In the present work I will analyze, at the economic and aesthetic registers of social life, a dominant and accelerating phenomenon in contemporary capitalism: soft automation and the social-pathological drive for efficiency. Workers in numerous industries are alarmingly overworked and undervalued, and new automation and productivity measures injecting themselves into these industries — rather than relieving this state — are further entrenching it. Workers are being squeezed to death by industry, and there is no end in sight. Neoliberalism’s unwavering pursuit of productivity and efficiency is proving itself to be socially, politically, and environmentally unsustainable.
This pursuit of efficiency has led, in recent years, to the proliferation of many types and degrees of “soft” automation across nearly every industry in America. By soft automation (henceforth referred to as both “soft automation” and “automation”), I do not mean the job-replacing mechanical automation of factories and farms, but rather the job-assisting automation of business and service industries. This includes, but is certainly not limited to: AI-driven personal assistants; self-driving cars and other new mobilities; smart watches and next-generation phones; text and voice recognition; and industry-specific tooling intended to make work more enjoyable while speeding up production (Slack is a big player in this field).
This type of automation isn’t so much about replacing humans or putting them out of jobs as it is about trying to make humans themselves as efficient as machines; it is about making human work activity more efficient by automating time-consuming or difficult tasks, allowing one to do twice as much work in half as much time. Whereas a set of manual tasks may take a full work week to complete, automating or catalyzing some subset of these tasks may reduce the time to completion to two or three days, allowing the remaining work days to be filled with new work, new tasks, and new projects. This is a kind of insidious reductio ad infinitum, meant to make humans perform more tasks with less overhead, garnering more massive profits for the companies that employ them.
Soft automation, then, is the prime example of a contradiction both resultant and constitutive of the paradox of work that I mentioned at the outset of this introduction. While soft automation claims so frequently to give workers ease, power, and freedom in their lives by making work more efficient and freeing up time, automation instead makes workers produce more, in less time, for progressively less pay. By engaging with the apparatuses and aesthetics surrounding the broad field of automation, I have come to understand that automation and assistive technology are industrial phenomena driven by an underlying social pathology of efficiency. Despite its claims to pure technic and liberating motives, automation is permeated all the way through with power, with the political. All work is a struggle for power; with soft automation, the power imbalance has tipped and accelerated in favor of the latent capitalist bourgeoisie.
A dangerous interplay of automation and American workaholism has pacified Americans into becoming increasingly productive, working more hours, and losing their agency and personal lives. Far from John Maynard Keynes’ vision of a post-economic future, where the “economic problem” has been solved,1 we are perhaps facing quite the opposite: an intractable, ugly future, trapped in a maelstrom of efficiency and capital fetishization.
2. The Productivity Trap
Why do Americans work so much, and why don’t we realize what is happening to us?
Productivity is not an emergent social construct — it is designed, defined, and driven by corporations and industries in order to subject human beings to the mechanics of capital. Productivity is motivated by a relentless desire for capital gains, which are accompanied by increases in social, political, and economic power. This much can be seen nearly everywhere in the American economy: businesses coast to coast relentlessly chase productivity in search of higher profits and lower overhead costs so that they may further dominate and advance industries, lobby for favorable public and monetary policy, and garner massive profit for shareholders. According to studies by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, labor productivity increased in 17 of 28 selected service industries in 2016. Additionally, in 45 of the 58 total non-farming service industries studied by the bureau, productivity has continued to rise since 1987.2 This productivity increase is directly linked to this pathological desire for efficiency, growth, and profit among business and government in the United States.
With regard to productivity, John Maynard Keynes predicted in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” that 21st century economies would become so productive and economically prosperous that people would barely need to work.3 However, despite the dramatic productivity increases in American service sectors since 1987, both total output and hours worked have increased nearly across the board in the industries studied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.4 In fact, productivity in the non-farm business sector increased 3.0 percent during the third quarter of 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while “output increased 4.1 percent and hours worked increased 1.1 percent.”5 At face value, Keynes’ prediction is very sensible: one would suspect that as workers become more productive, they can produce a higher output over less time, thus having to work fewer hours. So why are people working more hours despite these continual rises in productivity and output? What new factors, unforeseen by Keynes, are at play here?
What Keynes missed, I think — perhaps because he was working in the context of Europe and did not have enough exposure to this exclusively American reality — is that Americans truly are workaholics. As Americans, we work: it’s what we are best at, it’s what we know. But the reason for this is not the same reason Keynes identified for Europe’s work-life crisis. Keynes writes in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”:
[…] if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past — we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race-not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.6
Historically, yes, the economic problem has been the struggle for subsistence, for life. But contrary to Keynes’ predictions of the post-economic future, our relative contemporary economic prosperity has chained us to the mechanics of, and lust for, capital. Rather than liberating us from economic struggle, the chase of capital success and independence has chained us to our ulterior and repressed drives for power. Now, the economic problem is less about subsistence and more about control and power — economic struggle consists not of want for resources themselves but of want for control of resources. After all, this mentality is baked into the very fabric of American society: from oil drilling on sacred native lands, to tech feuds, to grocery store buyouts, all economic activity boils down to an underlying pathology of control.
I would argue, further, that in nearly every strata of the American wealth landscape, there is an underlying, deep-seated social envy of, or thirst for, capital. Capital is performative — it is an extremely personal, intimate, and controlling apparatus, and it tends to alter behavior accordingly. Capital is a proxy, a conduit, for simulated control and power; and it yields very real, immanent structures and imbalances of power in the world. As such, it has replaced — in America — all other gods, all other fetishes, all eros — all humanness! It is a truly wild and incredible obsession, giving the illusion of control while also forcing one to relinquish personal control to its turbulent performative mechanics — something Deleuze and Guattari described as capitalist schizophrenia.
