An Anthropology of Robots and AI

In An Anthropology of Robots and AI, Kathleen Richardson observes that the robot has “historically been a way to talk about dehumanization” and, I would add, not talk about racialization.16 The etymology of the word robot is Czech; it comes from a word for “compulsory service,” itself drawn from the Slav robota (“servitude, hardship”).17 So yes, people have used robots to express anxieties over annihilation, including over the massive threat of war machines. But robots also convey an ongoing agitation about human domination over other humans!18

The first cultural representation that employed the word robot was a 1920 play by a Czech writer whose machine was a factory worker of limited consciousness.19 Social domination characterized the cultural laboratory in which robots were originally imagined. And, technically, people were the first robots. Consider media studies scholar Anna Everett’s earliest experiences using a computer:

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In powering up my PC, I am confronted with the DOS-based text that gave me pause … “Pri. Master Disk, Pri. Slave Disk, Sec. Master, Sec. Slave.” Programmed here is a virtual hierarchy organizing my computer’s software operations … I often wondered why the programmers chose such signifiers that hark back to our nation’s ignominious past … And even though I resisted the presumption of a racial affront or intentionality in such a peculiar deployment of the slave and master coupling, its choice as a signifier of the computer’s operations nonetheless struck me.

Similarly, a 1957 article in Mechanix Illustrated, a popular “how-to- do” magazine that ran from 1928 to 2001, predicted that, by 1965:

Slavery will be back! We’ll all have personal slaves again … [who will] dress you, comb your hair and serve meals in a jiffy. Don’t be alarmed. We mean robot “slaves.”21

It goes without saying that readers, so casually hailed as “we,” are not the descendants of those whom Lincoln freed. This fact alone offers a glimpse into the implicit Whiteness of early tech culture. We cannot assume that the hierarchical values and desires that are projected onto “we” – We, the People with inalienable rights and not You, the Enslaved who serve us meals – are simply a thing of the past.

Coincidentally, on my way to give a talk – mostly to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students at Harvey Mudd College – that I had planned to kick off with this Mechanix ad, I passed two men in the airport restaurant and overheard one say to the other: “I just want someone I can push around …” So simple yet so profound in articulating a dominant and dominating theory of power that many more people feel emboldened to state, unvarnished, in the age of Trump. Push around? I wondered, in the context of work or dating or any number of interactions. The slavebot, it seems, has a ready market!

For those of us who believe in a more egalitarian notion of power, of collective empowerment without domination, how we imagine our relation to robots offers a mirror for thinking through and against race as technology.

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