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  • Automation and Creativity
  • Scott Selisker (bio)

Daniel Suarez's 2006 novel DAEMON suggests that automation and creativity, and their counterparts in routinization and disruption, should be considered together. The novel's premise is that a genius software developer, Matthew Sobol, creates the titular computer program to run immediately after its creator's death from a terminal illness. The Daemon maintains a bank account, extorts gangsters, scans news headlines and reacts to them, recruits journalists by sharing scoops with them, and hires thugs by hacking private-prison call centers. Like the "psychohistorian" protagonist of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the Daemon has foreseen the range of responses to its actions. But unlike Hari Seldon, Sobol's program carries out its plan to become a powerful and disruptive force by routinizing the behaviors and activities of human workers. Sobol, insistently called a "genius" in the novel, is its ghostly locus of creativity; in his final months, he invents new uses for big data and poses the novel's biggest philosophical questions.1 While Sobol and the program are, like most mastermind characters, vehicles for the author's own inventions and reversals, DAEMON still thematizes creativity as the obverse of routinization, and in a way that provocatively reverses the usual dramatis personae. A computer program, along with Sobol's prerecorded videos, acts as a Silicon Valley visionary-creative-entrepreneur-genius type (on the model of Jobs, Musk, Bezos, or Gates), whereas the humans that work for that program are variously robbed of their autonomy and set to routine tasks.

Norbert Wiener foresaw around 1947 the biggest social consequence of widespread automation: in the same way that the first industrial revolution devalued human manual labor, "[t]he modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions."2 This widespread devaluation of human bodies and brains would be catastrophic, Wiener knew, [End Page 312] and he wrote to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the hope that labor unions might prove an avenue for fighting that process. In the present moment, Suarez's novel about humans in the thrall of an algorithm seems largely to have predicted assemblages like Uber, where human drivers follow a machine's instructions until the day when the drivers, too, may be phased out. This technological horizon resembles the apocalypse Wiener foresaw, one in which "the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone's money to buy."3 "The answer" to this problem, he argues in Cybernetics, "is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling."4

But what if human values have, counter to Wiener's hopes, hewn ever closer to those of buying and selling? The business school and Silicon Valley discourses vaunting disruption, innovation, and creativity reinscribe the human on the other side of the class divide of posthuman automation and routinization. In The Rise of the Creative Class (2004), Richard Florida imagines creativity as "not only inherent in humans, it is literally what distinguishes us, economically speaking, from other species."5 Because such a definition of the human is an explicitly classed definition, it seems especially important to resist imagining creativity both as the sine qua non of humanity and as the power to implement new ideas in the marketplace. From political economist Joseph Schumpeter's ideas about "creative destruction" onward, concepts of disruption and creativity constitute the evolving visions of the human, described in the terms of a management class that differentiates itself from the routinized subjects (or nonsubjects) of post-human labor. Where DAEMON raises many questions about the future of the human, the novel leaves Sobol's position of privilege as a creative genius largely unexamined. And when Suarez's novel thinks of social change, it's through the vocabulary of tech-industry "disruptive innovation."6 And yet DAEMON also shows us how a cult of billionaire "genius" could value the social vision of even a dead billionaire over the self-determination of thousands of individual people. Historicizing creativity and automation together can help us to better examine both sides of that class divide.

Scott Selisker



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pp. 312-313
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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