Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Let us begin with two stories:
Sam is nervous. Having applied for a job, Sam is now waiting to be interviewed for the position. Fidgeting slightly in the waiting room and running over the questions that will probably be asked by the interviewer, Sam tries to remember that there’s no reason why Sam wouldn’t get this job. After all, Sam is very qualified for it. Granted, there are other people sitting anxiously in the waiting room, and Sam knows that they probably all think that they too are perfectly qualified. And then the door into the waiting room opens and through it comes a robot. Sam, and all of the other humans, gaze in horror at the robot as it moves across the waiting room before positioning itself in the corner. Sure, all of the applicants for this position knew that the competition was going to be tough – but they didn’t dare think it would be this tough! Gazing sullenly at the floor, Sam knows that the robot is going to get the job. After all, robots are notorious for doing really well in interviews. How can any of these pitiful fleshy humans even compete?
Story 2: Everybody agrees that Chris is a good worker. Diligent, focused, self-driven, friendly – Chris has all of the qualities that manager’s claim they’re looking for in their team members. As Chris puts the finishing touches on several burger orders that have just come in, Chris glances up to see that the manager is approaching – accompanied by a robot. Chris gulps and begins to feel nervous. This has been a common sight of late in many restaurants. Robots have been applying for lots of jobs at Chris’s company, but it hadn’t hit the franchise where Chris works until now. At first the robots were just being hired to fill open positions, but lately robots are getting hired so that human workers can be fired. Chris begins to perspire as the manager turns towards Chris – it seems that today the robot has come for Chris’s job. Trying to remain composed, Chris reaches out to shake the robot’s hand…but the robot doesn’t even have hands. This robot was designed for no other purpose than to flip hamburgers – how on Earth can Chris compete with that?
Both of the above stories are fictional. Clearly.
And yet, given the ways in which robots are framed as a threat to people’s jobs one could be forgiven for thinking that robots have actually– of their own volition – begun applying for jobs, and have actively sought – of their own free will – to displace human workers. This is not to say that robots pose no threat to human’s jobs, but it’s worth approaching this matter with some skepticism.
2) Of late, there has been a steady flow of articles bearing anxiety inducing headlines about how robots portend a future of mass unemployment, and about how the new kinds of robots soon to be unleashed upon the world threaten workers in all fields. Including, ostensibly, your field. These articles frame robots not merely as automatons but as autonomous forces that have set their electronic eyes upon human jobs. Blue collar, pink collar, white collar – all are under existential threat from the metallic collar.
Be wary of the robots, these articles caution, for they are coming for your job.
It’s understandable why some people are worried. After all, the history of robots is inextricably entangled with the history of the fear of robots. All told, robots provide an interesting case study of the ways in which the emotional reactions to technology are an essential part of the history of any particular technology. Indeed, the very work from whence the term “robot” originates – Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) – is a tale in which the robots rise up and destroy their human masters. Popular culture is lousy with stories of dangerous robots: Metropolis, Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, The Stepford Wives, WestWorld, the Matrix, Blade Runner…the list goes on and on. Furthermore, even many of the stories that point to sorts of proto-robots (such as the Golem or Frankenstein’s monster) are meant as cautionary tales. In short: people have been well-primed to be wary of robots and to see in them a threat not just to something as basic as jobs – but as a threat to life itself. Thus, when a headline screams that the “robots are coming for your job” it resonates with a fear that has been deeply implanted in the popular imagination.
Yet the key question that should crop up in this matter is about responsibility. Or, to put it more clearly, are the robots really coming for your job? Again, popular culture, bears some of the onus for muddling this matter, for in such works it often really is the robots which achieve some level of rebellious awareness and decide to annihilate humanity. But in the present, in terms of jobs, are the robots really the ones to blame?
No. They are not.
And blaming the robots allows those who are actually to blame to avoid responsibility.
3) When the human workers in a factory are fired and replaced with robots it is not because a group of robots walked into the company owner’s office and said that they’d be willing to work for less. Similarly, when workers in a fast food restaurant are told that their agitating for higher wages could lead to them being replaced by a burger flipping robot it isn’t because a burger flipping robot has recently applied for a job as a line cook. Likewise, when workers in seemingly “white collar” professions are told that their tasks are being turned over to a computer program it isn’t because the program has a more prestigious degree or more impressive work experience that dazzled the hiring committee. In every single one of these cases what has occurred is that those in control of a company have made an active choice to pick the machine over the human – and such machines were largely created to provide these owners with just this choice. The robots did not voice any opinion in the matter. To put it more plainly: the burger flipping robot does not want to replace any human workers (nor for that matter does it want to not replace human workers) because the burger flipping robot does not want anything. The robots aren’t the problem, the bosses are.
What is occurring is simply that robots are being seized upon as a tool by which business owners can accomplish two things: maintain tighter control over their current human workers, and further enrich themselves.
