Fire, Water and Other People Working

Technology was born out of accident. Out of contingency. Of memory failure. At least so if we follow French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who turns to the myth of Prometheus and his forgetful brother Epimetheus to bind together human, technology, laws of nature and contingency. According to the myth,  after distributing various skills to all animals, he forgot humans, leaving them naked and shoeless and without bedding and weapons. Fire, which his brother Prometheus stole from the gods, is the compensation for this accident, this glitch in memory. The accident is a necessary condition of progress. This way human has been bound to technology by default, entangled into an inseparable whole, dependent on each other. Well, at least until recently.

Over the past years, we have been gradually delegating our routine tasks to our tools. The private environment and the industry are becoming increasingly automated, when people both at home and at work act among programmable, non-human beings. In contemporary theory this automation was named a fourth technological revolution when machines operate with each other in a network without a visible human intervention. Mechanical human work is substituted here by the robotic choreography, while the man took a more virtual role in the system by being responsible for programming and providing connectivity and energy supply for their automated colleagues. It is an autonomous ecosystem, a post-human collective which is rapidly expanding by including more and more mechanical beings. In most cases, technology and newly automated companions that are proliferating around us merely emphasize and increase the already existing socioeconomic problems. With automation, some will again be more vulnerable than others, most often based on already prevailing racial, gender and geopolitical politics.

“In September 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, published “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms…Cashiers — 97 percent. Chefs — 96 percent. Waiters — 94 percent... Bakers — 89 percent. Bus drivers — 89 percent. Construction laborers — 88 percent. Veterinary assistants — 86 percent. Security guards — 84 percent. Sailors — 83 percent. Bartenders — 77 percent. Archivists — 76 percent. Carpenters — 72 percent… There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 percent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition and doesn’t produce huge profits.“ [1]

It’s somehow funny to imagine archaeology as the ultimate human profession. Future archaeologist digging for imprints of its own species in the new post-human collective. What would she find? What kind of imprint will we leave for the future archaeologists? If we are already prosthetic beings today, enhanced with externalized and internalized technology and synthetic supplements, how the relics of these cyborg bodies will look like frozen in ice someplace?

In any case, automation forces us to urgently re-examine and redefine the established notions of labor, of work as the ultimate social value, of a current legislative system based on human-to-human interaction. In the post-human collective, surrounded by automated companions and colleagues at work, at home, on the road, and in the sky, we must find new forms of accountability. And here it might get a little complicated because it requires us to delineate what is the part of the automated system we need claim accountable. The running software? The hardware? Both? How to punish deviant robots?

Forcing us to redefine not only notions and values of work, legal status, but also of life itself, these ‘electronic persons’ reveal more about ourselves, about, about the Cartesian split between mind and body that has shaped our understanding of ourselves as sentient beings and shaped the technological creatures we are producing. They also reveal a lot about our desires and fantasies.

Immersed in leisure while automated bodies scurry around carrying out our daily routines and work, we devote ourselves to spiritual and cultural augmentation, cultivation of our creativity and fitness. Everyone is familiar with such kind of fantasy of automation. It is, of course, accessible to only part of the future post-working class.  But are we even ready to renounce work, when it has been the driving force and the key indicator of ‘success’ for centuries? There is a joke that there are three things one can watch forever: fire, water, and other people working. Are we prepared to be observers of the hypnotizing choreography of robotic bodies, of the velocity of algorithmic decisions?

If the human-technology relationship was born out of default, out of accident, perhaps then this faulty, flawed human body has to offer more than we now think it can. Perhaps inefficiency, unproductivity and deskilling are also forms of strategies that could be useful in thinking about the future well-being in this post-human collective? It is because of our inefficiency, because of being left without any useful trait by Epimetheus we are forced to rely on each other, become social, invent technologies such as language.

1 Yuval Noah Harari “The rise of the useless class”

Text: Pakui Hardware

Exhibition: Pakui Hardware: Creatures of Habit
SIC 5.8.–3.9. Opening 4.8. at 18–21