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artifical life

Fantasy 2: Loyal Slaves
part 3

'"The tv set shouted, '- duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom-tailored humanoid robot - designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE - given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth..."'

- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?.

The search for artificial life involves another retrogressive fantasy: the desire for slavery without guilt. Many white Americans are still nostalgic for the Old South. Some Europeans and Asians dream of returning to the feudal past. The advocates of Artificial Intelligence promise to realise these reactionary fantasies in a hi-tech form. In their sci-fi future, the privileged will enjoy unquestioning service from robot slaves. Programmed to obey without question, artificial life will always be content with its menial status. No Spartacus or Toussaint L'Ouverture will ever threaten the pleasures of these masters of robot slaves.

However, in reality, it is impossible to enjoy the benefits of slave labour without the reality of human bondage. Even if work is carried out by robots, humans are needed to invent, build and maintain machines. Technology is never simply a thing. It is also the crystallisation of social relationships between people. For instance, in the early-twentieth century, the technologies associated with manufacture on assembly-lines paralleled the imposition of Taylorist labour discipline within factories. Over the past few decades, the spread of the PC and the Net within the workplace has reflected the emergence of post-Fordist methods of organising work. As Douglas Landauer points out in The Trouble With Computers, the technical potential of information technologies can only be fully realised through maximising the creative imagination of humans. Rather than dream about robot slaves, we instead need to celebrate the inventive powers of the digital artisans. By acquiring new craft skills, they use hardware and software to create useful and beautiful hypermedia. For them, technology is a tool rather than a servant. The emergence of digital artisans is the latest manifestation of the Hegelian project of modernity. In this vision of the future, the rule of the masters is inevitably doomed because only slaves understand how to transform the world through hard work.

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