Laugh Against the Machine
Robbed us of our memory, orgasms, and imagination, machines seem to make human faculties obsolete. But we are still the ones performing manual labor in sweatshops. Can comedy help us make sense of technology’s calculated tragedies?
Killer robots were definitely my thing. There was something so unapologetically cool about the well-built, calculating machines that struck fear and awe into the hearts of those that had one. Repeatedly watching flicks full of bloodthirsty humanoid machines from the future instilled in me a persisting myth regarding technology that has lingered ever since: progress is not only inevitable, it is nerve-racking. I most certainly believed that whatever the future has in store for us, it should be taken seriously.
Enmeshed in its depictions on the big screen or thick dystopian novels, the technology imagined in science fiction has practically become a fetish; the fear of our own creation, a frightening dispossession of what we can no longer control. Lofty as it may sound, this dread has also seeped into our most mundane daily activities. Think of technophobia. That familiar run-of-the-mill horror we face when we can’t even convert webp to jpeg files on our computers. And if we can’t even do that, then how are we ever expected to understand all of the useless ins and outs of the blockchain or the banal promises of the Metaverse. As such, technophobia is more than just the fear of killer robots, incomprehensible gadgets, or painfully dull mumbo-jumbo. Technophobia is first and foremost the fear of not meeting our own expectations of ourselves as modern individuals while technologies are advertised not only as practical tools, but transformative instruments that could change our very nature and relations. Technophobia, then, is the distress of not catching up with the latest fad. Of feeling embarrassed that we are incapable of understanding how such machines were ever created in our image.
The application of machines as a subsidiary of our own capabilities has robbed us of our memory, orgasms, imagination as well as our intuitive relationships with one another. Last year, I was trying to get a drink in a crowded pub. When I approached the bartender to ask for the cheapest option, they instructed me to go back to my table. Apparently, they could no longer just hand out a drink in the old fashion way. In this sluggish technocratic setting, customers had to download an application, then authorize the payment system with their bank, and finally cross their fingers that their wireless fidelity will allow them to get sloshed. Think about it. Isn’t it remarkable how a complex chain of events that require the full attention to several screens and a bunch of online networks is seen as more sensible or productive than a couple of words, a genuine smile, and the ability to empathize with workers? Belittling the emotional importance of direct contact, the nonsensical systems we now increasingly encounter bureaucratize our spontaneous care and curiosity towards strangers, whether they be our neighbors or rough sleepers on the street.
This, of course, goes hand in hand with the alarming tendency of new technological advances to no longer be introduced as innovations that will benefit those who use them, but as palpable threats with the prospect of making particular human faculties obsolete. When the deep learning platform DALL-E came out, only a selected few who speculated how they could extract profit from its immediate results welcomed its arrival as a revolutionary device. However, most people in precarious positions paralleled this questionable joy with a somber hesitation, and were bothered enough by the artistically inclined artificial intelligence to ask if it could kill. Well, kill creative careers, but still.
We find ourselves at an impasse, having to choose between an exaggerated hype regarding new technologies and their constant failure to deliver on their promises.
The roles have been swapped. Humans are now those who perform most of the manual labor in sweatshops or jumbo warehouses that were once designated to robots, while machines are the ones engineered to possess and achieve full humanistic artistic genius. But why is that? How did we reach a point in which machines stifle our creativity instead of allowing us to pursue it, as they do all the work in the assembly lines? Well, one reason why machines fulfill human potential while people are forced to alienate themselves from their intuitive tendencies and subsequently minimize their self-expression was deduced by Karl Marx, who argued that value can only be extracted from human labor. If that’s the case, it might be a good explanation as to why most forms of mechanization we stumble across in our daily lives are accompanied by idle employees who are responsible for their upkeep and functionality, rather than assuming the obvious solution which would be to perfect their performance once and for all.
A case in point would be a visit to any supermarket equipped with a self-checkout machine. Make the wrong move or scan a banana in a defective way and surely enough you will be quickly assisted by a worker who knows their way around any silly bug. While an impression of technological progress is on display, the structure that preserves it remains awfully archaic. And if that’s the case whenever we go out shopping, wouldn’t such a counterintuitive dynamic ultimately allude to an economic apparatus that hinges and thrives off the faults of technology and its occasional breakdowns for the sake of employment rates? Come to think of it, the evidence of when humans get to work and when they’re deprived of it is actually quite insidious. Humanities and traditional social disciplines become automatized, while working class professions still remain under the jurisdiction of actual people. Translation and art are now regarded as technological marvels, yet there’s an obvious reason why miners, janitors, and soldiers will continue to be composed of flesh.
Without a shred of doubt, there’s a publicity problem here. A glaring discrepancy between the widespread commercial image of technology that glorifies commodities, applications, or operating systems as a vague advancement of humanity forward, and its production by companies that disregard and suppress the material conditions of their laborers. Not only that, certain technologies are stupid by design, as more profits could be sown from their impracticality and their continuous maintenance by actual people. We find ourselves at an impasse, having to choose between an exaggerated hype regarding new technologies and their constant failure to deliver on their promises. Think of how this apprehension is faced every time we hesitate to update our phones with new features which, as we all know very well, will most likely fuck something up.
Even if our cultural imagination is fueled with fantasies of a flawless mechanized future, the majority of our actual day to day encounters with technology are charged with glitches, banters about janky special effects or malfunctions with detrimental effects beyond belief to those trying to cross borders or break the loop of constructed poverty. Technology is a product of our biased human thoughts and cravings, yet it is somehow still imagined as an apparatus that goes beyond our faults. Technology is a system of calculated tragedies. Which is all very well and good, but does not explain why it is also experienced comically? DALL-E, that same sophisticated algorithm with the capability of creating any image when fed a text, has essentially become a meme generator. Absurdity is its use value. Its diminishing value for human labor is met with an increased leisure surplus from which a profit could not be extracted. Laughing about technology is more than just a shared coping mechanism that helps us come to terms with it; it is how we make sense of its absolute, indifferent authority that is unaware of its flawed, ever-trying, ridiculous infrastructures.
Thanks to such oxymorons that disguise obvious, already existing solutions with technological fixes, what we think of as progress essentially becomes a marketing campaign. Big bulks of what is often meant by progress today are no longer original innovations, but a certain aesthetic style that’s trying too hard to excite, and thus distract the consumer market. In all honesty, keeping people at the edge of their seat by constantly offering them new twists and turns in order to vie for their attention is just as ludicrous in soap operas as it is in a capitalist marketplace. And that’s because when perpetual upheaval becomes a baseline strategy for gaining recognition, it runs the risk of parodying itself; when an excessive need to thrill overcomes genuine expressions and needs, it becomes absurd. For that very reason, any enterprise that does not understand how an immediate, exploitative maximization of profits deters long-term visions should reconsider what is so groundbreaking in its so-called invention, or how short-sighted futurology has actually become.
IDO NAHARI is a sociologist, researcher, writer, and editor for Arts of the Working Class.