Daniel Bodén, PhD, Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University

Understanding the "Robot Revolution" - Avenues in the Study of Automation

Central to modernity is the belief in technology as a revolutionary force. Following this, technological inventions are often imbued with certain anticipations. For instance: Ever since the launch of the first electronic data processing machines in the 1950s, automation has served as a cornerstone for countless visions of the future. As charged as it is with both hopes and fears, one such vision is the myth of the ever so impending “robot revolution”, simultaneously foreshadowing both human enslavement or liberation.

“Will the world be run by robots?” or “will the liberation from tedious work and drudgery labour finally facilitate the realisation of untapped human capacities?” Regardless of what, the robot revolution has in the last sixty years of public discourse seemed inevitable. Following the conference Tekniken och morgondagens samhälle in 1955, Prime Minister Tage Erlander announced the “strong sense of the necessity to set our minds to the era of automation […]” – an announcement which, as a distant echo again surfaced as the minister for strategic development Kristina Persson – whilst in 2015 having assembled a new “robot group” assigned with the task to prepare Sweden for further automation – announced that “we have no choice” but to adapt to the future of robotics.

Is the pending robot revolution really inevitable? And how can the process of automation be both liberating and enslaving? This talk will explore different empirical and theoretical avenues through which such fabulous and contradictory anticipations could be understood. It departs from the notion of the myth as a “socially symbolic act”, and traces its symbolic contradictions to the lived experience of ongoing socio-material, and infrastructural changes of late-modern everyday life, such as the rationalisation of labour processes by means of electronic data processing, the subsequent establishment of new organizational and managerial forms, and the emergence of new workplace subjectivities.

Daniel Bodén is a PhD in ethnology at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology in Uppsala. His research positions itself between anthropology of organizations and economic history, and concerns questions about labour, technology and social change from historical as well as contemporary perspectives – often with a focus on diachronic processes. In 2016, he defended his thesis entitled Systemmänniskan - en studie om människan, automationen och det senmoderna förnuftet, and has since written articles on the relationship between fiction and science and on the technological infrastructure of emotional labour.

All seminars in the series.