There isn’t actually terribly much about this which is altogether new – if one digs into economic history one finds plenty of examples of business owners trying to figure out ways to enrich themselves while keeping their human laborers in check. What is different now is that instead of threatening to hire other workers who will ostensibly be made to work for less money – now the replacements won’t even require a regular wage. Just periodic maintenance. This too, alas, is not altogether new, insofar as automation has already ravaged many an industry. But at present, due to advances in computing, it seems that the robots are looming over more and more job fields. Yet regardless of if the robot is coming to replace a nurse, a first-year lawyer, or an assembly line worker – the robot is just a tool being deployed by a certain person, it is not a tool which chooses to deploy itself. This is not a case of “technology out of control” but of technology being controlled by certain people. The standard defenses of the choice of robots may be offered from those paying fealty to the business owner’s interests about how robots are more efficient or about how they do not take sick days, slack off at work, or go on strike – yet such points only serve to confirm that the robots are not the one’s coming for anyone’s job. The bosses are. Though this point isn’t often made in precisely these terms, it really is fairly obvious. After all, the workers aren’t deciding that robots will replace them out of an expectation that it will mean they will get to now enjoy a life of leisure – because the workers aren’t the ones who are deciding that they are going to be replaced by robots.
Thus, every time you see a headline that crows some variant of “the robots are coming for your job,” “robots will lead to mass unemployment,” or “robots portend a jobless future” you should just take a moment to mentally switch out the words so that the headlines are more accurate. They should read “the company owners are coming for your job” or “company owners will lead to mass unemployment” or “company owners portend a jobless future.” Robots are being blamed to distract from an economic imperative wherein the interests of those who own a business are given preference over the interests of those who work at that business. This is not meant as a de facto critique of the economic systems, but simply as a basic fact about the role that robots are playing in contemporary capitalism.
What appears with robots is a clear case of the entanglement of business interests with the work of technologists: robots are a demonstration of the way in which certain political and economic ideologies get embedded within technological systems. Indeed, the steady churning out of robots (and other machines) that narrowly fit the interests of businesses goes a long way in showing that technologists aren’t simply creating out of a sense of whimsy but out of a sense of the things that can be sold to businesses. To return to the example of the burger flipping robot – why would such a machine be designed and perfected if not for it to be sold to fast-food chains? And did those who built the machine not realize that by making and selling it they were threatening plenty of human’s jobs? Those making the technology might like hiding behind the fallacy that technology is neutral and apolitical, but you can rest assured that those being replaced by the machines can see past this façade of neutrality. Granted, as the headlines trumpet that more and more fields are becoming threatened by robots, perhaps it is only a matter of time before those who design such robots are themselves replaced by robots. But when that happens it will – once more – not be the robots that are to blame, but the humans behind those robots.
To put it simply: the robots are not the problem. The economic system that uses robots as a weapon against workers is the problem. Blaming the robots instead of the economic system places the guilt where it does not belong.
It is a distinction that matters.
4) The danger posed by business owners using robots as a weapon against their workers provides an opportunity to reflect upon history. More specifically, an opportunity to reflect back on a particular group that has been savaged by history and turned into a joke in contemporary society. Namely: the Luddites. While the term “luddite” has become something of an epithet over the last several decades, the history of the actual Luddite uprisings provides a story which is worth reflecting on at present. For the Luddites were not anti-technology fools who smashed machines in a fit of technophobic zeal – rather they were skilled workers who recognized that the new machinery being introduced by their employers was being used as a way for their employers to enrich themselves while disempowering the workers. The Luddites were lashing out not at machinery as such but at a changing economic system wherein they were increasingly devalued. This is why the historian Eric Hobsbawm has described these actions as a sort of “collective bargaining by riot.” And it is particularly worth noting here that the Luddites did not indiscriminately smash every machine in every factory, instead they targeted their ire against the places where the “offensive machinery” was most actively being used as a way of injuring the worker’s interests – and the Luddites only switched to these militant tactics after their attempt to secure governmental protection for their crafts failed. Furthermore, to provide more historical context, it is worth bearing in mind that “machine breaking” as a form of early “collective bargaining” did not start or end with the Luddites – indeed, the followers of Captain Swing were even more successful (and destructive) than the followers of General Ludd.
Now, this is not meant as a suggestion that people take up sledge hammers and smash the robots to smithereens. But it is meant as a way of, hopefully, providing a moment of thoughtful pause. Worried that your job is going to be taken by a robot? Well, perhaps you can now sympathize with how the Luddites felt two-hundred years ago. And perhaps this can provide a moment to also reflect on the fact that advances in technology have been used as a means of enriching the owners and disempowering the workers for well over two centuries. Framing the Luddites as technophobes is actually rather similar to painting robots as the problem – for in both cases what is being hidden is the real problem.
Ultimately, the Luddites had a better understanding of the ideological forces bound up in technology than many people since. They knew that the new machines would increase their employers’ livelihoods while depriving them of their own. And this is the trend still at work today, it’s just that the machines being deployed are robots instead of stocking frames.
