11 February 2007

Talking pictures: General Motors robot ad

Going back through 2 years' worth of writing (have been adding tags to the old posts, a new feature of Blogger v2!), I've realised how this blog has shifted from cultural theory to critical theory and policy criticism. Sometimes, though, it's easier to comment on the world through allegory, to take things unseriously, or to make serious what is for entertainment. Today, instead of direct political or economic commentary, I present a new (old) way of doing things, of finding the truth through examining fiction, of tackling the base through the superstructure.

Talking pictures 1: General Motors

A robot at a General Motors car assembly plant drops a screw, a mistake that results in its firing. It subsequently sinks into a series of more humiliating and underemployed forms of manual labour, and ends up jumping off a bridge, depressed and suicidal. It is a cute ad, made to sell GM's commitment to quality control (its 100,000 mile warranty).

Its cuteness is its downfall, for the cuteness invests the metallic machine with human characteristics, to evoke the "awwwww, poor thing!" reaction from viewers. Yet the anthropomorphic strategy is a convenient fiction that masks the opposite truth: in the world outside the ad, human labour is mechanised (a calculative process) into nothing more than productive automatons. White collar or blue collar, labour is infinitely expendable, flexi-timed, subject to contractual hiring, minimal benefits, and no-cause firing.

In an age where corporate profits soar while labour wages remain stagnant, all labour undergo a series of automatising. We worry about hitting key performance indicators, whether we will receive a favourable review by our peers, whether the next mistake we make will be our last. In an age where our qualifications become obsolete a month upon graduation, we worry like the robot about getting underemployed. Will we be reduced to the call centre, the roadshow, or any odd job that has absolutely nothing to do with what we were trained for? And will we end up depressed and suicidal, jumping into the path of a train?

And then we remember Karel ńĆapek and his play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots). This is the first recorded usage of the word, because the writer and his brother invented it themselves. But really, what they intended robot to mean is merely "work". And from the original Czech roots, robota=drudgery and robotnik=peasant, serf.

Hence, a robot: a person who works, or slaves. A person who toils away, who lives in order to work. By understanding the genealogy of the word, we now understand the true meaning of the General Motors ad: it simply describes - not the humorous and fictional plight of anthropomorphised machinery at a factory, but the real plight of dehumanised people at their workplaces.

Links: A full translation of the play

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