To return from the above brief, more abstract, critique of American capital-fetishism, it is important to hammer home the point that Americans are workaholics in the truest sense. Regardless of the motivations and dispositions fueling this condition of workaholism, the condition itself deserves urgent attention. Researcher and writer Tijana Milosevic nicely sums up how American work mentalities differs from their Western European counterparts:
Americans still work nine full weeks (350 hours) longer than West Europeans do and paid vacation days across Western Europe are well above the US threshold. The French still have the 35 hour working week, while the hourly productivity is one of the highest in the world.7
Whether this is motivated by pathologies of control, or wealth envy, or any other number of factors, this discrepancy is still striking. How is it that Americans work so much that even their mental health begins to deteriorate? According to Milosevic, in the US, high-paying jobs are the top priority for citizens, and job therapy has proliferated as job concerns and workplace conflicts take heavy tolls on the mental health of workers.8 And how is it that despite Americans witnessing dramatic increases in productivity in recent years, we still continue to work progressively more hours — both in and out of the workplace?
The primary motivator for this work-until-death pathology is productivity, which in turn is rooted in American capitalist and neoliberal notions of power and profit. Productivity is a unique kind of virus, one that attacks from within and from without. In the external tendril of this virus, government and business continually reinforce productivity by labeling it as a key economic metric by which to measure success, growth, and potential. While governments in countries like Bhutan choose to gauge national success by entirely different metrics like “Gross National Happiness,” placing the well-being of its citizens over imperialistic, power-oriented, or capitalistic metrics, the United States has been publishing and placing focus on productivity metrics since at least 1947, and has used Gross Domestic Product (previously Gross National Product) as its key economic performance indicator since approximately 1934.9 In the internal tendril of this virus, American workers become so convinced of the importance of productivity that they begin to enforce productivity standards on their own — even going so far as to do work during their personal time — and optimizing their personal lives in the same way they attempt to optimize their work lives. Americans, I fear, have lost themselves to this drive for productivity in a kind of economic panopticon.
This is a distinctly American conviction, an American dream — or, more properly, an American nightmare: in America, productivity and economic growth justify any cost. In 1962, Arthur Okun conceived Okun’s Law, which stipulates that for every 1% fall in the cyclical unemployment rate, there will be a three percentage-point rise in GDP.10 When applied to monetary policy, this idea embodies the dangerous notion that if we keep growing the economy, everything else will follow suit. But it is abundantly clear that this mentality is unsustainable in every possible capacity. Our GDP has increased to approximately 3.31% annual growth as of 2017 — a nearly 5.5-point increase since the height of the great recession in 2009, when the GDP annual growth rate was at a dismal –2.7%. And the economy continues to grow at fierce and potentially very dangerous rates as the Trump administration cuts taxes across the board for businesses and encourages nationalistic investments in the stock market, which is also in danger of overheating and busting if Wall Street is not careful.
Growth at this speed has been cautioned against time and time again, and remains a dangerous prospect if the economy is to overheat, leading to inflation and eventual recession. This risk is so immanent that the Federal Reserve is considering raising interest rates to counteract Trump’s plan to stimulate further growth, as Federal Reserve officials “estimate that the economy is already growing at something like the maximum sustainable pace.”11 For Trump, sacrificing valuable tax revenue by redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich, and risking the potential crash and burn of the entire economy, are well worth the potential boon to the economy these strategies may provide in the best-case scenario. Additionally, any amount of social injustice, any number of threats of nuclear holocaust, any quantity of deaths and ailments developed due to lack of proper health care, is justified in the name of economic growth, in the name of capital — that American god of the oldest and lowest order. And productivity, the biggest catalyst of economic growth, is the old-guard American act of worship. But it is also important to understand that this is not an isolated disposition — Trump is not the only American that feels this way. In fact, Trump is prototypical in his belief in growth as god; he is representative of a generalized American social disposition to gain capital no matter the cost.
In response to Trump’s proposed fiscal policies and the recent substantial drop in unemployment rates, Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, warns that “the fact that you can create that many jobs in the context of growth that is so low points to a significant problem. And the problem is that productivity growth is very low.”12 According to Binyamin Appelbaum, a New York Times correspondent covering the Federal Reserve, there are only two causes of economic growth: “more people or increased productivity, which is to say, the same number of people making more stuff.”13 As a result of this low growth, which Janet Yellen has repeatedly attributed to low productivity growth, Yellen has proposed that US economic policy should focus on growing productivity rather than expanding the economy, which is already quite a bit safer and more robust than it has been in the past few years. But this renewed focus on productivity will further entrench the social costs of America’s work-life balance crisis.
The largest of these social costs is the forfeiture of self, liberty, happiness, and leisure in favor of work. For most Americans that do not hold positions in government, the old pathology “growth at any cost” becomes “work at any cost” due to constant reinforcement of the importance of productivity by both businesses and the federal government. Productivity’s stranglehold on the American population is proof of this: workers are continually held to standards of productivity, and when they do not meet thresholds established by their employers, their jobs are fully or partially automated. The result is a total forfeiture of self, of agency and autonomy, in favor of work. As I stated at the outset of this section, productivity in the business sector increased 3.0 percent in the third quarter of 2017, with output increasing 4.1 percent and hours worked increasing 1.1 percent.14 This is the largest growth in productivity since 2014, and its implications are extremely troubling: Americans are working more hours, and performing more work, while sacrificing their lives in service of their jobs.
