that led to the digitization of the social.

Franklin looks at the Macy conferences and the debates that followed between two groups of cyberneticians namely, a) Jon von Neumann, Leonard Savage, Paul Lazarsfeld and Walter Pitts, and b) Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch and Gregory Bateson. The former group was keen on social applications of cybernetics, though largely concerned with economics rather than sociology or anthropology. The second set of thinkers, on the other hand, emphasized the limitations of mathematical modeling of social behavior. Neither of the two seem to have offered any alternative to what Franklin terms the ‘cybernetic logic’ that drives “practice and methodologies that render the word legible through processes of capture, digitization, modeling, and prediction”(p.43). However, the debates between these two groups on material limitations of modeling and prediction offer some important glimpses of the competing computational world-views in the formative era of digital capitalism. For example, Weiner, Shannon and von Neumann agreed on the feasibility of applying modeling and prediction to chess (a game of perfect information), but not poker (a game involving ‘bluffing’ and ‘deception’).

Weiner and Shannon objected to von Neumann’s model of a poker player who was modelled as a “completely intelligent, completely ruthless person” (p.53), by arguing that such game-theoretical approaches flatten ‘facts’ of social life. The principle behind Von Neumann’s pursuit of modeling human behavior and social interactions either in poker or the economy at large however, found expression in not just game theory, which he formally gave up in 1944, but also his computational theory and the theory of cellular automata.
In his seminal essay, First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC, von Neumann suggestively drew a comparison between the stored-program computer (or the von Neumann architecture) and human cognition (via McCulloch and Pitts’ model of neurons as binary switches). He posited that the qualitative difference in temporality between asynchronous human cognition and the synchronous linear clock of computing is not that one of speed, as suggested by Weiner, but a ‘difference of regularity’. This comparison, according to Franklin, modeled the brain as an “inspiration for computer-hardware design rather than the reverse”, conflates and black-boxes human and machine time, and should be seen – along with the earlier example of Babbage’s conflation of computing and the division of mental labor – as a “major moment of conceptualization in the mutation of capitalism towards an informatics mode” (p.60). Further, Franklin diagnoses the black-box principle – favoring statistical modeling based on inputs and outputs to exclude the internal complexities of a machine, an individual or social systems – which clearly emerged from cybernetics, as central to the exploitative and exclusionary character of control-era capitalism.

Controlling Representation
The second half of the book departs from the above mentioned theoretical and historical account, to examine the cultural formations, aesthetic regimes and objects that re/constitute control. The socio-economic implications of control, Franklin writes, “must be seen as both 1) founded in the logical and technical principles of computing machines and 2) constitutive of a political unconscious that is expressed in those cultural forms that are produced under and alongside the expanded conditions of capital that draw a conceptual and technological endowment from these machines” (p.86). It is this ‘political unconscious’, further induced by the processes of black-boxing and standardization, that affords a cultural primacy of digital representation and feeds into the systemic scalability of exclusion within that representation. To analyze this political unconscious, Franklin (now more explicitly) deploys Frederic Jameson’s concept of ‘cognitive mapping’ with some modifications.

In analyzing Chun’s use of ‘cognitive map’ to describe the invisible networks of capitalism revealed by activist-artists, Franklin argues that “in and of itself, the procedure through which a complex system is represented as a network of relations between nodes … describes little more than the logic that underpins control societies, wherein only positively measurable systems can be relied on to model social systems as well as technical ones” (p.97). While Chun’s argument seems to address a different register nonetheless, Franklin’s comment marks a crucial point of departure for understanding the digital-symbolic representation of control. He then invokes Galloway’s critique of totalizing representational modes and the synchronic homogeneity of digital media, and the need for a ‘counteraesthetic’. Considering this also to be inadequate for capturing the material implications of representation, Franklin argues that “the mode of cultural analysis that control necessitates is thus one that takes the monolithic historical dimension of algorithmic or networked logic as inseparable from the formations of sense and subjectivity that produce cultural forms.” (p.99). It is this improvised cognitive mapping that is unleashed in the last two chapters of the book, on a wide-range of cultural forms – including Kafka’s liminal premonition of the regulatory logic of control, Samuel Beckett’s abstract computational metaphors, contrasts between the cybernetic black box and the ‘subject’ in Kubie’s and Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and the status of programmable objects in narrative forms of cinema and video games, among others. Franklin’s cultural analysis of ‘vague metaphors’ of computing spread across several decades of time, and diverse media forms, unsettles some of the existing boundaries between material and socio-cultural lives of computing. Though one might argue that Control pays less attention to the semiotic possibilities of the analog/digital interface(s)6, and perhaps a little too much attention to Kittler’s contentious reading of software, the book offers us a new, broader map to think about human/computer metaphors.

Beyond the inescapable geo-cultural (and thus, epistemic) limitations of any such work, Franklin’s book pioneers the conceptualization of ‘control’ as an episteme that goes far beyond computing technologies. As we know, like ‘capitalisms’, both technologies and epistemologies also mutate7. The book no doubt opens rich possibilities for understanding the cultural logic of some of these mutations and their political valences. This purchase, however, comes with its own politics of abstraction that potentiates easy conflation of control and capital, ideology and epistemology, and the ontology of a digital object with its political-economic consequences. The stakes, particularly for software studies therefore, are not limited to pushing forward a much needed synthesis of metaphors and material specific analysis of computing. But also to strive for a more plural meta/episteme(s) that can boldly engage with the multiplicity of abstractions (not just the breadth of concepts or genres) – stacked across and beyond the cognitively mapped boundaries of vapor/silicon and the mutating logic of capital – that ‘modulate’ the fantastically contingent, fragmented, modular, ambivalent, adaptive, emergent, and rhizomatic knowledge conditions of computing.

Overall, Franklin’s remarkable book provides plenty of steam for critique to aspire for more dynamic fields. As a caveat however, it is worth considering the history of critique (and critical theory). One of the lessons it offers is that presupposing the standing availability of the object or the sovereignty of critique over the knowledge conditions of its objects and subjects, has both political and epistemic implications8. Franklin’s brilliant critique of control societies offers many generative insights for re-examining not just the historical emergence of digital culture, but also, through its own example, the concept and modalities of ‘critique’ itself.


Author Bio
Sandeep Mertia is a Research Associate at The Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. He is an ICT engineer by training, with research interests in Software Studies, STS, and Anthropology. He will begin his doctoral research at the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University in Fall 2017.


  1. Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control”. October 59 (1992): 3-7.
  2. Ibid. p.3
  3. Hui, Yuk. “Modulation after Control”. New Formations 84-85. 2014/15. Pp. 74-91.
  4. Galison, Peter. “War Against the Center”. Grey Room 04. Summer 2001. p.29.
  5. Halpern, Orit. Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 2014.
  6. Wildon, Anthony. System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange. 2nd Edition. Tavistock Publications. 1980. (particularly the chapters VII and XV)
  7. Sunder Rajan, Kuashik. Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life. Duke University Press: Durham and London. 2006.
  8. Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”. Critical Inquiry 30. Winter 2004; Kompridis, Nikolas. Secularism and Critique. Talk delivered at CSDS on 01 February, 2017. URL: http://www.csds.in/events/secularism-and-critique