Automation Mythologies

Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957) defines myth as the transformation of history into nature. Instead of concealing history below surface appearances, myth puts its objects on display and “purifies” them: “it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” Myths depoliticize; they remove things from the contested domains of power and relocate them among the naked truths of life. In 53 micro-essays—the full range of which has been available to the Anglophone world only since the last decade—Barthes details the workings of myth across French society, from wrestling to wine, “Garbo’s Face” to “The New Citroën.” The essays are guided by two principles: “no denunciation without its proper instrument of close analysis, no semiology which cannot ultimately be acknowledged as a semioclasm.” The principles enable Barthes to challenge meanings in objects that people commonly treat as being just so. Like all great works of politically engaged cultural studies, Mythologies expands the boundaries of meaning and activates the taken-for-granted as a site of analysis.

This book shares Barthes’s project of closely and critically analyzing the mythological conversion of history into nature. Call it a work of “technoclasm,” a set of essays in the breaking of technological myths. I focus on US narratives, discourses, images, and objects that change the cultural politics of automation into statements of fact about the “rise of the robots” and “second machine age.” The optimists prophesy that the latest digital technology will create many new jobs, the doomsayers claim that it will trigger a jobs apocalypse, but both sides presume that technology is a force of nature—objective, apolitical, inexorable, automatic. In one of the few essays on technology in Mythologies, Barthes observes that myth turns the Citroën DS into a sheer thing: “in this object there is easily a perfection and an absence of origin, a completion and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter.” The same could be said of the industrial robot Baxter or the artificial intelligence system Watson. For automation myths reify cultural, social, and political processes so that technology appears to be a matter-like outgrowth of “progress.” If its origins in human practice are acknowledged at all, automation is usually attributed to the demiurgic genius of tech entrepreneurs. It is the baleful achievement of myth to have automated how American culture imagines technosocial futures.

Automation Mythologies: Business Science Fiction and the Ruse of the Robots, under contract with Routledge, forthcoming late 2020.

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