AT A LUXURY SKI RESORT in the heart of Switzerland, the snow has just started to fall, big flakes drift-ing down through the thin mountain air. An elite group of global leaders—presidents, heads of state, policymakers, CEOs, business magnates, media personalities, celebrities—had descended on the alpine village over the past few days. Now they were filing into the conference center, quickly snapping up the last empty seats in the packed auditorium. After a brief introduction, the house lights dimmed and a bank of massive screens behind the stage lit up. As a figure walked onto the stage, the title of his talk, “How to Survive the 21st Century,” flickered onto the screens. The “automation revolution,” he proclaimed, “will be a cascade of ever bigger disruptions. Old jobs will disappear, new jobs will emerge—but then the new jobs will rapidly change and vanish.” A Windows-style error message now appeared on-screen with a bright yellow warning sign: “Technology might disrupt society and the meaning of life itself,” it cautioned, offering Ignore or Reset buttons. With a group of global elites hanging on every word, the speaker ramped up his rhetoric and rammed home one of his takeaway points. “Whereas in the past, humans had to struggle against exploitation,” he warned, “in the 21st century, the really big struggle will be against irrelevance.”1
Race Against the Machine. A World Without Work. Rise of the Robots. The Future Is Faster Than You Think. The Inevitable. From industry forums to technology journalism and the front pages of the popular press, automation rhetoric abounds, and for good reason. This is a tale of drama, where technologies suddenly sweep in and society undergoes massive upheaval. This is a tale of crisis, where work as our long-standing means of identity and economic support is now placed in jeopardy. And this is a tale that is universal, obliterating geographical and cultural distinctions to insist that automation will affect everyone, everywhere. “It doesn’t matter what you do for work,” asserted one pundit; in a matter of years, your job will not be the same.2 “Automation is the terrifying force no one is willing to name,” argued another, “the race between automation and human work is won by automation.”3 These stories simultaneously hold out the promise of economic prosperity while warning about a set of potentially disastrous effects. They form a powerful narrative driven by hype and fear.
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. In speaking of “myth,” then, I’m taking aim at the universal understanding of automation constructed by population automation discourse, a fable that abounds in press headlines and popular best sellers. Indeed, this version of automation must be a fable because it rests on a set of triple fictions: the myth of autonomy, the myth of automation everywhere, and the myth of automating everyone. These claims are disconnected from the sociomaterial conditions of the real world, divorced from the lived experiences of specific bodies in specific spaces. As a result, this framing of automation is a hollow concept, resting on nothing. Untethered from the hard ground of reality, it lacks any capacity to reveal the power relations, technical operations, and logistical chains that contour contemporary labor. “Automation” signifies so much but explains so little.
Why does this myth matter? In grabbing headlines and framing the debate, this myth is not just misguided but dangerous. The automation myth offers a cohesive narrative, a “unified vision” for a set of conditions that are actually fragmented and uneven, and this myth exerts persuasive force, working “to explain, to reconcile, to guide action or to legitimate.”4 In claiming to be apolitical, automation camouflages its ethics. This fable about the future of work often props up existing hegemonies, reinforcing relationships of domination when it comes to technology, labor, race, and gender. In claiming to be global, automation overlooks its context. Its abstracted, 10,000-foot view obscures the small but significant transformations taking place in that factory in that city—material shifts that reconfigure labor conditions for particular people in particular places. And in claiming to be inevitable, automation conceals its interests. Its vision of a ubiquitous, impersonal force overlooks how change really occurs—through identifiable actors, with certain motivations, making concrete decisions.
In accepting the framing of automation, we not only miss the key questions but the chance to intervene within these conditions and shape these outcomes. Indeed, perhaps the most damaging aspect of the automation myth is its fatalism. Much of what will happen is “inevitable,” we are told, driven by “technological trends that are already in motion.”5 Here, history becomes a tale of technical improvement with power, speed, standardization, uniformity, and control as the given variables for optimization. Nothing can alter these axioms or stop this forward progress. In the myth of the machine, the machine is “absolutely irresistible.”6 The future of work is a future on rails. To reject the myth of automation, then, is to reject this fated future and insist on alternatives. Other variations and inflections—more communal, more equal, more sustainable—are possible.
All of these blind spots prevent us from properly perceiving new entanglements of machinic and human labor. For instance, I could tell a very different story about automation. “I’m a shared-bike redistributor,” states the man, a heavy-set youth with a goatee dressed in an old Guess T-shirt. Puffing on a cigarette, he sizes up a jumbled mess of bikes heaped on the street, then starts to pull them apart. “I work through the night, putting these shared Meituan bicycles back in places where they’ll be needed at rush hour.” Grunting, he grabs the frame of a bicycle, hauling it onto a trailer attached to a three-wheeled cargo motorcycle. One by one, he finds and loads bikes, working up a sweat despite the cool night air. “People attribute my work to the magic of an app,” he notes, “but these bikes don’t teleport themselves.” He scans the street for a final bike to complete the load—then groans when he spots one dangling halfway up a tree, wedged between two branches. By standing on a concrete planter, he can just reach the front wheel, gripping the tire and levering it out of the crook in the tree. Slowly lowering it to the ground, he feels a twinge in his back but presses on, completing the load and firing up his cargo bike. “I guess I’m a fauxtamaton,” he admits, “invisible labor that keeps up the facade of shiny technological efficiency.” Reaching the inner city, he cuts the engine and starts to unload each bike, setting them up in a neat row ready for early-morning commuters. With a grunt, he grabs the final bike with one hand and swings it over his shoulder, grinning briefly: “I’d like to see an algorithm try this.”7
This is just one story, about one person, in one place. Yet its specificity stands in sharp contrast to the grand rhetoric of “humanity” and “technology” in the opening scene. It points to a set of particular pressures placed on the body by technically mediated labor. It highlights some of the potentials and punishments enabled by digital affordances. And it gestures to a more nuanced set of social and political issues. It suggests that working through this myth would be productive, that questioning its universal categories and critiquing its seemingly inevitable trajectory could be beneficial, providing us with more articulated insights about automated technologies and the future(s) of work.
