A while back, I was re-reading Isaac Asimov’s series of novels about robots. There’s something faintly uneasy about them, which I’d meant to blog about at the time. The underlying theme of the books is the effect of robot labor on society; and the key thing which distinguishes robots from other types mechanization is that they are sentient, which makes the situation uncomfortable like slavery, a similarity which is always present in the books, but is not dealt with explicitly. This does raise a question for cybernetic communism, though: the usual assumption is that mechanization will abolish, or at least minimize, necessary labor, but what if this depends on an unjustified humanism, an assumption that we can simply farm our work off onto dumb machines? But shouldn’t a sufficiently complex assemblage of machines have some kind of say in its own future?
I was reminded of this recently while listening to Janelle Monaé, who addresses the connection between robots and slaves from a rather more subversive angle, in an album based around an extended analogy treating Black people in the US as cyborgs (including the track from which the title of this post is taken). It’s a neat reversal of the racist trope that Black people are more “natural” than Europeans (shading into animalistic, subhuman). Because there’s clearly a sense in which African Americans are artificial, constructed by the explicit intervention of the slave trade; Monaé is great in turning this artificiality into a kind of futuristic transhumanism. On a first listen to the record, I was rather disappointed that this conceptual futurism isn’t accompanied by musical invention. But I’ve warmed to the record, which is a kind of eerily precise re-creation of an earlier Black futurism, in much the same way as some Outkast stuff is (and, indeed, Andre 3000 is involved in some way, although I’m not exactly clear on his role). It’s appropriately… artificial.