This is the American productivity trap, and I suspect it will prove exceedingly difficult to escape, because it has become a cultural phenomenon. Productivity has fused with the very grain of American society. With government and business depending almost solely on productivity growth in order to profit and expand the economy, the workers subjected to this productivity mining are losing their agency, being forced to work more hours and increase output per hour, all while sacrificing their personal lives. One of the primary causes of this loss of agency, and one of the enabling factors of this productivity-mining, is automation and assistive work technology.15 Americans have become so enamored with technical automation that they do not realize that rather than replacing their jobs, automation is making the workers themselves so effective and efficient that they eliminate their own jobs by producing output at such high rates that businesses will eventually be able to cut hours and pay. But because Americans are workaholics, rather than using the time this boost in efficiency frees up to live their lives, they (and the companies they work for) fill it with more work, seeing the newly freed time as an opportunity to continue growth and garner further profit.
In essence, the reason automation has become so prolific that it has even begun to bleed into people’s personal lives is that it relieves a state of pain they perceive in their lives: a pain caused by productivity-mining and overworking. But what people do not realize is that rather than freeing them from work, automation only makes them more effective so that they can work more — further entrenching the painful state that catalyzed the wish for automated work assistance in the first place. This passage from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols is helpful in elucidating why this has occurred:
The error of imaginary causes. To begin with dreams: ex post facto, a cause is slipped under a particular sensation. […] What has happened? The representations which were produced by a certain state have been misunderstood as its causes.
Most of our general feelings…excite our causal instinct: we want to have a reason for feeling this way or that — for feeling bad or for feeling good. […] First principle: any explanation is better than none. Since at bottom it is merely a matter of wishing to be rid of oppressive representations, one is not too particular about the means of getting rid of them: the first representation that explains the unknown as familiar feels sos good that one “considers it true.” The proof of pleasure (“of strength”) as the criterion of truth.
[…] That which is new and strange and has not been experienced before, is excluded as a cause. Thus one searches for some kind of explanation to serve as a cause, but for a particularly selected and preferred kind of explanation — that which has most quickly and most frequently abolished the feeling of the strange, the new, and hitherto unexperienced: the most habitual explanations. Consequence: one kind of positing of causes predominates more and more, is concentrated into a system, and finally emerges as dominant, that is, as simply precluding other causes and explanations.16
Americans have wrongly identified work as the cause of a chronic, very painful state of decay: one in which our personal lives, mental states, and physical health have been sacrificed to the mechanics of capital growth. But this cause has been slipped under the sensation of pain only because it is convenient, only because work saturates our pain, coloring life with the dark hue of work at every turn. Work, however, is only a symbol, only a simulated cause of our pain.
In truth, if we were to use strategies of etiology to get to the root forces that catalyzed this painful state, we would see that work itself is not the cause of our pain, but rather productivity and our cultural fetishization of it. Since we have identified the wrong cause — we have mistaken the effect of our painful state as the cause — in order to rid ourselves of this state, we seek to become more productive, inventing new ways of increasing output so that we can work less. Productivity and automation have been excluded as causes because we see them as the only solutions to the social disease of overworking. But productivity operates by the same mechanics as capital itself — meaning the more we buy into it, the more it controls us; and the more it controls us, the more we buy into it.
So we invent new ways of becoming more productive — namely, automation and assistive work technology. But rather than relieving our pain, these technologies are a pharmakon, causing our pains to fester, and lodging this virus deeper into our psychologies. We begin to work more, because we are workaholics, and that is what we do best — when we have become so productive that we create free time for ourselves during the work day, we fill that remaining time with new work. By doing this, we undermine our value as workers, and the entire cycle continues — again, a reductio ad infinitum. When Keynes asks of our increasingly productive economies, “What are the economic possibilities for our grandchildren?” I answer: very dismal — indeed! The crux, the most insidious part of this whole issue, is that most of us do not realize what is happening to us; we are not conscious enough. We do not realize the way automation is allowing us to be further subjected to the mechanics of capital and productivity. The reason for this lies, interestingly, in the aesthetics of automation.
3. The Aesthetics of Automation
How the design aesthetics of automated technologies make humans work more through psychological subversion.
Automation as a facet of the operational structures of the global economy produces its own unique aesthetics, which can be used as an evocative object with which to analyze and critique automation as a generality. In fact, the present essay was entirely precipitated by a revelation that the aesthetics of automation are a key signifier of the motives behind the proliferation of automated technology. Using a semiotic approach similar to that of Nietzsche17, it became evident that the aesthetics of automation are not merely a cause of the amount people work today, but are also an effect of an underlying interplay of forces and powers, including the painful state of rapidly increasing amounts of work that catalyzed the need for automated technologies in the first place. These aesthetics, in fact, are a semiotic representation of, and vessel for the execution of, a new type of power being exerted over populations in an ultimate, even if unconscious, effort to make humans harder working, more docile, and more replaceable.
At base, the aesthetics of automation are constituted by the removal of the human touch or the visibly human aesthetic gesture from interfaces and interactions in both physical and digital products and services. From a design standpoint, this includes “neutral” or “objective,” hyper-rational, aesthetic choices like geometric sans-serif typefaces (Figure 1), machined metal (Figure 2), pristinely white and minimalist interfaces (Figure 3); falsely humanized illustrations to give these anti-human aesthetics a kind of human touch (Figure 4); I could go on and on.
