Race and Robots

A neglected motivation behind the white supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, on August 3, 2019 was the perpetrator’s racialized anxieties about automation. The bleak future predicted in the killer’s online manifesto reads like a scene from the dystopian film Elysium: working-class whites will not be able to reap the benefits of the new automatic technologies because they will be overrun by poor, unemployed, government-dependent Latinxs. This is certainly not the future promised by today’s dominant automation discourse, the business science fictions of the “second machine age” and “rise of the robots”; nor is it the future affirmed by “accelerationists” and other leftist thinkers who claim that full automation—combined with universal basic income—will usher in socialism or “luxury communism.” But the El Paso terrorist’s combination of the myth of white genocide and speculations about the radical automation of work is not as peculiar as it seems. For robots, as products of US history and culture, are cast from a substance that is simultaneously more immaterial and more real than their sensors and actuators: race. Recent work at the intersections of critical race and ethnic studies, decolonial science and technology studies (STS), critical code studies, feminist science studies, and literary and film studies suggests that what is at stake in automation is the technical reproduction of the US racial formation.

“Race and Robots,” American Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2020)