Let’s make robot a dirty word

16.44, Wednesday 7 Apr 2021

Deliveroo drivers are striking this week (The Guardian) over their pay, rights and safety practices. (Deliveroo is the UK equivalent of Doordash.)

After a 4.5 year legal fight, ending in the UK Supreme Court, Uber Says Its UK Drivers Are ‘Workers,’ but Not Employees (Wired). This means drivers get minimum wage guarantees after expenses, paid holidays, and pension contributions but not sick pay or protection against unfair dismissal.

Deliveroo drivers and Uber drivers are performing “Below the API” jobs. Uber’s software layer (the API) dispatches a human to do a job, and…

What does that make the drivers? Cogs in a giant automated dispatching machine, controlled through clever programming optimizations like surge pricing?

And: it’s not a secret that Uber intends to eventually replace all their drivers with self-driving cars.

Here’s Norbert Wiener in 1948, in his seminal book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (the first public use of the term). He’s talking about computers, or as he says the modern ultra-rapid computing machine.

It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor.

I’m actually not comfortable with the use of “slavery” as a metaphor here. The lived reality of slavery is abhorrent in its own way, and I feel like it’s minimised somehow to deploy the word like this. Life under capitalism, below the API, can be criticised on its own terms.

HOWEVER: it strikes me as significant, somehow, that right at the dawn of computing, it was possible to predict the situation that Uber drivers find themselves in today, 73 years into the future.

As it happens, Wiener didn’t believe that knowledge work was immune.

There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions.

So we have that to look forward to.

Further back!

101 years ago, the word robot (in its current sense) was coined:

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by the remarkable and fascinating Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race.

But robot wasn’t a new word. It first appears in English in 1839 referring to central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service.

It comes from the Czech robota meaning “forced labour” or “slavery.”

Here’s a segment from Rossum’s Universal Robots:

DR. GALL: Yes, the Robots feel practically no bodily pain. You see, young Rossum provided them with too limited a nervous system. We must introduce suffering.

HELENA: Why do you want to cause them pain?

DR. GALL: For industrial reasons, Miss Glory. Sometimes a Robot does damage to himself because it doesn’t hurt him. He puts his hand into the machine, breaks his finger, smashes his head, it’s all the same to him. We must provide them with pain. That’s an automatic protection against damage.

HELENA: Will they be happier when they feel pain?

DR. GALL: On the contrary; but they will be more perfect from a technical point of view.

HELENA: Why don’t you create a soul for them?

DR. GALL: That’s not in our power.

FABRY: That’s not in our interest.

BUSMAN: That would increase the cost of production.

It don’t know what it means for our current pitfalls to be anticipated so long ago.

But I do feel that we need a word in the public discourse to critique what the Ubers and Deliveroos are doing with their “Below the API” workers. Something that can be said by newsreaders and unpacked by columnists. Because it’s not really well understood right now. It’s one thing to say that Uber hasn’t, historically, paid minimum wage, but the easy counter to that is that the drivers get a kind of flexibility and freedom that regular employees at other companies do not. It’s another thing entirely to say that reason that the drivers are paid below minimum wage is that they are being put into artificially amplified competition with one another and with future automation. It was inevitable. So it’s that system that needs to be unpicked, not the outcome.

Perhaps “robot” will do, as a word to use in the debate, given its history. Robots are people who are denied souls, for business reasons.

So here’s my proposal. Let’s make robot a dirty word.

i.e.: “What is Uber doing? They’re treating their drivers like robots.” Etc.

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