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149

The Automation Charade

Finding the human in the machine.

by Astra Taylor

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Taylor, A. (2018). The Automation Charade. Logic Magazine, 5, pp. 149-164

150

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

But if you look even closer, things get stranger still. Automated processes are often far less impressive than the puffery and propaganda surrounding them imply—and sometimes they are nowhere to be seen. Jobs may be eliminated and salaries slashed but people are often still laboring alongside or behind the machines, even if the work they perform has been deskilled or goes unpaid.

Remarkable technological changes are indeed afoot, but that doesn’t mean the evolution of employment, and the social world at large, has been preordained. We shouldn’t simply sit back, awestruck, awaiting the arrival of an artificially intelligent workforce. We must also reckon with the ideology of automation, and its attendant myth of human obsolescence.

—p.150 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Though automation is presented as a neutral process, the straightforward consequence of technological progress, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.

But if you look even closer, things get stranger still. Automated processes are often far less impressive than the puffery and propaganda surrounding them imply—and sometimes they are nowhere to be seen. Jobs may be eliminated and salaries slashed but people are often still laboring alongside or behind the machines, even if the work they perform has been deskilled or goes unpaid.

Remarkable technological changes are indeed afoot, but that doesn’t mean the evolution of employment, and the social world at large, has been preordained. We shouldn’t simply sit back, awestruck, awaiting the arrival of an artificially intelligent workforce. We must also reckon with the ideology of automation, and its attendant myth of human obsolescence.

—p.150 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago
158

If what we encounter on Facebook, OkCupid, and other online platforms is generally “safe for work,” it is not because algorithms have sorted through the mess and hid some of it from view. Rather, we take non-nauseating dips in the digital stream thanks to the labor of real-live human beings who sit before their own screens day and night, tagging content as vulgar, violent, and offensive. According to Chen, more people work in the shadow mines of content moderation than are officially employed by Facebook or Google. Fauxtomatons make the internet a habitable place, cleaning virtual public squares of the sort of trash that would chase most of us offline and into the relative safety of face-to-face interaction.

Today many, though not all, of the people employed as content moderators live abroad, in places like the Philippines or India, where wages are comparatively low. The darkest tasks that sustain our digital world are outsourced to poor people living in poorer nations, from the environmentally destructive mining of precious minerals and the disposal of toxic electronic waste to the psychologically damaging effects of content moderation. As with all labor relations, race, gender, and geography play a role, determining which workers receive fair compensation for their labor or are even deemed real workers worthy of a wage at all. Automation, whether real or fake, hasn’t undone these disturbing dynamics, and may well intensify them.

—p.158 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago

If what we encounter on Facebook, OkCupid, and other online platforms is generally “safe for work,” it is not because algorithms have sorted through the mess and hid some of it from view. Rather, we take non-nauseating dips in the digital stream thanks to the labor of real-live human beings who sit before their own screens day and night, tagging content as vulgar, violent, and offensive. According to Chen, more people work in the shadow mines of content moderation than are officially employed by Facebook or Google. Fauxtomatons make the internet a habitable place, cleaning virtual public squares of the sort of trash that would chase most of us offline and into the relative safety of face-to-face interaction.

Today many, though not all, of the people employed as content moderators live abroad, in places like the Philippines or India, where wages are comparatively low. The darkest tasks that sustain our digital world are outsourced to poor people living in poorer nations, from the environmentally destructive mining of precious minerals and the disposal of toxic electronic waste to the psychologically damaging effects of content moderation. As with all labor relations, race, gender, and geography play a role, determining which workers receive fair compensation for their labor or are even deemed real workers worthy of a wage at all. Automation, whether real or fake, hasn’t undone these disturbing dynamics, and may well intensify them.

—p.158 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago
160

Jefferson gilded chains by making them hard to see. Slaves (“members of the slave community” as the video awkwardly dubs them) cooked hot food and put it on shelves, making it appear as if the evening’s fare had been conjured by magic. The same hidden hands whisked away dirty plates just as quickly. Slaves also stood at the ready in the basement, waiting to load up any wine the master and his guests required. The appearance of seemingly automated abundance Jefferson so doggedly cultivated required substantial additional labor—the labor of making labor seem to disappear.

—p.160 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Jefferson gilded chains by making them hard to see. Slaves (“members of the slave community” as the video awkwardly dubs them) cooked hot food and put it on shelves, making it appear as if the evening’s fare had been conjured by magic. The same hidden hands whisked away dirty plates just as quickly. Slaves also stood at the ready in the basement, waiting to load up any wine the master and his guests required. The appearance of seemingly automated abundance Jefferson so doggedly cultivated required substantial additional labor—the labor of making labor seem to disappear.

—p.160 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago
162

The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.

Capitalism needs workers to be and feel vulnerable, and because automation has an ideological function as well as a technological dimension, leftists must keep intervening in conversations about technological change and what to do about it. Instead of capitulating to the owning class’s loose talk of automation as a foreordained next phase of production, we should counter with demands that are both visionary and feasible: a federal job guarantee that provides meaningful work to all who want it or job sharing through a significant reduction in the workweek. When pundits predict mass unemployment following a robot takeover, we should call for collective ownership of the robots and generous social benefits detached from employment status, including pushing for a progressive variation of a universal basic income under a rallying cry that updates the 1970s socialist feminist slogan to Wages for All Work—not just the work that bosses recognize as worthy of a meager paycheck.

—p.162 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago

The problem is that the emphasis on technological factors alone, as though “disruptive innovation” comes from nowhere or is as natural as a cool breeze, casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.

Capitalism needs workers to be and feel vulnerable, and because automation has an ideological function as well as a technological dimension, leftists must keep intervening in conversations about technological change and what to do about it. Instead of capitulating to the owning class’s loose talk of automation as a foreordained next phase of production, we should counter with demands that are both visionary and feasible: a federal job guarantee that provides meaningful work to all who want it or job sharing through a significant reduction in the workweek. When pundits predict mass unemployment following a robot takeover, we should call for collective ownership of the robots and generous social benefits detached from employment status, including pushing for a progressive variation of a universal basic income under a rallying cry that updates the 1970s socialist feminist slogan to Wages for All Work—not just the work that bosses recognize as worthy of a meager paycheck.

—p.162 by Astra Taylor 3 weeks, 6 days ago