by Ella Hafermalz
“With flexible rosters, firm boundaries, and the occasional correction of mistakes, the job gets done to my satisfaction.”
A typical scenario of managing casual employees? Not quite. I’m talking about dealing with Roomba, my new robot vacuum cleaner, which is sent off to the nether regions of my house in search of dust and debris. It’s a great addition to the household, but it’s also caused me to reflect. Why is it so easy to compare a robot to an employee?
We are fascinated by robots at the moment. With a flurry of films featuring the jerky movements of lovable, loyal, complex and terrifying androids, it’s evident we are trying to figure out what place these bots will have in our homes, work and society. Will they defend us from criminals, or become the aggressors (Chappie)? Will they care for us when we’re old (Robot & Frank)? Become our intimate partners (Ex Machina)? Or our oppressive masters (Robot Overlords)? Amongst all this hype of what could be, it’s easy to look past the current state of affairs.
There is a theory based in psychoanalysis which argues that scary movies reveal what society is repressing. Film theorist Robin Wood says that “the true subject of the horror genre is all that our civilization represses or oppresses”. Such films let us deal with a fear that is too close to home by disguising the threat as something else. In the 1960s, alien invasion movies related to paranoia about the spread of communism. In the 1980s, the painful transformation in The Fly drew on the fear of AIDS. So what does our fascination with and fear of robots tell us about our current society? In watching robots ready to rise up and give us a hard time, what is it we’re trying not to think about?
Here’s where Roomba comes in. The fact that the way I treat my robot vacuum cleaner sounds familiar to many of us, particularly those who have worked in retail or hospitality, might give us pause for thought. The casualization of the Australian workforce and increase in insecure, fixed-term contracts over the past five years has contributed to many workers being considered replaceable resources. They just need to be programmed for a weekly schedule, shown the rules, and turned around if they tip themselves over. If the stumbles and mishaps occur once too often however, or if productivity slows, just swap them out for a new model.
While casual workers are increasingly staying with the same employer for longer, “they are still used instrumentally and strategically by employers in ways that permanent employees are not”. A newer aspect of this is the new jobs of the sharing economy – where casual staff are on call to tick off your to-do list and pick up your dry cleaning. Maybe the robot films and Artificial Intelligence hype reveal something about our discomfort with this state of affairs.
When workers are treated like things that can be replaced, we de-humanise ourselves. Not only does it make our workforce more susceptible to automation in the future, it means we are treating each other like machines now. If we favour mechanistic management over meaningful relationships and work is reduced to a set of tasks, it’s no wonder the monster-figure of the robot is tapping us on the shoulder.
But the robot isn’t threatening us with lasers and bullets, it’s holding up a mirror.