To clear away this myth and replace it with a sharper portrait, this book draws together a diverse variety of materials, an eclectic mix that aims to offer a cross-section of different labor forms. Warehouse work is just one of these forms, but it offers a prime example of what material was chosen, how it was approached, and what this engagement aimed to accomplish. With the rise and rise of e-commerce, these sites have become key distribution centers, coordinating a massive performance that delivers millions of goods every day. Speed and efficiency are the prime directives here, and so the warehouse has long been a field site for the future of work, a test bed for new technologies seeking to rationalize and routinize labor. The dream is to perform “like the motherboard of a computer, combining and redistributing goods as bytes and containers like software containers.”8 Automation aims to smooth out the lumpy tasks of packing and stacking into a seamless logistical flow. Yet this choreography remains frustratingly complex and human bodies frustratingly difficult to erase. This makes the warehouse a key site of struggle, a space that crystallizes the tensions and limitations of automation.
To develop a portrait of these conditions, I synthesize a wide array of “gray” literature, from journalistic investigations to computer science papers, patents, business reports, and worker testimony. I want to zoom in on the point where the technical butts up against the social and material, examining the interplay among automated systems, automated spaces, and automated subjects. I aim to freeze-frame those moments when the world bites back in the form of error, injury, and contingency. Of course, the warehouse is just one workplace of many. To augment this portrait, the book ventures into other sites, from the factory to the field and from the supermarket to the smart home. Together these aim to touch on the broad spectrum of practices and conditions that fall under that enormous umbrella we call work.
How do we interpret this material and make sense of these conditions? Here I turn to media, race, gender, and cultural studies and the deep insights they offer. These scholars throw a spanner in the machinery of the automation myth, bringing its grand claims to a temporary halt. They urge us to pause, to carefully inspect relations and conditions, and to pay attention to adverse impacts, pointing out that this is “not a mere technical emergence but the practical result of an ongoing and bloody struggle between the would-have-it-alls and the to-be-dispossessed.”9 Automation privileges some and punishes others. Such scholarly work grounds automation in its colonial history, highlights its racial and gender inequalities, and stresses its political agency. By reading this material through a critical lens, this book aims to offer a more nuanced, localized, and racialized understanding of automated technologies and their intersections with labor regimes. Specific lives and the spaces they inhabit provide an anchor, bringing automation back down to earth.
This book steps through each of automation’s fictions in turn. Part 1 examines the myth of automated autonomy. 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 humans and our 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 is incomplete, and Chapter 2 moves from checkout operators to machine minders and content moderators to explore what this partially automated labor looks and feels like.
Part 2 investigates the myth of automation everywhere. 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, these chapters move through examples of automation in China, jumping from shanzhai 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. The second chapter in this part dives deep into two instances of automation in Xinjiang to demonstrate how a cultural and contextual understanding is key. To grasp what automation is doing in these cases, we need to go beyond the technical and draw on the historical, social, and racial dynamics at work in a particular place.
Part 3 explores the myth of automating everyone, the generic figure of “the human” at the heart of automation claims. Throughout the decades, automation discourse has been dominated by terms like “humanity” and “mankind.” Automation would affect us all equally. But this framing obscures the fact that labor is socially stratified along racial and gendered 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. Chapter 6 turns to gender, a shift that highlights how automation’s definition of work—waged work in the workplace—is narrow and patriarchal, dismissing an entire realm of labor and the contributions of those who undertake it. 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.
Together, these stories push back against the myth of automation, using it as a kind of springboard toward a sharper articulation. By examining conditions on the ground, we can develop a more fine grained portrait of the technical reshaping of work. The aim here is not to add more detail for the sake of it, but to offer a conceptualization able to account for particular forces exerted over particular subjects within particular spaces. The interplay that emerges is messier but more interesting. Here we find control but also contingency, we see cultural logics that dictate technical logics, and we witness racial “histories” that persist in the present. These forces deeply shape the power relations surrounding labor: the way that work is carried out, the agency that workers have, their ability to sustain their livelihoods, and the forms of community that can be fostered. In other words, automation is not just technical but political. By sharpening our understanding of automation, we sharpen our understanding of its stakes and table a sharper set of claims. To insist that certain groups are accounted for, that certain values are upheld, that certain configurations of technology and labor must be entirely redesigned—these are specific demands that require reimagining form and function in concrete ways. “Automation”—that myth claiming to narrate the future of work for all people in all places—needs to be rewritten.
1. Harari, “How to Survive the 21st Century.”
2. Schwartz, “Yes, the Robots Are Coming.”
3. Michalski, “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs.”
4. Cupitt, The World to Come, 29.
5. Kelly, The Inevitable, jacket summary.
6. Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, 224.
7. Raghav, Bullshit Jobs in China, 9.
8. Easterling, Enduring Innocence, 103.
9. Beller, The World Computer, 10.