By removing human touch through hyper-minimalist and machined aesthetic gestures, the products in question exude a sense of ease and power for the consumer, encouraging product adoption in order to reduce or mitigate a painful state that the consumer identifies in their life, and that the product has been designed specifically to “alleviate.”22 When Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity,”23 what he meant, I think, is this: the will to a system reflects a denigration of one’s humanity, a willful negation of becoming and the will to power. The aesthetics of automation reflect a similar lack of integrity: the wish to remove the human hand from aesthetic gestures indicates not only a kind of passive nihilism, but also a distrust in the artifacts of pre-digital aesthetics, as well as an underlying wish to subject humans to the mechanics of technological innovation.
These aesthetic principles operate on every single level of a product’s lifecycle and scaffolding: from its inception, to its design, to the copy used to market it. This is to say that this aesthetic is concerned with both visible and invisible facets of products. Agamben and Foucault called such a system an “apparatus” — an interplay of and network between a heterogeneous set of discourses, institutions, practices, and bodies of knowledge, that creates docile yet “free” bodies that assume an identity and become subjects.24 In other words, an apparatus subjectifies through desubjectivation: it makes an individual a subject of a power by intervening in the processes involved in the construction of identity.
With this definition in place, it is clear that the aesthetics of automation are not concerned only with images and objects, but with the entire apparatus that lives within and around the artifacts it produces (in this case, images, objects, and interfaces): the technological, legal, political, cultural, and spatial systems that both catalyzed the need for automation in our daily lives, and ensure that the products in question stay relevant in the marketplace as integral parts of our daily lives. In this way, the aesthetics of automation are as much about controlling the flow, balance, and composition of power as they are about creating aesthetically “beautiful” products.25
James Bridle, founder of The New Aesthetic — a pseudo-critical26 discourse around the aesthetics of digital spaces slowly beginning to permeate real, immanent spaces — writes this of the far-reaching implications of the permeation of post-human aesthetics into immanent daily life:
[It’s not about] what they look like, but how they came to be and what they become: the processes of capture, storage, and distribution; the actions of filters, codecs, algorithms, processes, databases, and transfer protocols; the weight of datacenters, servers, satellites, cables, routers, switches, modems, infrastructures physical and virtual; and the biases and articulations of disposition and intent encoded in all of these things, and our comprehension of them.27
This all fits into the broader play of forces contained within a concept I have come to call datapower: which, as an extension of Foucault’s biopower, consists of the apparatuses through which powers control all individuals of a population through numerous and diverse techniques of achieving simulated control of psychologies, with the goal of real political and/or economic power.
While I do not wish to focus too heavily on datapower in the present essay, as it folds much more cleanly into its own essay, it remains important to acknowledge that the aesthetics of automation are one constitutive part of the apparatus which contains the field of forces called datapower. Even if the companies creating soft automation, AI, and machine learning products aren’t aware of the power dynamic they have entered, it is important to note at this juncture that all products contained within this aesthetic are decisively composed of an unconscious set of forces (or, in the canon of Foucault, dispositif, or positivities) intended, at bottom, to exert a form of control over its users.
Furthermore, as I stated briefly at the outset of this section, the aesthetics of automation are a semiotic representation of the underlying motives of automated products and services. It is helpful, here, to use Hegel’s philosophy of aesthetics as a critical wedge. For Hegel, art gives expression to spirit through the creation of materials specifically intended for the expression of spirit.28 Raw materials like wood, stone, and words (or in the case of the digital and post-digital ages, pixels, screens, metal, and digital fabrication materials like certain plastics used in 3D printing) are intended to render the spirit visibly. Hegel believed that art should be a pure rendering of spirit, not an imposition on spirit. Further, for Hegel, this pure rendering of the freedom of spirit through pure form and material is the basis of true beauty.
In the post-digital29 age, Hegel’s aesthetics inform the present critical analysis of the aesthetics of automation with a unique point: the aesthetics of automation use exclusively digital and post-digital aesthetic gestures and materials. All these aesthetic gestures and materials are borne of the canon of modernism, in an attempt to create categorical visual languages that can be used globally. In addition to the examples I gave previously of digitally-informed materials, the material of automation aesthetics includes:
In Digital Products:
- Rhetoric of ease and empowerment in copywriting;
- Stock photography meant to give a sense of liberation;
- Sterile aesthetic gestures such as brightly colored gradients and digitally-informed iconography and logos;
- Product and business naming conventions intended to exude, again, a sense of ease and empowerment;
- Bright colors only reproducible via digital means, paired with sterile whites and grays
In Physical Products:
- Again, rhetoric of ease and empowerment in copywriting;
- Sterile, sleek, and machined parts and contours;
- Physical materials imbued with a digital rinse, like brushed aluminum and 3D printed plastic;
- Staunch black or white chassis and facades;
- Desaturated whites and grays
(See Figures 1–4 above and Figures 5–7 below)
These materials and aesthetic gestures were created with the express intent of rendering a certain type of spirit, a certain type of will. This will is one that, perhaps more often than not, was conceived with good intentions: the products that utilize these gestures want to give the user a sense of ease, empowerment, and freedom in their lives by communicating these feelings through design. In order to achieve this communicative goal, the designers of these products and services remove human aesthetic gestures and materials from the equation in favor of machined, inhuman gestures and materials. The effect of this, however, is that all these products that seek to make people more human by giving them more time and more power, actually make people less human by filling their lives with anti-human, machined, automated technologies that decidedly introduce a form of passive nihilism into the lives of everyday people. The products meant to relieve the pain caused by excessive work become practico-inert, harming and subjectifying rather than liberating and empowering. This is what is decisive: the long-term and far-reaching project of software and physical product companies to remove the human gesture from their aesthetic vernacular points to a wish to remove the “burden” of humanity from humans, allowing populations to work more, produce higher output, and become docile subjects of power — bringing full circle the dynamic apparatus of datapower.
