Bachmann on Munn, 'Automation Is a Myth'
Reviewed by Richard A. Bachmann (University of Michigan) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (July, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57833
With Automation Is a Myth, Luke Munn makes an insightful contribution to the growing body of literature that critically investigates current accounts about “automation.” Pundits on the left and right have claimed in recent years that algorithm-powered technologies have become intelligent enough to make human labor increasingly superfluous. Munn, a media studies scholar based in Aotearoa, New Zealand, argues that this view of automation is a “myth” or a “fable” that is sustained by three imaginaries: “the myth of automated autonomy,” “the myth of automation everywhere,” and “the myth of automating everyone” (p. 2). By drawing on the work of scholars in media, race, gender, and cultural studies, Munn uses each of his book’s three parts to dissect one of these myths. He emphasizes that automation is not a purely technical, universal, and self-acting force, but rather encompasses a gamut of technologies which are informed by local politics and culture and manifest themselves differently across geographical, racial, and gender lines.
In part 1 of the book, Munn takes on the claim that fully automated technologies will inevitably obliterate all demand for human workers. Echoing historians of technology, Munn stresses that the vision of technological autonomy itself is a fantasy. He shows that current forms of automation—for instance, on customer-facing platforms—rely on droves of precariously employed humans whose labor is systematically concealed from the outside world. Not only are gig workers from around the globe tasked to monitor and maintain these platforms; they are also frequently asked to impersonate the supposedly “smart” chatbots who engage people on the other side of the digital smokescreen. Munn underlines that automation today is “spotty” or “piecemeal” at best. It creates the illusion of technological autonomy through labor regimes which obliterate human workers—not by displacing them, but by making them invisible or making them work as if they were machines.
In part 2, Munn challenges the vision of automation as a singular force which manifests itself everywhere. He underlines that automation, rather, is an elastic framework that is used to describe a plurality of technologies. These are shaped by and shape the political and cultural conditions of distinct localities. Munn illustrates this point by exploring how officials in China’s Xinjiang region use the “automation” moniker to obscure surveillance practices targeting the local Uyghur population and their coerced labor in agriculture. While the argumentative thrust of this chapter seems slightly forced, it also highlights one of the strengths of Munn’s book: his frequent explorations of sociotechnical developments in China, which are guided by the work of Chinese scholars. By making China a central analytical locus of his book, Munn not only substantiates his claim that automation embodies a diverse and locally contingent set of technologies, but he also enriches our grasp of the diverse cast of scholars who study this topic.
In the final part of his book, Munn refutes the universalist horizon that dominates current automation scenarios. Zooming in on the warehouse (in chapter 5, “Automation's Racialized Fallout”) and the home (chapter 6, “Automation's Gendered Inequality”), he shows that automation does not affect everybody equally as commentators usually assert. For instance, the kinds of jobs that minority workers have historically been pushed into makes them more vulnerable to the physical and structural effects of workplace technologies that bear the “automation” label. By contrast, housework, which is still largely done by women, is not considered to be automatable by most tech entrepreneurs because it is generally not recognized as work. By exposing these disparities, Munn highlights that the generic figure of “the human,” which crowds accounts about the broader impact of automated technologies, is a fraught distortion. It obfuscates and enables the “racialized fallout” and “gendered inequality” of the “automation myth.”
Overall, Munn has written a thought-provoking critique of the underlying assumptions of most automation talk today, bringing to bear the insights of an eclectic group of scholars and commentators. At times, Munn could have strengthened his emphasis on the elasticity and situatedness of automation even more by paying closer attention to the historical context of the works he draws on. For instance, while it is certainly true that James Boggs (The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, 1963), Harry Braverman (Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, 1974), and David F. Noble (Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, 1984) have written powerfully about the detrimental effects of production technologies on workers, as Munn details, their individual understanding of automation may have differed from each other and our own. Situating different incarnations of the “automation myth” in their “domestic ecosystems” requires us to be sensitive not only to cultural and political factors, but also to temporal ones (p. 6). This minor point aside, Munn’s book is poised to greatly enrich our conversations about automation and will hopefully find a wide readership.
Citation: Richard A. Bachmann. Review of Munn, Luke, Automation Is a Myth. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57833This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.