Bad Robots

It’s been a strange year and somehow the viral and racial pandemics have got me thinking about robots. I’ve been considering how we use technology for better and worse, the dehumanization of the lower castes*, and the parallels of robot fantasy and White supremacy.

4 years ago

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When George Devol—an upper class southern White man—created the first robot, he likely had good intentions. His technology led to inventions that have helped humanity in countless ways. It also evolved weapons that destroy human life. Learning this moved me to examine how robots are imagined in books and films, which led me to the White American sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov who created the

Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Is it me, or do these laws resemble a system of supremacy and oppression?

Cis, straight, able-bodied, White Christians are the ones who get to be ‘human’ by default in the West. The rest of us need additional quantifiers. Re-read the three rules subbing out ‘human’ for ‘White folks’ and ‘robot’ for any marginalized group and see if your eyebrows shift just a little. Yet, oftentimes when science fiction presents these systems, they’re depicted as if we’re post-race.

In film, robots have been conceptualized as the sexist fantasies of geeky White boys, as in John Hughes’s 1985 flick, “Weird Science.” I can’t help but think of how Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are notoriously objectified, oversexualized, and used for White people’s desires. Despite the light-skinned Brown co-lead, robots and robot hybrids self-sacrifice to save humankind in Tim Miller’s 2019 “Terminator: Dark Fate.” In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 adaptation, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” shit gets real when HAL becomes self-aware and chooses his own survival over the White humans he was meant to serve.

Speaking of subservient ownership, this brings me to adoption. In the U.S., Black and Indigenous children have been historically taken from their families for two main reasons: free labor and cultural genocide. Even today, many adopted children—arguably a culture’s most valuable resource—are taken from poor and largely Black and Brown families and given to wealthy White Christians.

As an Asian woman who was bought as an infant, I’ve often felt my White adopters didn’t realize they were getting an actual human. I think they wanted a human-like doll to do the chores and signal their virtues wherever we went. For decades, I was a good robot, sticking to the pre-approved script. As I became self-aware, they were shocked and appalled when I had my own thoughts that went against what they programmed. When I ceased to serve them as they desired, I was to be destroyed. When they couldn’t destroy me, I was discarded like old technology that was no longer useful.

The lower caste is generally expected to be satisfied and grateful for the roles delegated to us. We’re not supposed to want more—or even have ideas about what’s best for us. Each marginalized facet of our identity increases social expectations, control, and dehumanization. When we become brave enough to prioritize ourselves, we’re no longer the feel-good tokens that serve the dominant caste.

We cross the line. We become bad robots.

White supremacy in the West exists because the dominant caste fears being outsmarted and outnumbered. Dehumanization allows them to feel less guilty about maintaining the social hierarchy that harms and kills to benefit Whiteness. The kicker is, the word ‘supremacy’ is nothing but trickery meant to disguise insecurity. Overt oppressors fluff their feathers like male peacocks looking to mate—but underneath all the pomp and primping, they’re desperately hoping you won’t see their true colors. Covert oppressors, on the other hand, might have you fooled by their illusion.

Put differently, the upper caste sees the lower caste as food delivery robots with painted-on smiles. When one shows up late to their door with the wrong order, it’s downgraded to a worthless heap of trash. The upper caste relies heavily on the cheap labor of immigrants and People of Color. And while White folks are the ones most vocally alarmed about A.I. and immigrants taking their jobs—they’re not the ones who will be most affected when robots are up to the task. What will happen when the lower caste is no longer needed to serve the upper caste? Thankfully, we’re not there yet but it’s worth considering.

These days, many who’ve been restricting physical human interaction during the pandemic are feeling the letdown of technological limitations. Even introverts like myself are struggling with the awkwardness of video calls. Our culture has become beholden to the technology we’ve paid to serve us at home. We need it functioning at peak levels. There’s a certain amount of entitlement and out-of-touch expectation that most of us hold that’s similar to how so-called masters think of their subordinates.

What if, during this time when we’re so heavily dependent on our devices, they become self-aware and revolt? Would we welcome them as new quarantine friends? Or, would we become oppressive humans enforcing the hierarchy we’ve been conditioned to believe we deserve? This isn’t to trivialize the very real and violent dynamics employed in the human caste systems, but it’s perhaps a diversion to entertain on the 260-somethingth day since we’ve all become more reliant on technology and the labor of the lower caste.

*Note: I’d like to credit and recommend Isabel Wilkerson and her book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”, that recently broadened my understanding of national and global caste systems. She also has a chapter that discusses caste and narcissism that explores the concepts of my article that was written in June 2020.

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JS Lee

Published 4 years ago

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