Friday, October 18, 2013

2H2K - April 2050 - Robots are Marxist: An Introduction

First horseless carriage in Vancouver (1899)

"Can't get there from here" is the punch line of an old joke about a driver asking a farmer for directions (my father used to tell it, with great effect, using a thick New England accent). There is, in linguistic circles, a question of whether or not there are certain ideas that can't be conceived of without the language needed to describe them, having been developed in advance. Call it a cognitive chicken-and-egg, can't get there from here, conundrum. As I began thinking about what city life might be like in the year 2050, I found myself wondering how people will speak of robots when everything is a robot. Just as we no longer refer to "horseless carriages," I don't expect anyone to refer to "driverless automobiles" forty years from now. Rather than invent a new word (carbot? cardroid?) or repurpose an old one (automatautobot?) I decided instead that it made more sense to invent a new way of speaking; to have English speakers use tone to change meaning: so a driverless car became a caR, a robotic carpenter became a carpenteR, and an automated operator - like the kind we interact with more and more today - became an operatoR. What ended up happening is that my mind went in an entirely unexpected direction. Instead of thinking about questions of Artificial Intelligence, I found myself wondering about Artificial Labor. The difference is subtle but turned out to be helpful making the leap past the naysaying Yankee.

The shift in my mind from A.I. to A.L. was helpful on a number of fronts. First of all I wasn't interested in writing stories about the emergence of AI because we are already up to our eyeballs in it. When I call my bank I speak to an automated operator. When I type in a search term, Google is usually able to guess - in surprisingly short order - what it is I am looking for. When I type the word "Dear" at the beginning of a document, Clippy is there to help me format it as a letter. If you feel that I am setting the bar too low, I'd remind you that I am not the one who has raised the bar repeatedly over the past twenty years. I can remember when computers would never be able to read hand writing - that the problem was just to complicated. Speech recognition was another goalpost that was believed to be unreachable. But now both come standard on smart phones. AI is everywhere, even if artificial people aren't.

I wanted to write about AI without writing about artificial people. This isn't because I'm invested in the idea that an artificial person is impossible; it simply isn't the story I want to tell. (At least in part because I believe a self-aware AI will be profoundly alien and I wanted to write stories about how humans might live together in a city transformed by AI, but not one in which humans are displaced by it.) AI is as transformative in 2013 as the internal combustion engine was in 1913; which is to say we are still in that awkward horseless-carriage-moment of transition. I expect that by 2050 AI will have begun to reshape the way we live to the same degree that cars had transformed city life by 1950. By 2050, just as "horseless carriages" became "cars" by 1950, we will have settled on a new way to talk about the new forms of automation for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

I started out using the italicized capital R to indicate the difference between a car and a caR. and I originally referred to it as an "AI-R"- which I thought of as a sort of onomatopoeia; that the R might be pronounced less like "are" and more like "air." As I began to experiment with extending it to other automated machines - especially the ambulatory (like C-3PO and R2-D2) and the conversational (like HAL) varieties, I realized that I was thinking about robots differently than I had expected. The characters in my stories began to refer to robots by whatever task they happen to be doing. In my mind, robots stopped being laborers and became Labor. That is when I started thinking of the italicized capital R as the AL-- what that newer signifier lacks in onomatopoeia, it makes up for in descriptive accuracy.

Not counting Mechanical Turks and other such clockwork-men, robots came into being, first as fictional devices, and only a decade or two later as functional industrial machines. The term “robot” was coined in 1921 by the Czech playwright, Karel Čapek, for his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). The original Czech word, "Robota" means "labor" and has strong connotations of drudgery and even serfdom. And for the first half century of their fictional use, robots were exclusively caricatures of the working class; like Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Robbie from Forbidden Planet. These robots were characterized by a rough-hewn brawn, and a thuggish obedience - until they turned on their masters that is, then they were remorseless killers. Not a pretty picture of the working class.

The threat that these early fictitious robots also embodied is often confused with the threat of the Frankenstein Monster - ie: inventions destroying their creators. But the book, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was first published in 1818. The century of political and intellectual development that separates Shelly from Čapek could not be more profound. Mary Shelly wrote her novel before the effects of the First Industrial Revolution was widely felt, at a time when the US and Russia were still the two largest slave economies in human history. The Egyptians had nothing on the antebellum South.) Europe had yet to reel from the (failed) revolutions of the "European Spring" (or benefit from the social reforms that followed).

