One of the questions we must ask ourselves is how our bodies and the labour resulting from our physical bodies is pecieved as an inanimate object available to be owned. This question is also relevant when we discuss one of the most ancient and misunderstood forms of female labour; sex work. One might think this role would be free from threats of robotic replacement until we read that glorified pimp and white man Bradly Charvet will be opening up a blowjob cafe in London staffed by robots. Charvet says that the cafe doesn’t intend to compete with sex workers. Nevertheless he describes says there was ‘no choice’; the decision was taken as human staff would be illegal under British criminalisation of brothels. Charvets unimaginative business plan has, from the start, been little more than an effort to garner large amounts of attention to himself. But the ease in which he would replace human women with silicon ones shows how much we women are valued beyond of our ability to satisfy customers.
Uber has never been particularly secretive about wanting to eventually replace all its drivers with fully automated vehicules, as soon as the latter are allowed out of Silicon Valley. A Swiss wannabe entrepreneur/pimp realising he can’0t open his dream blowjob cafe in London due to some pesky brothel laws seeks alternatives. Japans Haneda airport installs automated skating robots for its tourist information, complete with encyclopaedic knowledge of tourist needs and desires. What was once an unfulfilled dream from the 60s is becoming reality, the robots are here, and it’s going to change the way we work maybe in manner just as dramatic as the first wave of mechanisation in the 18th century.
Back then it was the thriving British wool trade that was transformed from a cottage based industry in which working class women were important stakeholders as skilled workers. Wool spinning and lace making was a useful additional income which was entirely within the realm of the women workers who earned more than they would otherwise have earned in agriculture. These same women soon found themselves out of work, and no longer economically independent, when the mechanised looms moved work from the cottage to the factory. Today we are being faced with yet another wave of technological change; we’ve come a long way since the spinning jenny, but how will the Robot revolution work for women?
A robot to help with the housework has been a dream since the Jeffersons, robot butlers would come to relieve us of the drudgery of the everyday. But the economic model of today demands that we should all be working full time; supposedly in jobs that we dislike. Robots threaten to both liberate us to follow our true desires and make our minimum wage jobs defunct. And yet there is little talk of a shorter week or working day, of increasing wages for remaining workers, or retraining everyone to become robot technicians. Those driving this revolution are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly middle class, (just like in the 18th century, o’ how times have changed). When confronted with what should be the huge question of what all these newly unemployed drivers and waiters are going to do, the dominant dialogue seems to be “march of progress/blame the poor for ‘choosing’ not to go to college/factory workers need to retrain”, how can this class be trusted to liberate anyone?
A World Economic Forum report gives a very conservative estimate of the loss of 5million jobs in developed countries between now and 2020. In South-East Asia, home to the worlds garment industry, approximately 56% of the workforce is at risk of being replaced. Remember that most garment factory workers are female, often undereducated women immigrating from villages. These women already work in conditions close to modern day slavery because of economic deals between their governments and ours. Would their becoming defunct simply mean they went back home to the farms? Something tells me no, but I cant see anyone paying for these women to go to college either. Closer to home, most westerners have become used to the most obvious everyday robots, the electronic cashiers which are now the norm at supermarkets. Without knowing exactly how many jobs were lost to them its not hard to see how working class women would have been some of the first affected.
For every paper, blog and tech supplement informing us of the coming revolution we are also treated to reassurance about what jobs they won’t take. Notably the creative sector and care work. Though the creative industries are still notoriously misogynistic, care work is still strictly unsung labour for working class women. The economic need for care work will no doubt increase in the Western world in the coming decades many nations are faced with aging populations. In todays Britain work as a private care assistant is at times to be at the crux of exploitative modern employment practices. Employees are sometimes paid below minimum and may be on zero hour contracts or forced to register as self employed as private companies compete to undercut the NHS. Workers are frequently migrants or the long term unemployed and be paid only for half hour visits and not for the travel time between jobs. The result is a deal in which carers are stressed, underpaid and exploited, their patients are neglected and treated like cattle; in part because the private care companies are running for cost efficiency rather than trying to help people achieve a greater quality of life. Will increasing demand for these jobs lead the ceos of private care companies to enforce even worse conditions? Or will an increased prestige lead to them becoming more competitive and desirable? Care work, as with most roles traditionally occupied by women, has fought hard over the years, with limited success, to establish itself as a ‘serious’ career vital for society. (A lot more vital to society,one might argue, than many traditionally male held jobs, such as stockbrokers and politicians). The struggle to get womens labour categorised and treated as real work has come a long way, yet has a long way to go as womens roles are seen as soft or unchallenging, and therefore less worthy or a good pay check. And yet the stereotype of woman as naturally more caring and emotionally intelligent has kept us safe in this sector, unglamourous as it may be.
The advice given by employers is that we need more graduates in STEM, but women only account for 36% of jobs in the tech sector were held by women, and girls are still facing institutionalised sexist barriers telling them to stay away from traditionally male subjects. Furthermore, with the advent of robots such as Baxter, who can learn simply from physical cues rather than from a highly trained programmer, we may be overestimating the need for everyone to retrain as a robot technician in the first place. Remember Trumps promise to relocate manufacturing to American shores? It might actually be possible but only if the manufacturing is done by robots rather than workers expecting to be paid at least minimum wage, a few supervisory roles might be created of course, but nothing to counterbalance the coming lay-offs. Another element of the problem lies in the fact we expect the robots to serve us; so we build them in the image of women. Siri and Alexa are robots who we expect to attend to our every need and even the first caring robot was built to have a female voice because we expect those who attend unquestioningly to us to resemble those human females who have already done so. Being stereotyped as more caring and servile has long kept us on the sidelines in the labour market. And even if these characteristics become more desirable in a world filled with electronic voices, I don’t think this will represent any real progress for women as we are kept well within the boundaries society designed for us.
A couple of generations ago it was women who were responsible for inputting most of the data into the first computers, a job considered too lowly for a man, but what happened to all those women when computing advances made them obselete? Doubtless many went on to work as clerks and data entry but very few seem to have gone on to success in the tech world. Meanwhile data entry is predicted to be one of the first roles to go. Its this previous experience which means we should be very careful of those silicon valley types who claim robotics will free us from the drudgery of everyday life so we can go on to follow our chosen careers, a ridiculous position when you take into account that lower paid workers, especially women, especially migrant women or women with families, generally face a huge number of societal barriers which keep them stuck in these soon to be obselete jobs.
What’s missing is a long hard rethink on what work actually means to us, and whether we actually need to work as much as we do, the robotics revolution will probably lead to just as much increased poverty and misery amongst workers as the manufacturing revolution once did. A generation ago we were told that we could expect a three day week, but an economy slaved to the ides of unbridled economic growth means we still find ourselves working endless days in meaningless jobs. Discussion of the robot economy suggests more competition and slower job growth without bringing into question how we sell our time and labour, and yet every wave of technological advance has led to unforeseen changes in how we work, and to the creation of radical social movements driven by the most affected actors. Today however we are at the end of a process in which workers unions and professional institutions have been dismantled and the collective power of workers is no longer seen as legitimate political force. Remember that old quote about how slavery will be a thing until we invent machines that do the job of slaves? Under the current capitalist economy, in which humans are defined by their job, and in which human lives can be considered as valued or disposable based on the value of their labour, don’t expect the robots to bring liberation with them; they’re made of the same stuff our chains are.