- The Robotic Imaginary: The Human and the Price of Dehumanized Labor by Jennifer Rhee
by Jennifer Rhee
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 240 pp.
$108.00 (cloth), $27.00 (paper)
Though this book focuses on robots, it is first and foremost about the human—in its shifting definitions and barbarous exclusions—and the ways the figure of the robot across culture and technology inscribes and challenges these various definitions and dehumanizing exclusions.(29)
We exist in a moment where attempts to know and manage the human through automated and predictive technologies are deployed at every turn and in a dangerously experimental fashion. In The Robotic [End Page 386] Imaginary, Jennifer Rhee rejects the givenness of the human, the notion that the human is knowable or inherently recognizable. From the Turing test onward, capturing and translating human essence—discussed in the book as anthropomorphizing—became a seemingly unassailable pillar of robotic and AI development. Moves to anthropomorphize collapse "humans and machines at the site of intelligence" (10) while extending or reshaping the boundaries of what can be considered human. Crucially, the humanizing of robots comes at the expense of those whose humanity is not familiar to machine makers and their machines. With a focus on gender and race, Rhee asks of the robotic imaginary: "Who gets humanized, and how? Who gets dehumanized, and why?" (11).
The book attends to both cultural and scientific visions of the human and the robot. These visions are circulated and materialized with real-life consequences, especially with regard to what is understood as intelligence, affect, labor—and human. Disciplinary stakes are also at play here, and Rhee advocates for the critical role of the humanities and arts in scientific and technological considerations. Accordingly, each chapter looks at both technological and cultural translations of the robot and is punctuated with a coda dedicated to robotic art to explore alternative visions of human-robot relations. While the domain of technological art is not without its own politics and omissions, Rhee practically juxtaposes scientific and popular culture with examples of creative robotic forms unbeholden to rationalizing military influence. One such example is Norman White's The Helpless Robot (1985), which solicits care from nearby humans, only to then disparage their efforts, "generating alternate circuits of affect in the process" (61).
Rhee makes connections across literature, film, art, and scientific moments from the mid-twentieth century onward, summoning a motley roster of "usual" suspects and objects, such as Alan Turing, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Cynthia Breazeal's sociable robot Kismet, and more recent films such as Ex Machina and Her. Rhee does not look to those cultural works that scientists deem most influential or to the more conspicuous robot fictions; instead, she includes works that demonstrate how the robotic imaginary diffracts across disparate spheres to inform durable inscriptions of the human. For example, in holding together the closed-world logics of Cold War robotics with Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, Rhee highlights that "the lived body" owns a disruptive "worlding" capacity that can threaten the narratives that dominant subjects tell about themselves and the world. In Stepford, the killing and replacing of (wealthy, white) women with their robot doubles "highlights the extreme erasures that must occur to construct and protect a closed world" (76). Notably, though, working-class women of color, [End Page 387] whose labor sustains upper-middle-class fantasies of the good life, are omitted entirely, absent in dominant technological, cultural, and feminist imaginings of both robot and human agency of the time.
Labor is identified as the key site of dehumanization in (and beyond) the robotic imaginary. The first three chapters of the book are organized around forms of invisible, devalued labor and their anthropomorphic renderings. The first chapter attends to care labor: Whose work is diminished or erased to support both scientific advancement and capitalist accumulation? The second chapter takes on domestic labor: Whose labor is already deemed mindless or "robotic"? Whose time can be freed up by robots? And the third chapter looks at emotional labor...