Probably most jarringly Shelly live in a pre-Darwinian moral universe. When the monster describes himself to his maker as "The Adam of your labors" - he was speaking within an intellectual frame that had no alternative to the creation myth of the bible. The ethic of Shelly's book hinges on the traditional Christian concept of hubris; a theme that Shelly took from John Milton's Paradise Lost. Richard Dawkins observes that "The 19th Century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to believe in miracles like the Virgin Birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection." Mary Shelly was very well educated and came from  family of well connected scholars. She almost certainly didn't believe in Virgin Birth. But she almost certainly believed the earth was a in the neighborhood of 6,000 years old.

But the robots of Čapek's R.U.R. are not creatures of the 19th Century, they belong to the the intellectual universe produced by the Second Industrial Revolution. That is not to say that Robots are Darwinian; they're not, but they are Godless. While Čapek may not have known that the earth is 4.54 Billion years, he would have know that it was tens of millions of years older than biblical scholars had calculated it to be. The anxiety, that robots will turn on their masters, has everything to do with the moral universe as re-imagined by a thinker who had was born the same year that Shelly first published Frankenstein, but who's world view would have had far more in common with Čapek's. Robots are Marxist.

Karl Marx's ideas about Labor formed as the Second Industrial Revolution was in it's full flower. The capitalists of his time included the slave owners of the American South, who super charged their evil empire with steamships, and who the historian David Blight describes as fiercely capitalist (and enormously profitable). Blight estimates that the capital worth of the slaves owned by Americans in the South at the time of the Civil War was equal to, and may have even exceeded, the value of all the railroads and factories in the North. But as cruel as the Southern slave economy was, the mills and factories of 19th century Manchester furnished Marx with more than enough examples of systematic cruelty and oppression. The inhuman working and living conditions of the newly emerging class of industrial workers that Marx (borrowing a term from Roman law) dubbed the "proletariat" rivaled slavery in its degradation, if not it's historical and geographical scope.

And it is important to remember that the British and North American masters of the Industrial Revolution, not only made inhuman demands on their workers, they just as readily backed those demands with violence, as did their slave holding contemporaries in Russia and the American South. It is no wonder that Marx believed that the capitalist and the proletariat would inevitably come into violent conflict; that the interests of the relatively tiny ownership class (which was to maximize profit) would inevitably come into violent conflict with the property-less majority of society who had very different interests (fresh air, leisure time, healthy offspring...).

For our purposes its unimportant that Marx was wrong. Never mind that as history actually played out the industrial workers of developed economies never, in fact, rebelled. Nor is it important that the places where there actually were Marxist revolutions were exactly the sorts of places Marx said their could never be a worker's revolt: most spectacularly, the non-industrialized peasant economies of Russia and China. What is important, is that what Marx assumed was inevitable looked extremely likely to a lot of other people, millions of them all around the word, Marxist and otherwise, and for a very long time, decades. Some people still want believe it. But back in the day, they really believed.

According to the anthropologist David Graeber, “because all of the late 19th century capitalists were so convinced that a revolution was going to happen any week and that they were all going to be hanging from trees, so they all relocate to the place where they could easiest evacuate.” Graeber argues that the threat of a worker's revolution remained a "plausible threat" well into the 20th century. That it was only in the Post WWII years that the threat truly waned. (And by then there was a battle tested and nuclear armed USSR to fret about.)

This dread of revolutionary violence is embodied in one of the earliest of cinematic robots. In Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece, Metropolis, Maria is was built to be a seductress - a robotic agent-provocateur that infiltrates the working classes and acts as a rabble-rouser in order to spark a revolution and sow disorder. Maria isn't a brute like Gort or Robbie, but Lang's fetishized female robot moved with the same menacing pneumatic power and geared smoothness as her male counterparts. (It's important to note that until recently all film robots were gendered and therefor sexualized.) Robots shadow Marx and Marx shadows robots.

But in addition to being threatening, fictional robots represented a Marxist promise as well. In Capital Marx argued that "machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working-day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist." I am not a Marxist, but it is that last bit makes the appearance of consumer robots as shocking a transformation to our post-Marxist economies as factories were to the pre-Marxist ones. We are like Shelly, occupying a conceptual universe without the language to describe the road ahead.

