The faux-bot revolution
Automation is mostly a charade — a ploy by firms to look sophisticated while humans continue to do grunt work behind the scenes
By Astra Taylor
Somewhere, right now, a manager is intoning to a broke, exhausted underling that someone is willing to do the same job for less, or, that something is willing to do it for free.
Robots lend the centuries old dynamic of owners and bosses telling workers they are replaceable a troubling new twist: employers threaten employees with the specter of machine competition, shirking responsibility for their avaricious disposition through opportunistic appeals to tech determinism. A ‘jobless future’ is inevitable, we are told. Sadly, the jobless future for the masses doesn’t resemble the jobless present of the 1 percent who live off dividends, interest, and rent, lifting nary a finger as their bank balances grow.
Though automation is presented as a neutral process, one needn’t look that closely to see that this is hardly the case. Automation is both a reality and an ideology, and thus also a weapon wielded against poor and working people who have the audacity to demand better treatment, or just the right to subsist.
But if you look even closer, things get stranger still. Automated processes are often far less impressive than the puffery and propaganda surrounding them imply, and sometimes they are nowhere to be seen. Jobs may be eliminated, salaries slashed, and production lines sped up but people are often still laboring alongside or behind the machines. As one low-wage worker who toils in a Chinese “digital factory” tagging images to train AI recently told the New York Times, “I used to think the machines are geniuses. Now I know we’re the reason for their genius”.
These days machines are used to deskill, speed up, or displace work (meaning it simply gets shifted to other people, typically customers), but work rarely disappears. To grace these moves with the somber moniker of “automation” exponentially oversells the emerging workplace dynamic. Hence, I propose making our idea of automation itself obsolescent. A new term, “fauxtomation”, seems far more fitting.
Fauxtomation is purposely hard to discern, since by definition it aims to disguise the real character of the labor in question. Consider the fact that more people work in the shadow mines of content moderation (ceaselessly staring at beheadings, scenes of rape and animal torture, and other scarring images in order to filter what appears in our social media feeds) than are officially employed by Facebook or Google.
And many, though not all, of the people employed as content moderators live abroad, in places like the Philippines or India, where wages are comparatively low. As with all labor relations, race, gender, and geography play a role, determining which workers receive fair compensation for their labor or are even deemed real workers worthy of a wage at all. Automation, whether real or fake, hasn’t undone these disturbing dynamics, and may well intensify them.
Fauxtomation manifests every time we surf social media, check out and bag our own groceries, order a meal through an online delivery service, or use a supposedly virtual assistant that is, surprise, in fact powered by human beings. Yet even though we encounter this phenomenon everyday, we often fail to see, and to value, the human labor lurking behind the high-tech facade (even if it’s our own). We mistake fauxtomation for the real thing, reinforcing the illusion that machines are smarter than they really are.
That’s just how the powerful want it to be. In 2013 exploited and underpaid fast-food workers went on strike across the country, agitating for little more than a livable wage as part of the Fight for 15 movement. In response, elites shamelessly deployed the myth of human obsolescence. The Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank, took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal:
Today’s union-organized protests against fast food restaurants aren’t a battle against management — they’re a battle against technology. Faced with a $15 wage mandate, restaurants have to reduce the cost of service in order to maintain the low prices customers demand. That means fewer entry-level jobs and more automated alternatives — even in the kitchen.
Former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi got plenty of press attention a few years later with similar comments. “It’s not just going to be in the fast food business,” Rensi said. “If you can’t get people a reasonable wage, you’re going to get machines to do the work … And the more you push this it’ll just happen faster.”
Soon after making these remarks, Rensi provided gloating commentary for Forbes.com that his warnings about automation had already proven true. “Thanks To ‘Fight For $15’ Minimum Wage, McDonald’s Unveils Job-Replacing Self-Service Kiosks Nationwide,” boasted the headline. Rensi could barely contain his glee — though he did gamely try to shed a few crocodile tears for the burger behemoth’s now redundant corps of line workers. “Earlier this month, McDonald’s announced the nationwide roll-out of touchscreen self-service kiosks,” Rensi wrote.
