- Techno-Modeling CareRacial Branding, Dis/embodied Labor, and “Cybraceros” in South Korea
“It may be better to have a telepresence robot from a highly skilled teacher than to have just an average teacher in the classroom,” Balch added.—Susannah Palk, “Robot Teachers Invade South Korean Classrooms”
The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.—Donna J. Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs”
The wellspring of technological innovation is the exercise of the technological imagination.—Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture
In 2010 the Korea Institute of Science and Technology announced its latest innovation: her name is Engkey (a contraction for “English jockey”)—the “English teaching robot teacher.” “She” has already been selected as one of the “50 best inventions of 2010” by Time magazine and has been heralded as the “job terminator” that will eventually replace some thirty thousand foreign nationals who teach English in South Korea.
Engkey is an avatar tele-education robot that is premised on the concept of “distant-teaching” or “e-learning” and is representative of the South Korean state’s commitment to improve the English-language proficiency of its citizens. It is a device that was invented by the Center for Intelligent Robotics at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (kist) in 2010 to provide educational assistance in elementary schools. Engkey is a robot effectively designed to be operated by a call-center worker overseas. At a height of 3.3 feet, Engkey stands as a white penguin-shaped robot, with a tv display screen as a [End Page 139] head that projects an image of a young white girl with long blonde hair (see fig. 1). She can wheel around the room to speak, sing, sense, and actively respond to children, as well as provide an emotional response by modulating her facial expressions and moving her head and arms. Engkey’s “functionality” derives from the fact that she is controlled by a remote teacher who, during the pilot tests, was located in the Philippines. Filipina teachers, working in the Philippines, circulate as disembodied yet gendered and racialized robots with avatar white faces, and interact with South Korean students using a microphone device attached to the video camera to telecast lessons and communicate in real time. Engkey was piloted between 2010 and 2011 in twenty-nine schools in South Korea and is now undergoing further technical reconfiguration and testing to improve her functionality and decrease her retail price.1
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Through Engkey, this paper examines the complex relationships between neoliberal formations, the gendered geopolitics of care work, and contemporary forms of disembodied labor. It brings into conversation the literatures [End Page 140] on migration, labor studies, and feminist science and technology studies by exploring two analytics. First, it seeks to examine Engkey’s subjectivity as a visible, “live” presence in the classroom but one simultaneously rendered invisible, articulated solely as a technological innovation. Second, it explores the implications of Engkey’s dis/embodiment for “authenticity work” and what I call racial branding—the neoliberal discursive and political economic strategy for positioning Filipinos as the ideal global labor rendered operable through the dynamics of race and gender.2 Engkey as a “branded” and gendered laboring figure is also instrumental in sustaining the so-called global care chains that link the global North and South through paid and unpaid forms of care work.3
Appearing as a female avatar with a young and whitened face reifies and perpetuates the gendering of this form of care work, in this case, teaching. Engkey embodies the gendered subject presumed to be the ideal laboring subject for performing these tasks. However, in this latest configuration of commoditized labor, Engkey serves as an innovation of such care work, disrupting the ways in which this new form of care work operates through disembodiment and deracination, even as she calls into question the inherent classbased and gendered hierarchies that the global care chain presumes. That is, the “good enough” laborer in the global South, dis/embodied by...