This is a kind of aesthetic rupture. There is a cognitive dissonance exemplified in the aesthetics of automation: on one hand, the majority of its aesthetic gestures are concerned with the removal of human touch and sensibilities; on the other hand, its rhetoric and aesthetic cues are imbued with a certain false sense of humanness exuded by powerful copywriting, joyful photos and illustrations, and cheerful color palettes. It’s as if these technologies beckon us to become more human, only to tear away our humanity as soon as we are safely ensnared in their grasp. These aesthetics are like a siren song, permeating immanent spaces and psychologies as if transmitted through the air: a sickly, noxious, anti-human miasma.
This apparatus is therefore embedded in the design decisions and aesthetic gestures of all systems, devices, and automated technologies that are widely used today. The apparatus is further compounded by other forces operating within the apparatus of control to create an imbalance of power, determining, in effect, the ways in which the material and construction of digital spaces shape immanent environments and day-to-day lives. Once embedded into the aesthetics of systems, devices, and technologies, this apparatus sublimates into the background of the operational systems of society, acting as a continual, interventional process that gives a rinse of power, authority, or submission to every interaction and structure in that society. The ultimate goal of this is to intervene at every level in the processes of subjectivation, to eliminate the human capacity to control the construction and animating directionality of identity. Without the power to intervene, humans become more docile, more manageable. In all, it is evident now that the aesthetics of post-modernist movements toward automation and technological innovation are semiotic representations of a larger, much deeper struggle for power and dominance over human beings.
To recapitulate before moving forward: I have advanced that automation crystallizes its own aesthetic gestures through the use of materials that cut across the boundaries of immanent and digital spaces, and that the primary gesture of these aesthetics is the removal of authenticity and the visibility of the human hand in the creation of the artifacts of this aesthetic. These aesthetics work within, and as an extension of, an apparatus of power meant to exert control over populations in order to subdue them and, in the context of economies, to make them work as efficiently as humanly (or mechanically) possible. This reveals that aesthetics are implicitly political in nature, even if this political undertone is unintended by the authors of a particular artifact. All aesthetic movements (including and especially the modernist and post-modernist movements that gave rise to the aesthetics of automation) carry on or attempt to subvert prevailing currents of politics and power. This is the most important design issue today: that design is always imbued with a political rinse — it is not a pure medium, and it does not exist in a vacuum; design is always situated in a grander play of power.
Now it is time to provide some concrete examples to elucidate the way in which the mechanics of this apparatus operate in products and services used by real people every day. As a jumping off point: look, for instance, to the algorithmically generated and personalized social media feed as an automatically manufactured object. Before 2015, social media timelines were timelines in the truest sense: with few exceptions33, they were organized chronologically from most to least recent. In 2016, Facebook and Twitter introduced algorithmically sorted timelines.34 By removing temporality from the product’s mechanics (mechanics are the most basic, fundamental operational features of a product, which are a fundamental extension of and basis for the product’s design aesthetics), the designers and product managers at Facebook and Twitter attempted to subject users to the mechanics of capital and the material of digital spaces, effectively removing the most human element of the product: time. This makes social media “timelines” into specifically constructed arrangements of posts, advertisements, links, and information, designed expressly with the intent of generating the highest possible engagement and profit. The design decisions underlying this change, then, were implicitly rinsed with a struggle for economic and social power. While this specific example does not particularly affect the amount people work, which is the ultimate focus of the present essay, it does provide a basic example of the way in which basic design decisions carry with them a wide field of implicated forces and motivations; and it demonstrates that the currency, or collateral, for this power dynamic is the users and consumers themselves.
Having established that users of products are the collateral against which companies weigh design and product decisions, let’s shift our focus to a prime example of the way in which the aesthetic subversion of automation leads (and will continue to lead) to people working more: self-driving cars. Incidentally, an anecdote about self-driving cars served as the genesis of this essay. Noting multiple peers’ responses to the idea of self-driving cars replacing traditional automobiles — they all said that if they owned a self-driving car, they would work while the car drove them to and from their destinations — I encountered a series of curious thoughts sparked by the relationship of the self-driving car’s aesthetic gestures to the behavior of the car’s intended occupants. “The aesthetics of self-driving cars are modern and futuristic, sleek and impeccably machined. But why? Is this simply what the future looks like? Why is human touch being removed from the design of technology?”
It is clear from the marketing and discussions of self-driving cars over the years that the self-driving car is perceived as an object meant to introduce ease, comfort, and safety into the lives of drivers — an actually rather admirable goal. However, the self-driving car is not a purely utilitarian, leisurely, or humanitarian object as much as it is an industrial one. The aesthetics of the cars themselves make this evident: the aesthetics breathe futuristic ease into every surface, removing the human touch and the aesthetics of the past from all facets of the product. Beyond being functional objects, self-driving cars are objects of radicalized efficiency. They represent a general disposition in American society — a disposition saturated with an unquenchable thirst for efficiency and time. This thirst for efficiency and time is part of the general consciousness of America — so much so that even my father, when asked about the prospect of self-driving cars, stated that he would certainly use any time in the car to perform work, rather than do other things like read or relax. Indeed, I myself would likely do the same, and I would venture to assume that many of my readers would as well.
