Downgrading humans in the age of robots

From a recent essay by University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education about “the dream-logic of all technology, namely that it should make our lives easier and more fun,” and the dark side of the age-old science fictional — and now increasingly science factual — vision of creating a “robot working class” that will free humans from unwanted labor:

We are no longer owners and workers, in short; we are, instead, voracious and mostly quite happy producers and consumers of images. Nowadays, the images are mostly of ourselves, circulated in an apparently endless frenzy of narcissistic exhibitionism and equally narcissistic voyeurism: my looking at your online images and personal details, consuming them, is somehow still about me. [Guy] Debord was prescient [in his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle] about the role that technology would play in this general social movement. “Just when the mass of commodities slides toward puerility, the puerile itself becomes a special commodity; this is epitomized by the gadget. . . . Reified man advertises the proof of his intimacy with the commodity. The fetishism of commodities reaches moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism. The only use which remains here is the fundamental use of submission.”

It strikes me that this passage, with the possible exception of the last sentence, could have been plausibly recited by Steve Jobs at an Apple product unveiling. For Debord, the gadget, like the commodity more generally, is not a thing; it is a relation. As with all the technologies associated with the spectacle, it closes down human possibility under the guise of expanding it; it makes us less able to form real connections, to go off the grid of produced and consumed leisure time, and to find the drifting, endlessly recombining idler that might still lie within us. There is no salvation from the baseline responsibility of being here in the first place to be found in machines.

. . . To use a good example of critical consciousness emerging from within the production cycles of the culture industry, consider the Axiom, the passenger spaceship that figures in the 2008 animated film WALL-E. Here, robot labor has proved so successful, and so nonthreatening, that the human masters have been freed to indulge in nonstop indulgence of their desires. As a result, they have over generations grown morbidly obese, addicted to soft drinks and video games, their bones liquefied in the ship’s microgravity conditions. They exist, but they cannot be said to live.

The gravest danger of offloading work is not a robot uprising but a human downgrading. Work hones skills, challenges cognition, and, at its best, serves noble ends. It also makes the experience of genuine idling, in contrast to frenzied leisure time, even more valuable. Here, with only our own ends and desires to contemplate — what shall we do with this free time? — we come face to face with life’s ultimate question. To ask what is worth doing when nobody is telling us what to do, to wonder about how to spend our time, is to ask why are we here in the first place.

— “Mark Kingwell, “The Barbed Gift of Leisure,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 25, 2013

Also see John David Ebert in 2011’s The New Media Invasion: Digital Technologies and the World They Unmake, from the chapter titled “Robots, Drones and the Disappearance of the Human Being”:

[The rise of drones in warfare] is a syndrome of thought that is currently infecting American society as a whole and is eating away at it like a cancer. Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words. . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities. . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.

Our technological future according to Idiocracy:

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 19, 2013, in Science & Technology, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great post, Matt. It would be nice if machines freed us all up to follow our bliss, pursue artistic and creative endeavors, and engage in philanthropic projects. But how many people are inclined to do such things? I’m afraid mostpeople (ee cummings’ term) would end up like the obese, purposeless monstrosities in Wall-E.

  2. I don’t think that most people will ever be given the opportunity to be so free of work as to become “like the obese, purposeless monstrosities in Wall-E.” In the past, people idealized a future when people wouldn’t have to work. What happened? People work more than ever, partly out of need and partly out of a desire to fuel consumerism.

    First, I don’t think most people want to not work and not do anything. Humans aren’t naturally lazy, especially not Americans. We love to work. Even hunter-gatherers who only labor 20 hours a week constantly keep themselves occupied with small activities that are unnecessary for mere survival.

    Second, the ruling elite would fear a whole class of people not working nor needing to work. That is the perfect recipe for people to have enough time to being to think independently and maybe start protesting or even start a revolution. The ruling elite, if necessary, will invent a system of work to keep the masses occupied. It may be useless work, but there will always be work.

    Combine people’s desire to be occupied and the ruling elite’s desire to keep the masses occupied. What you have is work for the sake of work, for as long as humanity exists. That has always been true. All of civilization is unnecessary. If humans stopped doing unnecessary work, civilization would collapse instantly. Work is what makes the human world go round.

    All of this is rather personal for me. My old job is being phased out as the work I used to do will soon be done by machines, at least partly.

    My old job is as a parking ramp cashier and within months it will be obsolete. Fortunately, I work for a unionized parking department of a city government. The union agreement doesn’t allow them to fire me. So, they have in recent years allowed attrition to decrease the employee numbers. The remaining employees are being given new work such as making sure the machines are working and helping people to use the machines.

    I’m sure the parking management rationalized this change to the city council by arguing they would save money. I truly doubt they will save money. They probably will end up spending more money than they did in the past because the purchase and upkeep of the technology is so freaking expensive. If they ever recoup the costs and begin saving money, it will be many many many years from now, long after the present management is gone.

    It’s all amusing. Machines have theoretically eliminated my work and yet I’ll still be paid to work. Instead of serving humans, I’ll serve the machines serving humans. We’ll all end up in a big circle jerk of service work.

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