Automation is a myth, a long-running fable about the future of work that needs to be reconsidered. Whether embraced as dream or cautioned as nightmare, automation is ultimately a fiction, a fantasy. "Myth" does not imply that automated technologies do not exist or that there have not been technically driven transformations in the nature of work over the past century. But these transformations have been piecemeal rather than total. They have taken place differently within different cultures and locations. And they have impacted particular races and genders rather than a generic humanity. This brief introduction to the book provides the core argument, stressing why it matters, and setting out the structure of the following chapters.
For decades, automation rhetoric has assured us that total automation is imminent, that machines will soon operate completely independently, taking over production and rendering the human obsolete. But work has proven to consist of a range of non-trivial problems, full of inconsistencies and edge cases. Increasingly it seems that the horizon of full automation will never be attained. Instead we see a revision of this dream, a more modest set of technical interventions that actively acknowledge the human and her rich capabilities. Far from being self- acting, these technical systems require heavy amounts of development and maintenance. Alongside this highly paid work is precarious and exploitative piecework carried out by a digital underclass. These insights highlight the immense amount of human labor behind "autonomous" processes.
Automation promised to liberate us from labor, a future in which machines would do all the work. Instead we are faced with systems that are devices that need augmentation. This is actually existing automation, a far more fragmented future of work that can rapidly shift from the promising to the pathological. What does this work look and feel like? This chapter explores some of the new forms of labor introduced by "automated" systems. It zooms into workers operating at the coal face of automation, moving from digital piecework to machine minders and content moderation. These technologies shape work, allowing companies to offshore labor, lower wages, and restrict rights. And these technologies shape workers, steering their practices and exerting intense social, cognitive, and psychological pressures on them.
Automated technologies are frequently framed as a wave or an age, a de-situated force that will sweep across society or ripple across the globe. But this fiction ignores the social, cultural, and geographical forces that shape technologies at a local level. Automation is both technical and geopolitical, and any discussion must situate the impacts of these technologies within a specific context. To highlight this point, this chapter moves through examples of automation in China, jumping from practices in Shenzhen to logistics in Hangzhou. Each demonstrates how technologies emerge from domestic ecosystems, reflecting the distinct values and visions of the cultural landscape that surrounds them.
Automation is somewhere rather than everywhere. Instead of the fuzzy conceptions of "global work" offered by automation discourse, we need to zoom into the sights and sounds of automated technologies in a specific context. Zeroing in on certain instances of automation reminds us that they are not merely a technical phenomenon but a cultural one, grounded in the history, language, knowledge, and norms of a particular social setting. This chapter takes up this task, focusing on the use of automated technologies in a particular region of northwest China. Here, factors like productivity, and efficiency fail to provide adequate explanations. To properly grasp what "automation" is doing, we need to add in a cultural and contextual dimension, an analysis that folds in both operations and social relations, both technical functionality and racialized histories.
Throughout the decades, automation discourse has been dominated by terms like "humanity" and "mankind." Automation would impact us all equally. But this framing obscures the fact that labor is socially stratified along racial lines. Automation emerges from a colonial history that valued some humans more highly than others. And automated technologies are deployed in industries that are already structurally unequal. This means that automation's fallout will also be uneven, falling more heavily on some than others. By zooming into a single warehouse, we can see how these transformations particularly attack black lives, producing injuries and terminations but also fostering forms of activism.
This chapter turns to gender, focusing on women and automation. Automation's tight coupling with colonial and capitalist histories means that it adopts assumptions about what work is. Here, "work" is paid work at the office, clinic, or factory; "non-work" is the unpaid reproductive labor carried out by women that takes place in the home or elsewhere. Given these patriarchal assumptions, the history of automation becomes clear. Automation has concentrated heavily on "work," pouring vast amounts of time, research, and capital into optimizing labor at the (male-dominated) worksite, while largely ignoring what is "not work"—housework, care work, sex work, and other forms of gendered or domesticated labor. The chapter pivots from industry to domesticity to challenge this blinkered concept, investigating the non-automation of "non-work," the masculine vision of home automation, and the feminization of digital assistants.
Automation rhetoric is often fatalistic. Winners embrace technology while losers buck against the inevitable. To push against the myth of automation is to doubt this narrative. It is to suggest that automation is not "our future" because that implies a singular future in which a singular humanity is impacted by a singular technology sweeping across the globe. Pushing back against this myth is a way to go beyond industry-led visions and their unending sameness. These are more specific but also more radical dreams, where communities draw on their unique aspirations and capacities to imagine their own future of work. In these revised futures, the empire building, economic inequality, and environmental devastation that characterize contemporary technology may be replaced with more emancipatory visions or ecological values. This chapter draws on several examples of worker-led initiatives to show concrete ways that communities are rethinking technology to forge their own futures.