Will Robots Set Us Free?


Image: Shutterstock/meunierd

Donald Trump managed to get himself elected by spinning two, seemingly incompatible yarns. The first is about the need to save and empower workers by restricting technological advancements and globalization. Listen to him talk about jobs and you will hear the whirring and clanking and humming of industrial machines doing industrial work, guided by the steady hands of U.S. laborers. Indeed, the president has pinned his politics on a commitment to reviving dead and dying jobs from industries that Charles Dickens would have recognized—mines and mills and factories and anywhere else “ordinary” folks do “real” work. The kind Trump never did.

Yet this vow—this promise of work that is dressed in Norman Rockwell watercolors and dripping with mawkishness—comes under the guise of a second story, a story about liberty. According to the president, Americans and the U.S. business community—the engine of the national machine—are overburdened. They are oppressed by taxes, regulations, and union membership, not to mention international commitments such as the Paris Climate Agreement and dues-paid membership in the United Nations.

Upon first glance, these tales look incompatible. Community and solidarity, in this second story, are unfreedom. Meanwhile, the self-sacrifices required to support fair taxation, decent business practices, and international cooperation to solve global crises are downright tyrannical.

The transformation to robot-led work is at once a threat and an opportunity to both devotees of the free market and socialism.

But what if automation could unite them? The transformation to robot-led work is at once a threat and an opportunity to both devotees of the free market and socialism. New production technologies threaten to eliminate some jobs and make others more precarious, while delivering higher profits to owners of the means of production. But what if those same technologies could be used to usher in an era of unprecedented mass liberty?

Herbert Marcuse, the German-American philosopher of, among other things, technology and freedom, imagined that our hope for liberty might rest with the machines, if only we could get the dialectical relationship between technical advancement and modern life right. He opens his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society with a summary of the dialectical possibility contained in the modern world:

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources. That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development.

It bothered Marcuse that the “real possibility,” as he put it, to secure “freedom from want,” was subsumed by a totalitarian condition in which labor and just enough precariousness dominated life. He knew that these conditions were necessary for people to achieve real (that is “concrete”) freedom, but under our economic social, cultural, and political institutions, effective opposition to social and political conditions are impossible. The worker gets up, heads to the factory floor, hustles hard, comes home, feeds himself and the family, and plops himself in front of the radio or television or, today, computer to “unwind” from a long and grueling workday. Political pacification, primed by work during the day and made good by leisure in the evening.

But what if we made the machines work for us?

• • •

In 1858, in Grundrisse, Karl Marx argued that full automation as part of a transition to post-capitalism would enable humans to develop themselves during the time that would be freed up once the need to produce goods and services was limited by machine work. Instead of pouring one’s surplus labor into the capitalist’s cup—which always runneth over—laborers would be free to pursue self-development in art, science, sport, and so on.

In Eros and Civilization (1955), Marcuse picks up this thread. Nearly one hundred years after Marx’s observation that full automation could help liberate humankind, Marcuse asserted we had reached the point at which this was possible: “The very progress of civilization under the performance principle has attained a level of productivity at which the social demands upon instinctual energy to be spent in alienated labor could be considerably reduced.”

One-dimensional thinking relies on subtle oppression, on convincing people that they are free, on the provision of sufficient goods and services to distract them, on stultified civic discourse, and on the masses identifying with elites.

The Frankfurt School philosopher went on to identify the conditions under which citizens are dominated by what he called one-dimensional freedom: an uncritical, pacified approach to thinking about contemporary life. One-dimensional thinking relies on subtle oppression, on convincing people that they are free, on the provision of sufficient goods and services to distract them, on stultified civic discourse, and on the masses identifying with elites. In contrast, two-dimensional thinking enables people to see the possibility of liberation in the current order of things, the possibility of leveraging its contradictions to remake the world.

In these opposing dimensions, we see that Marcuse understood the machinery of contemporary oppression in its pre-teen years—just as it was getting difficult but prior to the full-blown screaming matches that would follow in the 1970s and beyond. Automation and computerization had started, though globalism remained a few decades away. In the years that followed Marcuse’s most penetrating work, the pace, scale, and reach of labor technologization picked up dramatically as the cult of work and the apotheosis of consumer culture in the United States rose alongside it. If Marcuse imagined the comparatively pastoral years of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States as totalitarian, by the 1980s and 1990s, the image of a nation always at work or the mall would have resembled a tableau so bleak that it would have made Hieronymus Bosch blush.

Marcuse did not live to see the 1980s, however; he died of a stroke shortly after his eighty-first birthday. But his ideas lived on. In a 2004 essay for Harper’s magazine, for example, novelist and essayist Mark Slouka took to task the U.S. obsession with work. “Quitting the Paint Factory” opens with four sentences that at once mock and challenge the cult of busyness: “I distrust the perpetually busy; always have. The frenetic ones spinning in tight little circles like poisoned rats. The slower ones, grinding away their fourscore and ten in righteousness and pain. They are the soul-eaters.” It was Marcuse for the new millennium.

More to the point, though, Slouka picks up on the political implications of not just work, but so much work, in part since the cost of labor is foregone idleness, including time to think. “Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human,” he writes, channeling Marcuse and the Frankfurt School. He continues:

. . . it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. . . . Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had ‘too much time on our hands.’ They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, ‘Quick, look busy.’