One should not romanticize the Luddites, but neither should one romanticize the idea of technological progress. After all, there are lots of people who get crushed beneath the wheel of that progress.
The lesson to take from the Luddites is that one can always resist. After all, it wasn’t the “inherent greatness” of technology which led to the Luddites defeat – it was the army.
5) Of course, for some, robots represent a promise for a better future: one in which humans do not need to work as automation and robots have liberated humanity from having to work at all. This utopian dream envisions a world in which the gains made possible by robots (and other technological advances) are shared with one and all in a manner that is at least moderately equitable. And while some such hopes (“fully automated luxury communism”) have a particularly fantastical veneer to them others (universal basic income) are actually being taken quite seriously by a diverse array of ideological groups.
The hope that technological advances are going to liberate humanity from drudgery is nothing new – it is an idea that permeates a great deal of early utopian thinking as well as much early philosophy written about technology. At risk of being crude: it is a promise that has repeatedly gone unfulfilled, or at the very least it keeps being deferred to a point further and further off in the future. It is also a point that offers little in the way of comfort to those suffering in a particular moment. If tomorrow, you learn that you are going to be replaced by a robot or an algorithm will it really comfort you to know that in thirty years you might (emphasis on might) be living in a blissfully fully automated society? Probably not. After all, a fully automated next year does not help a person figure out how they are going to afford food tomorrow. Furthermore, these fantasies often seem rather divorced from the realities of present day automation – sure there are lots of factories in lots of parts of the world where more and more things are being automated, but there are also lots of parts of the world where lots of work is still being done by humans. In short – that fully automated future may be a long way off, and when it comes (if it comes) it probably won’t be evenly distributed.
This is not to wholly disavow these hopes. As was previously mentioned, they have been part and parcel of the development of technology for centuries, and it is unlikely that such dreams are simply going to disappear. However, it is worth approaching such hopes with a degree of caution and wariness. For the hope of a fully automated future, the benefits of which all share, can be used as a powerful way of inuring people to the present introduction of more robots and more automation – the present gains of which are hardly being distributed equitably. Keeping people’s eyes fixed on some nebulous technological future can be a great way of distracting from the decidedly mundane present. It may be that some of these utopian hopes are just a coat of shiny paint over a broken promise so old that it has become quite rusty. And it should be seen that these hopes do not represent a counter to the view that “robots are taking over” but instead choose to blithely accept that takeover based on a thin hope that eventually more people will be able to benefit from it.
The danger here is that these hopes may lead people to simply accepting the “robots are coming for your job” as a step along a path towards utopia. There is nothing certain about where the robots will lead us. Yes, it may be to a fully automated paradise. But if history is any guide…don’t count on it.
6) One of the most nefarious ideas buried within the stories screaming about the robots is that such tales are built upon a certain notion of inevitability. It’s seldom “the robots may be coming” it’s always “they are coming.” Granted, definitive statements make for better headlines. Amongst those who study technology, such views about the inevitability of a certain technological occurrence are often derided as signs of “technological determinism” – an “ism” which stands for a belief that technology is driving history and is the deciding factor in changes in a society. And though technological determinism is a sin if it is committed at an academic conference, it’s fairly common (and noncontroversial) fare when done by tech companies or tech journalists.
Yet it is extremely important to recognize that there is nothing inevitable about robots taking people’s jobs. Nor for that matter is there anything inevitable about robots. Behind the creation of robots there are human beings, behind the introduction of robots into a workplace there are human beings, and behind the robots there are human beings who are profiting off of those robots. And things need not be the way they are. Robots and technological advances could be tamed through greater democratic regulation, or robots could be run in the interests of the workers instead of the owners, or people can take up sledgehammers and smash the robots, or companies like Google (that invest in robotics research) could be nationalized, or…the list goes on…There is no version of technological progress that is truly inevitable – all technological advances (which may actually be regressions) are littered with contingencies, what ifs?, and alternate routes. However, if people accept that a particular path is inevitable than they risk missing the opportunity to help guide things down alternate paths.
In the end, the best way to ensure that “the robots are leading us to a jobless future” is to simply accept that particular narrative. It is a prophecy that only becomes self-fulfilling if we refuse to recognize that the prophets are mainly interested in their own profits.
7) We began with a story, so let us end with one. This is a rather apocryphal tale, but one that gets repeated frequently. Here it is:
Henry Ford II was touring a factory where cars were manufactured, a factory which had newly been automated. Touring the factory alongside Ford was Walter Reuther the head of the United Auto Workers union. At one-point Ford turned to Reuther and mockingly said:
“So Walter, how many of these robots are going to join your union?”
To which Reuther calmly replied:
“I don’t know Henry, how many of them are going to buy one of your cars?”
Our world is filled with stories about robots. But the story that really matters – the story in which you are a character – is still being written.