The human/robot workday

“One imagines socially established, economically successful people like Wadhwa and Summers sitting around after the prehistoric invention of fire, loudly proposing that, with this newfound power, humanity will never again have to labor to survive the winter. What post-work theories like this miss is that humanity is remarkably good at inventing new forms of consumption, which create new jobs, and, in turn, new oppressive hierarchies with little room for “creativity and enlightenment.”


For every benefit that I was provided in my experimental week, there were humans, rather than robots, behind the process. It was still a person who brought products to my door or drove me to my next destination. These are the new jobs that we create and fill, servicing the fresh demands created by technology — the demand to be anywhere and receive anything instantly. Wadhwa and Summers won’t take these servile jobs. Instead, it will be the new working class. For the upper echelons, I’m sure the service will seem suitably robotic.

The technology we praise today for its frictionless efficiency places the onus for labor ever more squarely on humans. As I saved time in my own schedule this week by not having to travel to shop or avoiding the delays of the subway, I found myself working more, not less. The time I saved never felt like my own because I was somehow cheating to get it, and I had to take full advantage of the opportunity to gain even more through work.

As new technological innovations are developed, the nature of labor may change, but the workday is going nowhere. That’s because at its root is still the desire to consume.”

—Kyle Chayka, “Don’t expect a robot utopia to spare you from working in the future.” Pacific Standard, 15 August 2014 (via The Week)

I think Chayka (and likely everyone else before him who made the same observation) is probably right that new technology doesn’t just replace old forms of labor, but simultaneously produces new kinds. I wonder if the “desire to consume” is really at the root of the problem, though. Are we dealing with a problem in human nature or a problem in the structure of society? If both, it still remains to probe a bit deeper than the problem of consumption or society’s structure. I don’t see how the desire to consume wouldn’t be satisfied by, for example, even an agrarian utopia, provided there was no scarcity. Chayka cites Marx in the article to support the claim that “the problem is systemic.” The gestures he makes in the article at core problems beyond the nature of of the technology/human dynamic itself distract from the strength of the article’s highlighting of that dynamic. I think it’s valid and necessary to consider structural issues and the “nature” of humanity, but this article recapitulates a provocative thesis about the driving force behind societal change without connecting the dots in a consistent way.

For future reference: the article may be useful to think of when we read Bellamy and Lane.