Automation has a secret ingredient: our work


THE MECHANICAL TURK WAS ONE GREAT HOAX. Just like a lot of our modern- day robots.

The Mechanical Turk was a fake chess-playing machine that wowed Europe in the late 1700s. The truth was the machine couldn’t play chess at all. It simply had a man inside who could. Many of our robots today are like that: they need human operators to make it possible for them to wow us with their work.

The fact this truth is kept from us is nothing new. Capitalism has always worked hard to mask just how much unseen, and often unpaid, labour is necessary to keep a capitalist economy afloat. Women know this particularly well.

A reality and an ideology

“Automation is both a reality and an ideology,” says Astra Taylor, in her article “The Automation Charade” posted on The Logic website. She says this means automation is also “a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist."

Taylor points out that employers threatening to replace “uppity” workers is as old a paid work itself. The new twist today is that employers use all the new technologies as a way to defend their threats. “You can’t fight progress,” they say. “Human workers will become obsolete,” we are told. Except they aren’t. Not yet.

Human work still the magic ingredient

Taylor points out that a lot of automation is no where near as magic as it seems. For example, the fact a server may take your order on tablet does not change the reality that the food is actually prepared by a human being standing over a hot stove in back.

Capitalism is dedicated to ensuring that as much vital labour as possible goes unrecognized and uncompensated. The over-the-top promotion of “the marvels of automation” is just one more part of that tendency, says Taylor

Examples of this capitalist anti-worker drive surround us, says Taylor. “It manifests every time we check out and bag our own groceries or order a meal through an online delivery service. Once you start to look for them, she says, examples “crowd our vision.”

Taylor tells of standing behind a man at a fast food counter who marvelled at the efficiency of the app he used to place his order.  He asked the counter worker: “How did the app know my order would be ready twenty minutes early?” The worker replied: “Because that was actually me. I sent you a message when it was done.”

And that’s how human work is constantly erased in our digital age.

Fawning over robots

The fascination of the Mechanical Turk was not that it played chess well, but that it could play chess at all. We humans are always fascinated, and often transfixed, by all things mechanical—from the windup toy we got on our first birthday to robots making cars—or delivering burritos.

Kiwibots were a fleet of food delivery robots on the campus to the University of California Berkley. The Kiwibots allowed students to order a burrito from almost anywhere on campus, pre-pay, track the burrito-bearing robot’s progress, and claim their food when it got to their specific location.

To everyone on campus the robots appeared to be fully autonomous, successfully self-driving. The truth was far different. The truth was the “autonomous” robots were constantly monitored by human workers in Bogotá, Columbia. The workers used remote controls to keep the bots on the right track. These Mechanical Turks were Mechanical Colombians.

Kiwi Campus had managed to outsource the labour of food delivery to people working a continent away.

The future of work is changing; what is not changing is that employers will continue to deny and diminish how much they rely on human workers to make any kind of capitalism work at all.

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