Work, productivity, and capital are absolutely central to the advent and further development of self-driving cars. Despite being marketed and designed to drivers as a product that will aid them in their daily lives by introducing a safer, more comfortable transportation method, I suspect that the underlying intention behind the creation of the self-driving car is one linked directly to the forward motion of American industry and productivity. This aesthetic of ease and safety is merely a mask, meant to hide the underlying motivations behind the self-driving car’s creation and dispersion.
As I have addressed previously, the aesthetics of automation are crystallized by a removal of human aesthetic gestures in favor of digitally- and mechanically-informed aesthetic gestures. As a semiotic sign, this represents a clear motive of product designers and business owners to remove the burden of humanity from humans themselves. But why? The answer to this question is simple: humanity is an immense business risk. Being human makes one fallible, emotional, vulnerable to the mechanics of time (aging, boredom, and change), and, in the end, dangerous. Business owners and governments will do anything to avoid the risk of capital losses, and the removal of humanity’s humanness is the final step to ensuring efficiency in the flow and production of capital. Additionally, humanity is the last thing keeping neoliberal capitalism from reaching its teleology of total, radicalized efficiency and capital control; this is why Marx was able to declare the inevitability of the proletariat revolution: because humans can never be fully subjected to the mechanics of capital without sacrificing the constitutive traits of their very humanity.
So automated technologies seek to remove this humanity, systematically and invisibly, like a panopticon of efficiency. The self-driving car’s aesthetic and rhetorical representations point to this in every way. Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo, is a perfect example.35 By simply taking a brief look at the project’s website and the car itself, it is evident that the aesthetics used by Waymo are meant to remove humanness without making its motives obvious. In fact, it seems that Waymo itself is totally unaware of the implications of its aesthetic choices, as well as of the potential effects of these choices — suggesting that the politicized aesthetics of automation have already begun sublimating into the operational structures of society and industry, becoming as intractable and invisible as air.
The Waymo car and advertising materials use the same aesthetic gestures that I outlined previously — namely, geometric sans-serif fonts, colors that are only reproducible digitally, digitally-informed illustrations and icons, machined materials imbued with a digital rinse, and rhetoric of ease and comfort. Waymo, in contrast to other automation technologies, places its focus not on productivity but on safety, health, and happiness. In fact, I could not find a single mention of productivity, efficiency, or work anywhere on Waymo’s website or promotional materials. Even Waymo’s stock videos and photography show riders enjoying their lives with leisure, and there is not a single reference to the act of work. This suggests two things, and either may be true. First, it suggests that Waymo may be entirely unaware of the anti-human rinse their aesthetic choices carry. While this scenario does not excuse Waymo from its ethical responsibility of at least being aware of the political and cultural implications of its aesthetic sensibilities, it does indicate that perhaps Waymo is not entirely complicit in the neoliberal productivity project. The second thing this may suggest — and this one is very speculative — is that Waymo may be very aware of the social and industrial implications of self-driving cars and wants not only to center more focus on safety, but to hide these implications behind a mask of ease and safety. However, regardless of Waymo’s true motives, it is undeniable that Waymo’s self-driving car is still situated within a broader sentiment toward self-driving cars. In fact, Waymo’s motives do not matter one bit when their products are inscribed in a much larger and more complicated social apparatus. The larger sentiment of this social apparatus is that self-driving cars will be a veritable miracle on all fronts, including industry, safety, comfort, free time, and productivity.
Marc Andreessen, long-time silicon valley guru and co-founder of the prolific venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, reflects this sentiment by stating his belief that the self-driving car will create innumerable American jobs, increase productivity, and save lives.36 Additionally, the numerous articles that claim that self-driving cars will not make us more productive invariably cite only a single reason for this claim: that self-driving cars will cause too much nausea to do make work possible.37^,^ 38 Setting aside the flimsiness of this counter-argument (we can rest assured that nausea will not hold back the impetus of industry) this claim still paints productivity as the primary goal of self-driving cars, and assumes that the only issue to surmount in pursuit of this ultimate productivity-society is the simple problem of nausea. But the fact that these articles even mention the word “productivity” signifies that productivity is the chief concern in the development of self-driving cars. These articles could easily have simply stated that self-driving cars may cause nausea when performing certain tasks and left that as a problem that must be solved before people are willing to adopt the cars in their lives. Instead, the articles pegged productivity as their central conceptual wedge, only mentioning nausea as a way to comment on the viability of self-driving cars as productivity-aiding devices.
It is rather important to note that this discussion should not be misread as disregarding the safety benefits self-driving cars may offer to drivers (or, in the future, riders). These advances are important and will likely save many lives, which is a noble cause worth pursuing. However, even this life-saving mentality is tainted by capitalism’s influence. Marc Andreessen says, worryingly, “over a million people die worldwide in road deaths today caused by human drivers, and I think we can take that very close to zero, which is very good for both human welfare and for economic productivity — it’s a very serious dent in productivity when people get killed; And then all the ancillary industries that end up getting built out.”39 This is a seriously egregious claim to make, and takes humanity for an object of exclusively capital value, only noting humanitarian and welfare goals as afterthoughts. Let the last part of that quote sink in for a moment, with my own emphasis added: “it’s a very serious dent in productivity when people get killed.” Imagine how large a focus on productivity one must have in order to set aside human casualties in favor of productivity increases; and, even worse, to use productivity increases as the primary motivator of human welfare developments. This is the kind of insidious and poisonous thinking that the neoliberal capitalist productivity project advances, and that the aesthetics of automation signify: the removal of human aesthetic gestures signifies an astounding lack of faith in humanity.
