Automating Toward Slime

Our utopic future in orbit. William Gibson fans will recognize this as the Villa Straylight in Neuromancer. Source: NASA.

In H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine,” a nineteenth-century scientist creates a device that allows him to travel to 802,701 AD. There he finds that widening economic inequality has created two evolutionarily distinct types of human beings: Eloi and Morlocks. The Eloi are delicate (their skin transformed into tissue through years of disuse), pleasure-seeking surface dwellers and descendants of the upper classes, while the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, live under the earth in constant fear of the sun. Predictably, the Morlocks provide the labour which powers the Eloi’s seemingly sophisticated technology. 1960s Hollywood styled the two species like this:

An Eloi and a Morlock as envisioned by George Pal in The Time Machine (1960)

Wells’ novel goes on to portray the relationship between the two species as a bit more equal (we find out that the Morlocks actually subsist on Eloi meat), but the image of the future that it presents, one in which our technology permanently reshapes who we are, is worth bringing up when we discuss automation.

My recent interest in automation stems in large part from my work on Extra, an automation tool for content marketers and publishers. Our intention with Extra is to loosen the demands of content production and distribution by intelligently automating social media workflows with class.

I say class because most marketing automation tools have a tendency to focus on quantity at the expense of quality. The demands of content production are such that small publishers, bootstrapped organizations, startups without pre-existing networks, fresh entrepreneurs, etc. have an incredibly difficult time getting in front of the right people. The problem isn’t that they can’t produce quality content, it’s that quality content takes time to produce, and that, once it’s produced, it’s buried. The impulse for many is to crank up the volume through automation—to create zombie twitter accounts that are nothing more than dull RSS feeds.

“Organic reach” is the number of people shown your posts through unpaid distribution.

Automation is a fact of life and one of the defining challenges of our time. It has the potential to remove humans from the factory floor; to liberate us from the drudgery of work; to allow us to be more creative with our time; to free us from the shackles of the profit imperative. This is radical stuff, to be sure, but it’s also dangerous.

Automation executed inadequately, calibrated improperly, can produce surplus and waste on a grand scale. Zombie accounts that regularly chirp RSS’ed content are creating digital refuse, layers of which will be permanently recorded as sediment in humanity’s digital history. In deciding to create an app for automating social posting, one has first to consider the ways in which one would be contributing to the digital scrap heap. Let me count the ways.

Automation done improperly looks like this:

Simone Giertz’ Breakfast Machine.

Bad automation typically manifests itself as machines designed to carry out tasks in ways which are broadly considered to be “good enough.” The form is right: the tasks are, technically-speaking, being completed, but the naive simplicity with which they’re being completed makes having completed them worthless. This brute form—a crude shape scribbled on the back of a napkin, meant to signify the complexity of the world—is a necessary first step toward creating better machines.

The “Breakfast Machine” is today’s marketing automation: it mimics the form but fails to account for the nuances of it. Nevertheless, it remains widespread. Automation is often mistaken as a substitute for strategy, but the consequences of it can be severe: masses of drone followers, useless analytics, plunging organic reach, diminished brand credibility and a worse internet for those who choose to support you.

Automation doesn’t need to be this way. The human labour required to stay present on social media is immense, and impossible for many. To make matters worse, today’s platforms don’t seem particularly interested in mitigating the burdensome requirements of sustainable publishing. Some degree of automation seems necessary. If we could design and develop an automation tool that radically reduced the human labour required to stay present, learned from the digital environment, assisted marketers, publishers and entrepreneurs in making better decisions, and reduced overall digital refuse by boosting signal while throttling noise, we might be able to free people up to focus on better things. The internet, and the humans that use it, need less to do more.

Source: NASA.

H.G. Wells’ picture of the future, in which the working classes (d)evolve into overworked trolls, and the upper-classes into wimpish elves, is a ham-fisted, pessimistic vision of the future. Wells’ couldn’t have predicted the ease with which we would be able to (cheaply) automate our processes using digital technology. In our future, not only will the machines do all the work, they’ll manage it too. After having explored the world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, Wells’ character uses his time machine to travel even further into the future. That future, millions of years from the present moment, suggests an even further devolution of the human race: having automated everything that required human intelligence, our species has gradually regressed into lower forms of being. This seems, to me, a more accurate vision of the future: our technology will return us to slime.

👋 Thanks for reading. Sign up for Extra early access here, or follow us on Twitter.