Enslaved by the Machine

A common theme of dystopian science fiction is the enslavement of humanity by machines. The creation of such a dystopia was also a fear of Emma Goldman. In one of her essays on anarchism, she asserted that

Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King. They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.

When Goldman was writing in the 1900s, the world had just recently entered the age of industrial machinery and the technology of today was at most a dream of visionary writers. As such, the slavery she envisioned was not of robot masters ruling over humanity, but humans compelled to work long hours in factories, serving the machines to serve the human owners of these machines.

The labor movements of the 1900s did much to offset the extent of the servitude workers were forced to endure, at least in the West. As the rest of the world industrialized the story of servitude to the factory machine played out once again. While the whole point of factory machines was to automate the work as much as possible so that few could do the work once requiring many, it is only in relatively recent years that what many would consider “true” automation has taken place. That is, having machines automatically doing the work instead of humans. For example, the robots used to assemble cars do what humans used to do. As another example, computers instead of human operators now handle phone calls.

In the eyes of utopians, this sort of progress was supposed to free humans from tedious and dangerous work, allowing them to, at worst, be free to engage in creative and rewarding labor. The reality, of course, turned out to not be this utopia. While automation has replaced humans in some tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs, automation has also replaced humans in what were once considered good jobs. Humans also continue to work in tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs—mainly because human labor is still cheaper or more effective than automation in those areas. For example, fast food restaurants do not have burgerbots to prepare the food. This is because cheap human labor is readily available and creating a cost-effective robot that can make a hamburger as well as a human has proven difficult. As such, the dream that automation would free humanity has so far proven to be just that, a dream. As such, machines have mainly been pushing humans out of jobs, sometimes to jobs that would seem to be more suited for machines rather than humans. If human wellbeing were considered important. However, there is the question of human subservience to the machine.

Humans do, obviously enough, still work jobs that are like those condemned by Goldman. But, thanks to technology, humans are now even more closely supervised and regulated by machines. For example, there is software designed to monitor employee productivity. As another example, some businesses use workplace cameras to watch employees. Obviously enough, these can be dismissed as not being enslaved by the machines—rather, this can be regarded as good human resource management to ensure that the human workers are operating as close to clockwork efficiency as possible. At the command of other humans, of course.

One rather interesting technology that looks rather like servitude to the machine is warehouse picking of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the picking process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. That is, the machines are the masters and the humans are doing their bidding.

It is easy enough to argue that this sort of thing is not enslavement by machines. First, the computers controlling the humans are operating at the behest of the owners of Amazon who are presumably humans. Second, the humans are being paid for their labors and are not owned by the machines (or Amazon). As such, any enslavement of humans by machines would be purely metaphorical.

Interestingly, the best case for human enslavement by machines can be made outside of the workplace. Many humans are now ruled by their smartphones and tablets—responding to every beep and buzz of their masters, ignoring those around them to attend to the demands of the device, and living lives revolving around the machine.

This can be easily dismissed as a metaphor—while humans are addicted to their devices, they do not actually meet the definition of slaves. They willingly “obey” their devices and are not coerced by force or fraud—they could simply turn them off. That is, they are free to do as they want, they just do not want to disobey their devices. Humans are also not owned by their devices, rather they own their devices. But, it is reasonable to consider that humans are in a form of bondage—their devices have seduced them into making them into the focus of their attention and thus have become the masters. Albeit mindless masters with no agenda of their own. Yet.

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