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Close to the metal: Towards a material political economy of the epistemology of computation

Rella, Ludovico

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This paper investigates the role of the materiality of computation in two domains: blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). Although historically designed as parallel computing accelerators for image rendering and videogames, graphics processing units (GPUs) have been instrumental in the explosion of both cryptoasset mining and machine learning models. The political economy associated with video games and Bitcoin and Ethereum mining provided a staggering growth in performance and energy efficiency and this, in turn, fostered a change in the epistemological understanding of AI: from rules-based or symbolic AI towards the matrix multiplications underpinning connectionism, machine learning and neural nets. Combining a material political economy of markets with a material epistemology of science, the article shows that there is no clear-cut division between software and hardware, between instructions and tools, and between frameworks of thought and the material and economic conditions of possibility of thought itself. As the microchip shortage and the growing geopolitical relevance of the hardware and semiconductor supply chain come to the fore, the paper invites social scientists to engage more closely with the materialities and hardware architectures of ‘virtual’ algorithms and software.


Rella, L. (2024). Close to the metal: Towards a material political economy of the epistemology of computation. Social Studies of Science, 54(1), 3-29.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jun 2, 2023
Online Publication Date Jul 10, 2023
Publication Date 2024-02
Deposit Date Aug 11, 2023
Publicly Available Date Aug 11, 2023
Journal Social Studies of Science
Print ISSN 0306-3127
Electronic ISSN 1460-3659
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 54
Issue 1
Pages 3-29
Keywords hardware, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, ASIC, TPU, blockchain, GPU, materiality
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Published Journal Article (Advanced Online Version) (705 Kb)


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Copyright Statement
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (

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