- Race and Robots
A neglected motivation behind the white supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019, was the perpetrator's racialized anxieties about automation. The bleak future predicted in the killer's online manifesto reads like a scene from the dystopian film Elysium (2013): working-class whites will not be able to reap the benefits of the new automatic technologies because they will be overrun by poor, unemployed, government-dependent Latinxs. This is certainly not the future promised by today's dominant automation discourse, the business science fiction of the "second machine age" and "rise of the robots"; nor is it the future affirmed by "accelerationists" and other leftist thinkers who claim that full automation—combined with universal basic income—will usher in socialism or "luxury communism." But the El Paso terrorist's combination of the myth of white genocide and speculations about the radical automation of work is not as peculiar as it seems. For robots, as products of US history and culture, are cast from a substance that is simultaneously more immaterial and more real than their sensors and actuators: race. Recent work at the intersections of critical race and ethnic studies, decolonial science and technology studies (STS), critical code studies, feminist science studies, and literary and film studies suggests that what is at stake in automation is the technical reproduction of the US racial formation. [End Page 291]
There have been two major waves of automation discourse in the twentieth-century United States: the Depression-era debates over mechanization (1929–40) and the hopes and anxieties of the short American Century (1945–73), when the term automation was coined. (One could add briefer moments in the 1980s and early 1990s.) Amy Sue Bix's cultural history of automation, which is weighted toward the 1930s; David F. Noble's social history of numerical control; Shoshana Zuboff's study of the computerization of pulp mills and office work; Ruth Schwartz Cowan's work on household technology; and Venus Green's book on race and the Bell System's switch to direct dial are indispensable resources for understanding these periods.1 But now, in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, we are in a third era. While previous conjunctures coalesced around Fordist mass production and visions of the automatic factory, ours is the era of collaborative robots and AI, IBM's Watson and DeepMind's AlphaGo, Siri and Alexa, self-driving cars and military drones. These and other automated objects and systems are allegedly encroaching on all labor that is repetitive and predictable, be it manual or mental, and bleeding into the infrastructures of social life. Capitalism's utopians claim that the coming automation wave will lift all boats, raise the standard of living, and free us from drudgery, while the dystopians foresee a jobs apocalypse. The public appears to agree with the latter. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicates that 82 percent of Americans believe that robots will take over "much of the work currently done by humans" within the next thirty years, while 76 percent think this transformation will "likely" increase class inequality.2
Pew's language reveals the centrality of the human ("work done by humans") in the contemporary automation debate. This is the same figure shown on the covers of two of the most widely cited works of business science fiction, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (2014) and Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Futures (2015).3 Both book covers depict abstract, featureless humanoid forms that...