The dirty work

Surrogate Humanity. Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures
TECHNOLIBERALISM: Here are discussions on everything from the robotisation of manual labor over so-called sharing economy to artificial intelligence, automated warfare and technological emotion and sex work.


The last time I landed at Copenhagen Airport and stood and stoned, while the luggage was waiting for me, I completely fell in love with this advertisement: "If your toilet was online, it could tell that there was no more toilet paper."

One really has to wonder how stupid it can be when it has to be smart. If I was in the toilet and took the last roll, I could tell myself that soon there was no more toilet paper. And if the toilet was really online, I honestly think I would find another place to visit. What else could it not tell? And to whom?

But apparently there is someone who will go very far – all the way into cyberspace if necessary – to avoid having to deal with profane tasks such as obtaining toilet paper. Or: It has always been there. They have hired servants if they had ... money for that kind, and my class prejudice indicates that it is actually only people who have money for the kind who get the crazy idea.

"Technology liberalism blurs the unequal racial and gendered working conditions."

In our blessed time, those people can avoid having to relate to the fact that other people are actually doing the work they themselves feel superior to. Now they can connect to the Internet of Things. IoT, as it is called in the extreme abstraction of how the world actually works. That's what the book Surrogate Humanity. Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures are about: about (racialized and gendered) division of labor, about the construction of humanity, and about the connection between these two phenomena to technology.

They are replaceable

Although the "robots are coming" are often portrayed as a threat to, or a promise to, humanity as such, some people are more human than others, writes Atanasoski and Vora, who both research popular culture and have a background in critical feminist theory: "Since the first industrial revolution, automation has ushered in a threat to make certain kinds of people replaceable – human workers who are racialized and gendered," as they write in the book.

This point has several levels that relate to the way in which the automated future is projected as both a threat and a promise: on the one hand, robotization is only considered a potential political problem of a more general nature when it threatens white (man) job. On the other hand, robotization and technology are making work still done by humans invisible.

After all, there is (still) someone who needs to put a new roll on. In Telia's IoT advertising, a woman lacks toilet paper, but of course she is white, just as she is dressed in expensive office clothes. Equally total, abstraction is about the work that lies in facilitating people's most basic needs, and just as carved in stone it is which people are to be freed from the dirty work.

Tekno Liberalism

As a framework for understanding the new political economy ushered in by the discussion of what is also called "the Fourth Industrial Revolution," "TechBoom 2.0" and "the Second Machine Age," Atanasoski and Vora use the concept of techno-liberalism.

"We understand technology liberalism as [...] blurring the unequal racial and gendered working conditions, power relations and social relations that underpin the current conditions of capitalist production."

The technological future scenarios promise to free man from the dull, dirty, monotonous and dangerous work so that our creative potential can be fully realized. By failing to get closer to who it is that has so far done the work, technoliberalism invisible what colonial division of labor the current economy is based on.

This "surrogate humanity", which Atanasoski and Vora use the term, draws on a long history of human surrogates in "post-Enlightenment modernity". It is the slave who performs the work of the Lord, the indigenous peoples, that must be wiped out in order for the colonial expansion to continue, the bound contract work, migrant work, outsourcing – all the work, all the bodies whose invisibility is the whole prerequisite for value creation. Those who are not only deprived of value, but of no value at all are assigned: «The claim that technology can act as a substitute (surrogate) recapitulates a host of stories of disappearances, blurring and annihilation needed to maintain it liberal subject as agent in historical progress. "

Atanasoski and Vora make readings of contemporary discussions on everything from robotics of manual labor over so-called sharing economy to artificial intelligence, automated warfare and technological emotion and sex work. Through analyzes of whose needs are to be met and what counts as general human, they arrive at a summary of what they address from the start: «Whether technoliberal desire or where there is no such thing as a feminist AI. »

Surrogate Humanity's almost paralyzed cultural criticism works along several analytical tracks and is at once both poignant and complex.

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