So it cannot be ignored that despite some self-driving car companies such as Waymo ostensibly channeling their energies into saving lives rather than generating capital wealth, these companies are all still situated in a much larger corporate and industrial sentiment that self-driving cars will radically alter and expand the horizons of capitalism and American industry. No matter how noble the motives made apparent by the rhetoric touted by self-driving car companies, lobbyists, and advocates, simply by being situated within the mechanics of capital the entire concept of self-driving cars becomes coopted by neoliberal ideological goals. And because the concept of self-driving cars has now been inextricably linked to capital and industrial motives, it is hard to ignore the effect this technology will have on the landscape of work and productivity, especially in the United States.
I suspect a common refutation of my argument that self-driving cars may lead to a further entrenchment of the American productivity crisis is that many families and individuals will not want to work in the car even if given the option. This very well may be — at least at first. Perhaps when self-driving cars become more widely adopted, its users/riders will see the cars as a novelty object that allows them to pursue their personal desires with increased free time. Perhaps, as Waymo’s stock photography and videos seem to promise, riders in self-driving cars will enjoy their ride by spending time with family, laughing, playing games, watching movies, and reading books. Perhaps. But I also suspect that eventually, once this novelty effect wears off, the mechanics of American workaholism will take over once more, as they always seem to do. People will grow tired of the novelty, and will become busy or find that they can get ahead in the workplace by performing work tasks in the car. Americans, after all, will do nearly anything to get ahead: this has been embedded in the spirit of our country since its creation. So self-driving cars will become less of a toy, less of a convenience, and more of an affordance that allows its users to pursue work in new ways.
Another counter-argument may be that self-driving cars will not, by themselves, make us work more. Very well; for a moment, let us imagine that this counter-argument is correct. Let us say, rhetorically, that self-driving cars simply give people more free time, with which each individual can do what they please. Some people may choose to work more, some may choose to do other activities, and some may choose to simply sit and ride, making no changes from the way they spent their time when they were still driving. Now suppose that other technologies of automation and work assistance enter into this scenario. AI-powered personal assistants bring work emails, checklists, calendar events, and context-aware reminders to you instantly, anywhere you are — via phones, watches, glasses, speakers, and even via your car itself. Remember, for a moment, how difficult it already is to pry oneself away from one’s work — it takes an immense degree of commitment and will power to ignore notifications in our hyper-attention-deficit society. When all these notifications and work reminders come directly to you wherever you are, imagine how difficult it will be to resist the urge to engage with them. So even if self-driving cars themselves do not directly affect work and productivity metrics, the technologies that develop in tandem certainly will. And self-driving cars will give us more time, which is the entire basis of productivity. With this time, I suspect that, eventually, work and productivity will slip between the cracks and turn self-driving cars into objects of work.
Self-driving cars are not an isolated technological development — they are being developed and disseminated alongside numerous other technologies that promise to increase comfort, power, and ease, but which really aim to increase productivity, with comfort, power, and ease simply being fallout affects of this productivity increase. This is a trap many fall into: assuming that technological, social, political, economic, and cultural developments happen in isolation. This trap goes hand-in-hand with the error of false causality, in which one mistakes the effects of an event for the cause of an event. And the same cognitive traps are happening in the realm of self-driving cars. Yes, self-driving cars may increase safety, comfort, and empowerment in their users. However, it can no longer be ignored that despite these noble and lofty goals, all of them are inextricably and poisonously linked to the mechanics of capital and the neoliberal capitalist pursuit of hyper-productivity. After this analysis of the aesthetic semiotics of self-driving cars, I hope it is now evident that, as a semiotic sign, the aesthetic sensibilities self-driving cars embody are linked to the removal of humanness and the subjection of humans to the mechanics of capital and technology. More importantly (and this has been my main point, my primary concern in all of this) is that self-driving cars are representative of a much larger, far-reaching, more insidious process of removing humanness from aesthetics in order to subject humans to anti-human mechanics such as capital and technology.
As I have stated time and time again, business views humanity as a tremendous risk to capital wealth. Despite still needing humans in order to generate wealth and push industry forward, it is abundantly clear that industry will go to great lengths to strip humans of as much of their humanity as possible in order to mitigate these risks. Time and time again through the history of industry this has become evident: from child labor, to sweat shops, to mechanical automation, and even to economically-motivated biopolitical practices like health insurance, the primary objective of industry has been to eliminate as much of the human spirit as possible so as to push industry forward at an unfettered velocity. Automation and assistive work technologies are the next tool in capitalism’s belt, and they will undoubtedly be used to their maximum effect to mine productivity, efficiency, and capital from workers in order to drive industry forward. The aesthetics of automation are but one example of this productivity project undertaken by capitalism, but they are certainly a very insidious and far-reaching example. These aesthetics have become so far-reaching, and the mechanics of automation so intractable, that automation has even begun to intervene in the processes of death, with the creation of “auto-euthanasia devices” like Exit International’s 3D-printed euthanasia machine, dubbed “Sarco.”40 In a capitalist system, even death is to be made as efficient as possible, no matter the cost to the spirit and humanness of humanity.