In that same chapter of Capital, Marx observes that "the apparatus and tools used by the handicraftsman or manufacturing workman; with this difference, that instead of being human implements, they are the implements of a mechanism, or mechanical implements." A textile mill was a loom harnessed to dynamo. Robots are universal mechanisms. A robot able to use a saw, drill, and chisel - with fine grain "motor skill" - is an automated furniture factory. Anyone who has ever run a small business knows how valuable a skilled hard working employee can be. "If I had three more guys like him..." is a thought every good business owner has found themselves thinking. In his essay, Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, the anthropologist David Graeber makes more up to date (but still Marxist) observations on automation:
Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” proposed the term “postmodernism” to refer to the cultural logic appropriate to a new, technological phase of capitalism, one that had been heralded by Marxist economist Ernest Mandel as early as 1972. Mandel had argued that humanity stood at the verge of a “third technological revolution,” as profound as the Agricultural or Industrial Revolution, in which computers, robots, new energy sources, and new information technologies would replace industrial Labor—the “end of work” as it soon came to be called—reducing us all to designers and computer technicians coming up with crazy visions that cybernetic factories would produce.
Many people don't like to work, many more work jobs that they despise. Art work is what comes to mind en I where Bill Clinton or some other Davos Head invoke "meaningful work" (along with supporting one's family, improving one's community, fighting for social justice, and environmental issues). I understand that many people don't like to work, and that the great majority of people work at jobs that they hate. As an artist I count myself as one of those who loves my work, but even so my relationship with work is ambivalent.

Some art makers work in such a way that it appears that they avoid all drudgery. “These procedures baffle art-lovers." wrote the artist Robert Smithson about Donald Judd's notoriously hands-off approach to art making, "They either wonder where the ‘art’ went or where the ‘work’ went, or both.” For as long as I have worked as an artist (almost 25 since I began my apprenticeship), I have struggled with  drudgery. The work I have done for the last 18 years of my professional career is manifestly labor intensive, and often described as obsessive. "You must have a LOT of patience." has been a fairly common reaction when someone sees my work for the first time. I suppose I do. But even as someone who has designed his work life loves his work, finds it deeply meaningful, and is surrounded by people who admire what I do, work is hard and often dull.

I have always joked about the possibility of Keebler Elves sneaking in at night while I sleep and finishing whatever drudge work needs to be done. Keebler Elves are a bastardized commodified cousin to the cobbler elves of folk tales. As someone who loves their work, I am not interested in the "end of work" I am however ready for drudgery to be commodified, I have been for decades.

When I finished my apprenticeship and moved to New York for art school, I studied for a semester with the artist and master woodworker, Toshio Odate. He insisted that I should do everything by hand. But unlike my classmates, most of whom had never used hand tools, I had done years of work mastering hand tools during my six year apprenticeship. And also unlike my classmates, I had spent years more applying those skills to the use of power tools. By the time I met Toshio, any native romance I might have had for the "authenticity" of the human touch had been driven out of me by ten thousand hours of hard manual work. Although my workmanship was far superior to anything my less experienced classmates were able to make, Toshio was never happy with it. "You have no 'Human Nuance!'" he would scold me. And although I never took another one of his classes I worked as his shop assistant for years. While I wouldn't describe characterize our relationship as warm, is wasn't unpleasant, we were "frienemies." I dubbed Toshio "The Human Nuisance" - and told the story whenever he came up (but as far as I can remember only to his face when I was working as his student that first semester.)

According to the critic and theorist Peter Burger, “The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not an earlier form of art (a style) but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life praxis of men.” When I think of the promise represented by the "historical avant-garde" - the promise that "Everyone can be an artist" - I do not imagine everyone being creative. I imagine everyone approaching work as artists do: with the hope that it will lead to more work, not the end of work.

Perhaps because I chose to use tone rather than verbiage, however, I've avoided imagining robots as atomized laborers moving inexorably towards a Marxist revolution, and instead imagined have ended up them as Labor with a capital "L"- as in "workers considered as a group." The robots have "melted away" - becoming parts of environment that the characters inhabit (like geese, or bushes, or rocks - as David observes in The Slab). I picture a time when automation has shortened "that portion of the working-day, in which the labourer works for himself." But more problematically, in the stories I ended up writing, automation has also shortened the other portion, the one Marx felt we give, "without an equivalent, to the capitalist." The latter change is a profound change, one that I have had a much harder time imagining a possible way around. Perhaps that is because the only solutions I can imagine to "the end of jobs" are Political. "Can't get the from here." I keep telling myself.

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