As if this weren’t enough, Slouka brings his message home with the observation, “If we have no time to think, to mull, if we have no time to piece together the sudden associations and unexpected, mid-shower insights that are the stuff of independent opinion, then we are less citizens than cursors, easily manipulated, vulnerable to the currents of power.”

And here we are.

•••

In 2018, the feverish pace of contemporary life continues to suppress two-dimensional thinking, despite the reach of automation—which has spread further and deeper into our working and resting lives than Marcuse is likely to have ever imagined.

Automation now follows us from the factory or office into our car or bus or train and right into our home. Some automation is simple and meant to make the tasks of day-to-day life easier—like my lightbulbs, which turn on and off when I have set them to or when I come and go from my apartment.

When they are not working, Americans spend their time “unwinding” by consuming: the newest smartphone, the slimmest television, the shiniest car.

Other automation is more complex and scaled to industry, from factory processes to piloting airplanes. Emerging automation technologies are reaching into retail, mining, driverless cars, and beyond. Speculation is now common about the spread of automation into highly skilled job sectors, which could put targets on jobs such as banking and financial advising, computer programming, law, and even the arts.

But while some automation puts jobs at risk, other automation increases job efficiency and creates new kinds of complementary labor. This swap, the old for the new, partially explains why Americans are working just about as much as ever—or, at least, in the past sixteen years. In 2016, the OECD reported that Americans worked an average of 1,783 hours per year (about 34 hours per week), down from 1,834 hours (about 35 hours per week) in 2000.

But averages can be misleading. About 124 million Americans in 2016 worked 35 hours per week or more, suggesting that Americans work more than enough. Indeed, if you add the time they spend looking for work, talking about work, or worrying about work, the tyranny of labor becomes undeniable—and exhausting.

Thus, when they are not working, Americans spend their time “unwinding” by consuming. As the Frankfurt School understood decades ago, the churn and burn of the daily grind encourages anemic escapism: the newest smartphone, the slimmest television, the shiniest car.

In 2017, U.S. consumer debt hit an all-time high: $12.8 trillion, including $784 billion in credit card debt. The majority of this borrowing is mortgage debt ($8.7 trillion) while auto loans ($1.2 trillion) and student loans ($1.3 trillion) also do their fair share of the heavy lifting. The labor cycle requires all sorts of debt, and its fullness reveals something rotten.

Part of the story of totalitarian democracy that Marcuse warned about is the intellectual as well as physical exhaustion and oppression that comes from the labor cycle of wake up, rush to work, labor all day, and come home to briefly rest by consuming pablum before getting up the next day to do it all over again.

What perpetuates this cycle? What is the bit that keeps you in perpetual motion, accounting for the consumer, mortgage, auto, and education debt? The American dream, of course.

•••

In reality, Trump’s American dream is not so much a Rockwell painting as it is a Rorschach test, containing at once all the possibilities that partisans wish to see: a return to the “stability” of sixty years ago, a free market libertarian utopia, an escape back to the old ways of work and an expansive horizon for the new ones.

As Trump’s ‘Made in the USA’ train offers tax incentives for domestic product, it begs the question: made by whom? Or by what?

The contemporary American dream is George Orwell’s concept of power scaled up. As the skeptical defender of freedom described in 1984, the Party’s power lies in “tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together against in new shapes of your own choosing.” Thanks to the forces of unprecedented capital accumulation, extensive and violent state authority, and pervasive surveillance technology, the people are now passive objects of another’s political and personal projects—and they can be segmented, targeted, mobilized, united, divided, heeded, ignored, used, threatened, punished, abused, or even (within limits) killed to serve the agenda of the day. They can also be expected to follow predictable patterns because “working hard” and “playing by the rules” is how you fulfill the promise of the American dream.

But the dream today is about elite control and plutocratic domination. Trump’s “America First” corporatism and protectionism, for instance, is at once a tool of power and good for business. It is the message he, as president-elect, aimed at United Technologies Corporation last November. The company had been planning to move 800 jobs from Indiana to Mexico, but soon reversed its decision. And yet, in a twist, instead of keeping workers, the company invested in automation to cut labor costs and to “remain competitive.” Faced with tariffs and anti-immigrant measures, most companies intend to do the same.

And so as Trump’s “Made in the USA” train offers tax incentives for domestic product, it begs the question: made by whom? Or by what? The Trump administration, for its part, has indicated that it isn’t thinking about the matter. Last spring, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimed the threat of job loss to automation was “not even on our radar,” adding that rather than being worried, he was “optimistic.” Besides, as far as he’s concerned, the threat is at least fifty or one hundred years away.

The lesson in all of this is that the robots—that is, automation—will not save anyone any time soon. Automation won’t create space for liberty because the power structures that shape and direct the form and trajectory of technological innovation are controlled by interests who have no desire to reach full automation as a means of mass empowerment—or anything else, for that matter. The capitalists will continue to own the machines, and the political establishment is their establishment. At the same time, the institutions of U.S. life, and the national story that underwrites them, work against mass freedom.

Technology has continued to develop since the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new way of working—and, more importantly, of owning. But the form of the organized economy and the social relations that make up that form remain more or less the same, save for the further extension of industrial logic and tactics into more aspects of human life.

With automation, the plutocrats get the increased efficiency and returns of new machinery and processes; the rest get stagnant wages, increasingly precarious work, and cultural kipple. This brave new world is at once new and yet the same as it ever was. Accordingly, it remains as true as ever that the project of extending liberty to the many through the transformation of work is only incidentally about changing the tools we use; it remains a struggle to change the relations of production.