In a video the company released to showcase the new customer experience, it’s striking to see employees who once would have managed a cash register now reduced to monitoring a customer’s choices at an iPad-style kiosk.
In reality, what is actually striking when you watch that video is just how un-automated the scene is. Work has not disappeared from the restaurant floor, but the person doing the work has changed. Instead of an employee inputting orders dictated by the customer, customers now do it themselves for free. Fauxtomation strikes again.
In its more harmless form, fauxtomation is merely a marketing ploy, a way to make pointless products seem cutting-edge. The Tovala “smart oven”, for example, is but a glorified Wi-Fi-connected barcode-scanning toaster.
But while the gap between advertising copy and reality can be risible, fauxtomation also has a more nefarious purpose. It reinforces the perception that work has no value if it is unpaid and acclimates us to the idea that one day we won’t be needed.
The Italian theorist Silvia Federici has tenaciously analysed the ways in which feminized, domestic work, what she calls reproductive labor, is essential to capitalism even as capitalists and bosses refuse to acknowledge its productive existence. Beginning with her activism with the group Wages For Housework in the 1970s, Federici has argued that we must recognize the underappreciated, uncompensated labor that sustains everyday life, providing the foundation that underpins all manner of paid work recognized by the formal economy. Every bridge, every factory, every Silicon Valley app is merely the visible tip of a hidden iceberg of reproductive labor.
It’s an insight that may seem obvious, but is actually revelatory. At the University of Toronto in 2017, I watched as Federici fielded an earnest question from a graduate student who said something about how automation would expand the reserve army of labor, Karl Marx’s term for the multitude of workers without access to steady employment. The graduate student took for granted that, soon enough, there would not be enough work to go around and that many people would become surplus, expendable, and effectively irrelevant to society. Many in the audience nodded their heads in agreement, including me.
Federici’s response was bracing. She vehemently denied the premise of the question, that we must acquiesce to the idea that come the great automated apocalypse, masses of people would have no productive work to do: “Don’t let them make you think that you are disposable,” she passionately proclaimed. At that moment, I realized the depth of Federici’s insight. Her point is not that women have, historically, performed reproductive labor outside the sphere of waged work, that their efforts are supplemental to the real action. Rather, she insists that reproductive labor is utterly central: in its absence, the entire system would collapse.
As socialist feminism usefully highlights, capitalism is dedicated to ensuring that as much vital labor as possible goes unseen and uncompensated. Fauxtomation must be seen as part of that essential and longstanding tendency.
There is no denying that technological possibilities that could hardly be imagined a generation ago now exist, and that artificial intelligence and advances in machine learning and vision put a whole new range of jobs at risk. The problem
is that the emphasis on technological factors alone casts an air of blameless inevitability over something that has deep roots in class conflict. The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate.
We have to recognize both the dangers and possibilities associated with automation while relentlessly poking holes in rhetoric that seeks to conflate technology’s present and potential capacities with an inescapable, and deeply exploitative, way of organizing labor and compensation. Where fauxtomation attempts to pass as automation, we should call it out as such.
Instead of capitulating to the owning class’s loose talk of automation as a preordained next phase of production, we should counter with demands that are both visionary and feasible: a federal job guarantee that provides meaningful work to all who want it or job sharing through a significant reduction in the workweek. When pundits predict mass unemployment following a robot takeover, we should call for collective ownership of the robots and generous social benefits detached from employment status, including pushing for a progressive variation of a universal basic income under a rallying cry that updates the 1970s socialist feminist slogan to Wages for All Work — not just the work that bosses recognize as worthy of a meager paycheck. Only once these sorts of transformations are in place can automation help create conditions of prosperity, leisure, and meaningful labor for everyone, not just the owning class.
There will be lots of work to do in 2035, of that I am sure. The question is whether the labor being done will be recognized as such, whether it will be dignified or deskilled, rushed or performed at a reasonable pace, un- or underpaid or fairly remunerated, meaningful or alienated. These are all political questions, not technological ones. If the automated day of judgment were actually nigh, they wouldn’t need to invent all these apps to fake it.
This article originally appeared in the following RSA report (Dec 2018): A field guide to the future of work