The development of technological systems like computers is leading to many changes for society. The one that has fascinated me the most is the ramifications of automation and what it means for our relationship to reality.
The rise of robots as both analogue and replacement for humans is a complicated area. Straight away I’m reminded of this a bit awful movie from a few years back Surrogates. It stars Bruce Willis who plays a cop or something in a world where everyone just stays at home in a chair while they remotely operate an attractive and physically unhindered robot of themselves (Here’s the trailer). Besides the questions this raises regarding why someone would want their robot to look like Bruce Willis it helps to illustrate what Sarah Gardner and to a certain extent Ben Eltham wrote about in their articles. Eltham discusses the profound social implications and the explosive politics of automation. He posits that with automation we’re switching from a labour focused industry to a capital focused industry and that the real winners of this change are going to be a small selection of millionaires. It’ll significantly change the relationship between employers and labour because the traditional labour will be non-existent, and these multimillionaire media conglomerates will have even more vertical control of their businesses. Top to bottom control will mean that humans will have to reconfigure their relationships to identity and their relationships to society.
Beyond just money our jobs define us in the modern world as a significant part of our identity. Eltham mentions our social circles, our goals and human relationships are all defined by our place and line of work. I don’t think this has to be approached with as much scepticism as Eltham brings to it though, humans have constantly redefined their relationships to each other over time and while it’s impossible to predict with accuracy what automation will do to us I think we’ll work out ways to give ourselves purpose and maintain our human relationships. Probably in a ‘Surrogates esque’ fashion where machines come to define us and act as analogue representations of our personalities, wants and desires. Sarah Gardner’s article shows us a potential version of these surrogates that’s coming in our future. Robots with behaviour based intelligence that can be controlled by humans but learn of their own accord. The article briefly mentions that this process of automation only really poss a threat for now to those who are uneducated and in skills based industries. I’m more concerned however in what this means for conversation and communication. The robots Gardner mentions can be programmed ‘drunk and one handed’ and if we don’t need to explain or train any more what kidn of cultural damage will we be doing to ourselves long term.
Now, I don’t know if I’m reading the work of Paul Dourish correctly but he covers a whole history of human computer interaction. One of the most interesting tidbits out of his writing was that all computer advancements have stemmed from an “expansion of human skills and abilities” (P.17). He suggests that tangible and social computing are based on the same social principles. Automation, especially through human analogues (and even moreso ones we control) exploits our ‘regular’ daily human interaction and adds a new medium through which these relationships are negotiated.
So what happens when we have nothing to do because automation? Well Surrogates (side note: I never thought I’d be using this a bit garbage movie as an example of anything, luck it has good ideas)suggests that people will just take their attractive robots and party and have sex with each other so that could be it. If Eltham is right however, the future looks bleak. Gardner lends us a little bit of hope though, we might be in control more than we think, acting as a check and even building these robots. Of course this could definitely change, especially for the uneducated. For the short term everyone’s job is safe.
Dourish, Paul (2004) ‘A History of Interaction’, in Where the Action Is: The
Foundations of Embodied Interaction, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 1-23.
Eltham, Ben (2014) ‘Robots want to take your job’, New Matilda, February
Gardner, Sarah (2013) ’A Robot for Every Job’, Marketplace.org, February