From the Black Atlantic to Black-Scholes: Precursors of Spatial Capitalization

Cultural Politics 16(1), 2020

Rather than being unprecedented, contemporary technologies are the most sophisticated instances of a long-standing dream: if space could be more comprehensively captured and coded, it could be more intensively capitalized. Two moments within this lineage are explored: maritime insurance of slave ships in the eighteenth century, and the Black-Scholes model of option pricing from the twentieth century. Maritime insurance rendered the unknown space of the ocean knowable and therefore profitable. By collecting information at Lloyds, merchants developed a map of threat within the Atlantic, and by writing a 10 percent buffer into slave-ship contracts they internalized contingency. This codification of risk pressured captains and established a logic for the violence enacted on the ship’s human “cargo.” The Black-Scholes formula of option pricing sought to codify the ocean of risk represented by the financial market. The formula mapped stock movements into a knowable stochastic equation. Traders could quantify and hedge against the unpredictable, rendering the stock market a space of riskless profit. However, the 2008 financial crash demonstrated the limits of spatial calculation. Taken together, these two moments demonstrate the historical continuity of a core imperative to exhaustively capitalize space. This historicization also foregrounds the racialized inequalities coded within these informatic logics. Against the bright innovation narratives of technology, this article stresses a longer and darker lineage based on inequality and dispossession.