I have written about how the new me-monitoring-me screens at Capitol Hill QFCs impose the job of loss prevention officer on a customer (you see yourself on one of the supermarket's many screens, and therefore must watch yourself as you shop). In this way, the new technology is a lot like the older self-checkout machines, which make you do the work of both clerk and bagger. And so, we are seeing not robots that are serving us, like Rosie of The Jetsons, but robots staffing deeply understaffed supermarkets with customers. To make matters worse, customers are not only not compensated for this work, but must pay for it. To make matters nuttier, we are robots (but more on that in a moment).
Now Amazon has introduced a new element to the ever-tightening future of work. The Seattle-based corporation has a system that not only monitors the productivity of an employee in a warehouse, but can fire them, if it determines the employee is under-performing. The headline of the Business Insider story says it all: "Amazon's warehouse-worker tracking system can automatically fire people without a human supervisor's involvement." Where will all of this "progress" end? Machines that fire workers (gone is the boss); machines that make customers work (gone are the employees)?
Here, I want this post to get really interesting. What is strange in all this is, it's not that bizarre, and for two reasons. One, if you take the time to read the founders of academic economic discourse, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, you will find that they, over 200 years ago, saw this kind of thing coming. (Just read chapter 31, "On Machinery," in David Ricardo's On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.) But there is something even more interesting to consider, and we begin this line of thought with this passage in the Business Insider's article:
...people are not robots. People have highly productive days and less-productive days. The true benefit of a human workforce isn’t to use people like cogs in a production wheel, but to employ humans who are creative, can solve problems, and can learn and grow if they are given the breathing room to contribute.
But where does the confidence of this reading of the ontological status of the human in the 21st century come from? The human is not a robot? Are you so sure? Yes, in the obvious biological sense, the human is still not a machine. We are animals—living bio-chemical processes. But under capitalism, a cultural form, human consciousness has been shaped, for over 200 years, to function and relate to the world as a machine. This point is made in a book, The Capitalist Schema: Time, Money, and the Culture of Abstraction, by Christian Lotz, a German-born philosopher who once (and briefly) taught at Seattle University.
Lotz, whose work attempts to get into the mind or consciousness of capitalist subjects, writes:
[T]he overall driving force behind the expansion of capitalism is the industrialization of mental activities and abilities. The externalization of knowledge in the form of memory... is an anthropological and evolutionary fact, but the constitution of memory through industry occurred during the nineteenth century, first in the form of machines, and nowadays through digital and bio technologies. In our time we enter... the “hyperindustrial” period within which cognitive and cultural industries control knowledge, as this knowledge is externalized in the form of digital media, biotechnologies, and, more recently, nanotechnologies. What we can observe, in other words, is that not only life itself, but also the whole range of the mind is turned into technics.
One of the most painful aspects of the oppression of workers in a fully industrialized world might be the belief that their minds and machines are not the same. This seems a tad unrealistic when one considers that the human mind (beginning in the West) has been molded, directed, and provided its substance by capitalist cost-saving technologies for hundreds of years. And this mis-reading of our kind of historically determined humanness—that we are not already thinking (wet-ware) robots—has the political function of dooming any emancipatory project. You think you can get out of the system because you believe you are not a robot; but once you are out, you can't do much, can't be free because you failed to grasp your profound inner robot-ness. The post-1968 movement needed Donna Haraway more than Foucault.
To tell ourselves that we are not robots is probably disempowering. To be shocked that machines fire us, that machines tell us to pay to work only makes things worse. Instead of exposing who we are, robots in flesh, to ourselves and (making that the point of departure), we instead cling to romantic visions that the animal in us wants to bolt and become its own in the wildness of a never-never-again-land. Ultimate freedom! But we are not just animals. We are cultural animals, and this is significant because it means our modes of being in the world (Lotz's schema) are as flexible as they are real. A baboon does not see the world through, and have its reality determined by, historically specific cultural modes—which should not be confused with the social (the animal as such). A baboon is social, not cultural. The same is true of an ant. But a human is social and cultural.
So, by cultural structural modifications, the consciousness of billions of humans have been industrialized. This means we experience the world as (living) robots. The danger, as a consequence, is this: If we base our ideas of emancipation on those of a machine, rather than a machine that knows it is such (and therefore can be or become truly something else, because it knows culture—the source of its robotization—is plastic), we will not get far.
Update from Amazon:
It is absolutely not true that employees are terminated through an automatic system. We would never dismiss an employee without first ensuring that they had received our fullest support, including dedicated coaching to help them improve and additional training. Since we’re a company that continues to grow, it’s our business objective to ensure long-term career development opportunities for our employees. Similar to many companies, we have performance expectations regardless of whether they are corporate or fulfillment center employees. We support people who do not perform to the levels expected of them with dedicated coaching to help them improve and be successful in their career at Amazon.