If the implications and effects of these mechanics and aesthetics are left unchecked for much longer, I fear that the human spirit will not only be removed from death, but from the rest of life itself. This is not simply hyperbolic speculation; the subjection of humans to the mechanics of capital, especially via automation, is a threat not only to the economic and physiological well-being of the world, but also to the spirit of humanity itself. As these aesthetics remove the last remnants of human touch from technology and daily life, we should be wary lest they also remove human spirit. After all, in this world filled with uncertainty, human spirit is the last vestige of a world whose worth is measured not by capital but by intrinsic, telluric value.
My concerns as a designer reach far beyond those of the reaches of design criticism. I am concerned with the ways in which the methodologies, practices, and artifacts of design shape the world around us, and with the implicated rinse of ideology contained in many aesthetics and forms.
For the sake of brevity (yes, this paper is my version of brevity), I cut out two sections of this paper — “Why Automation?” and “The Complicity of Designers and Businesses.” The goal of these sections was not only to elucidate why capitalism has led to the mentality “anything that can be automated, will be automated,” but also to interrogate the role and responsibility of designers and businesses in a world in which these two groups are able to exercise concerning levels of control over the daily lives of people everywhere. While these sections are not included here, I felt it important to write a brief afterword to say this: design is always implicitly rinsed with the political. Like natural gas permeating the air of a kitchen, design is so soaked with power that at any moment it can create ruptures and explosive tensions in society. And this power becomes very problematic when artifacts of design and their aesthetic tendencies begin to seep into the background of society, becoming ubiquitous and widely accepted.
The key to this entire paper has been that the aesthetics of automation are a signifying device, a clue, hinting at underlying sentiments, apparatuses, and power relations that exist in the context of automation’s existence. While this paper has been a relatively expansive exploration of automation, efficiency, and their aesthetic vernaculars, I am sure that this critique is only the beginning; there is much more work to be done here, many more dark corners to illuminate. All aesthetics contain political undertones, and more often than not, these undertones go unnoticed, unchecked, and unexamined. The wide field of aesthetic and mechanical gestures in today’s world still requires a great deal of illumination; and I intend to light the torch.
John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963), pg. 358–373. ↩
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Productivity and Costs by Industry: Selected Service-Providing Industries, 2016, (May 2017). ↩
Keynes, pg. 358–373. ↩
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Productivity and Costs by Industry: Selected Service-Providing Industries, 2016, (May 2017). ↩
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Productivity and Costs, Third Quarter 2017, Revised, (December 2017). ↩
Keynes, pg. 358–373. ↩
“National Income, 1929–32: Letter from the Acting Secretary of Commerce Transmitting in Response to Senate Resolution no. 220 (72D congress).” Senate, Document no. 124. (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1934). ↩
Binyamin Appelbaum, Yellen Signals Shift From Stimulating Economy to Sustaining Growth, The New York Times, (April 2017). ↩
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Productivity and Costs, Third Quarter 2017, Revised (December 2017). ↩
In this essay I will use the term “assistive technology” and “assistive work technology” (I use these interchangeably), but my definition differs from the widely used definition of the term. Rather than technology meant to assist people with disabilities, I use this term to mean technology that assists people in their jobs and lives by automating or catalyzing certain tasks and capacities. However, while my definition does differ from the widely accepted one, it is an extension of the mechanics established by traditional assistive technology — there is certainly a direct correlation of forces between these two definitions. ↩
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976), pg. 496–97. ↩
Nietzsche’s semiology is a semiology of effects — it uses diagnosed observations of society and culture as semiotic representations, utilizing genealogy to etiologize these representations into their constitutive forces. ↩
Keynes, pg. 358–373. ↩
It should be noted that, rather than actually alleviating the painful state that catalyzed its existence, an automation product will more frequently entrench and worsen the painful state, only giving the appearance of alleviation rather than actually solving the problem at its origin. ↩
The Portable Nietzsche, pg. 470. ↩
Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. C. Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), pg. 194–96. ↩
While this section of the present essay is about aesthetics, since it is simply about one particular aesthetic moment, I will not be providing an explication of my broader view of the field of aesthetics, nor will I provide any definitions or frameworks describing the concept “beauty.” When I use the word beauty in this essay, it will almost always be in quotations, and it can be assumed that by “beauty” I mean the globalized standards of “objective” beauty pushed by modernist and post-modernist art and design movements since the 20th century. ↩
I say “pseudo-critical” mainly as a criticism of Bridle’s writing and his organization of the discourse. The ideas behind The New Aesthetic are perhaps solid, but they remain disorganized and incapable of providing proper critique of that operational structures (social, political, and economic) that underpin the advent of digital aesthetics crystallizing in immanent spaces. ↩
George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Arnold V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). ↩
I use digital and post-digital separately in this essay. Post-digital, for the uninitiated, is the present cultural age: one in which the digital has subsumed the immanent, and the fabric, grain, or material of digital space is almost indistinguishable from the material and grain of immanent space. ↩
These exceptions being the occasional advertisement or sponsored content injected between pieces of content in the feed. ↩
Roisin Kiberd, “Why 2016 Was the Year of the Algorithmic Timeline”, Motherboard, (December 2016). ↩
Dan Frommer, “Marc Andreessen explains how self-driving cars could create a bunch of American jobs”, Recode, (May 2017). ↩
Bruce Brown, “Self-driving cars might not make you as productive as you’d think”, Business Insider, (September 2016). ↩
Frommer, Marc Andreessen ↩