A Philosopher's Blog

Enslaved by the Machine

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on July 7, 2017

A common theme of dystopian science fiction is the enslavement of humanity by machines. The creation of such a dystopia was also a fear of Emma Goldman. In one of her essays on anarchism, she asserted that

Strange to say, there are people who extol this deadening method of centralized production as the proudest achievement of our age. They fail utterly to realize that if we are to continue in machine subserviency, our slavery is more complete than was our bondage to the King. They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.

When Goldman was writing in the 1900s, the world had just recently entered the age of industrial machinery and the technology of today was at most a dream of visionary writers. As such, the slavery she envisioned was not of robot masters ruling over humanity, but humans compelled to work long hours in factories, serving the machines to serve the human owners of these machines.

The labor movements of the 1900s did much to offset the extent of the servitude workers were forced to endure, at least in the West. As the rest of the world industrialized the story of servitude to the factory machine played out once again. While the whole point of factory machines was to automate the work as much as possible so that few could do the work once requiring many, it is only in relatively recent years that what many would consider “true” automation has taken place. That is, having machines automatically doing the work instead of humans. For example, the robots used to assemble cars do what humans used to do. As another example, computers instead of human operators now handle phone calls.

In the eyes of utopians, this sort of progress was supposed to free humans from tedious and dangerous work, allowing them to, at worst, be free to engage in creative and rewarding labor. The reality, of course, turned out to not be this utopia. While automation has replaced humans in some tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs, automation has also replaced humans in what were once considered good jobs. Humans also continue to work in tedious, low paying and dangerous jobs—mainly because human labor is still cheaper or more effective than automation in those areas. For example, fast food restaurants do not have burgerbots to prepare the food. This is because cheap human labor is readily available and creating a cost-effective robot that can make a hamburger as well as a human has proven difficult. As such, the dream that automation would free humanity has so far proven to be just that, a dream. As such, machines have mainly been pushing humans out of jobs, sometimes to jobs that would seem to be more suited for machines rather than humans. If human wellbeing were considered important. However, there is the question of human subservience to the machine.

Humans do, obviously enough, still work jobs that are like those condemned by Goldman. But, thanks to technology, humans are now even more closely supervised and regulated by machines. For example, there is software designed to monitor employee productivity. As another example, some businesses use workplace cameras to watch employees. Obviously enough, these can be dismissed as not being enslaved by the machines—rather, this can be regarded as good human resource management to ensure that the human workers are operating as close to clockwork efficiency as possible. At the command of other humans, of course.

One rather interesting technology that looks rather like servitude to the machine is warehouse picking of the sort done by Amazon. Amazon and other companies have automated some of the picking process, making use of robots in various tasks. But, while a robot might bring shelves to human workers, the humans are the ones picking the products for shipping. Since humans tend to have poor memories and get bored with picking, human pickers have been automated—they wear headsets connected to computers that tell them what to do, then they tell the computers what they have done. That is, the machines are the masters and the humans are doing their bidding.

It is easy enough to argue that this sort of thing is not enslavement by machines. First, the computers controlling the humans are operating at the behest of the owners of Amazon who are presumably humans. Second, the humans are being paid for their labors and are not owned by the machines (or Amazon). As such, any enslavement of humans by machines would be purely metaphorical.

Interestingly, the best case for human enslavement by machines can be made outside of the workplace. Many humans are now ruled by their smartphones and tablets—responding to every beep and buzz of their masters, ignoring those around them to attend to the demands of the device, and living lives revolving around the machine.

This can be easily dismissed as a metaphor—while humans are addicted to their devices, they do not actually meet the definition of slaves. They willingly “obey” their devices and are not coerced by force or fraud—they could simply turn them off. That is, they are free to do as they want, they just do not want to disobey their devices. Humans are also not owned by their devices, rather they own their devices. But, it is reasonable to consider that humans are in a form of bondage—their devices have seduced them into making them into the focus of their attention and thus have become the masters. Albeit mindless masters with no agenda of their own. Yet.



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  1. TJB said, on July 7, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    I’m sure there will be soon be a fembot available that is programmed to be a dominatrix.

  2. CoffeeTime said, on July 8, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    At the moment, machines are merely the tools of systems designed by people. If we short-sightedly look at the machines instead of past them, we may perceive ourselves as controlled by the machines, but that is incorrect; we would be equally controlled by the systems even without the machines. We are, however, controlled only insofar as we consent to be, except for governmental systems. Taxation, registration, any mandatory action that is punishable by violence or imprisonment for non-compliance might be considered controls that are tantamount to a form of slavery. Fortunately, bureaucracies have not yet tightened their grip on citizens using machines.

    However, human minds are very limited. Computers may well be used to devise systems that work better than we can design, but are beyond our comprehension. If/when the systems we work within are designed by machines, then what is our status? When I am instructed to eat a specific breakfast, be at my door at 8:15 to be picked up by a stranger who will drop me at a factory where I will work for 5 hours, then picked up by another stranger and dropped a mile from my house, and all of that produces a good lifestyle for me, but no human understands exactly why each of those decisions was made, am I then enslaved by machines?

    Which prompts the more interesting question: in what sense does a system exist?

    As for people who feel compelled to keep checking their phones or tablets, they are enslaved by them only in the same metaphorical sense that we are all slaves to our habits. That makes me a slave to my coffee maker every morning!

    • TJB said, on July 9, 2017 at 12:11 am

      Fear not, CT. There is a fembot in your future who will whip you into shape.

    • WTP said, on July 9, 2017 at 6:57 am

      People are no more enslaved by their phones or tabkets than they are by books, landline phones, the radio, tv, the daily mail, etc. Modern technology has sped up the process or shortened the intervals is all.

      There’s a more general point, to some extent slavery is voluntary. If you fight or flight you may die or be punished severely, this is true. But one does not have to take it. It’s a decision to live on your knees rather than taking the risk that you may die on your feet.

    • WTP said, on July 9, 2017 at 10:24 pm

      Not that it pertains to the context of slavery discussed here, but one thing leading to another, I found this which y’all might find interesting…From U.S. Grant’s memoirs…

      There was no time during the rebellion when I did not think, and often say, that the South was more to be benefited by its defeat than the North. The latter had the people, the institutions, and the territory to make a great and prosperous nation. The former was burdened with an institution abhorrent to all civilized people not brought up under it, and one which degraded labor, kept it in ignorance, and enervated the governing class. With the outside world at war with this institution, they could not have extended their territory. The labor of the country was not skilled, nor allowed to become so. The whites could not toil without becoming degraded, and those who did were denominated “poor white trash.” The system of labor would have soon exhausted the soil and left the people poor. The non-slaveholders would have left the country, and the small slaveholder must have sold out to his more fortunate neighbor. Soon the slaves would have outnumbered the masters, and, not being in sympathy with them, would have risen in their might and exterminated them. The war was expensive to the South as well as to the North, both in blood and treasure, but it was worth all it cost.


      • TJB said, on July 10, 2017 at 12:23 pm

        Very insightful. My opinion of Grant just went way up.

        • WTP said, on July 10, 2017 at 2:53 pm

          Mine as well when I read that. I’d like to go back and read his full memoir. Historians whom I have read have not treated him well. I was disparaged in his day as well, yet somehow (hmmm….go figure) he was elected president. Twice. Upon hearing some complaints during the war, Lincoln famously said of him, “I cannot spare this man, he fights”.

          • WTP said, on July 10, 2017 at 2:54 pm

            “He was disparaged..” not “I”…obviously….though maybe not..

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