Jason Resnikoff on the Automation Discourse and the Meaning of Work

When you last went grocery shopping, did you use the self-checkout machine as opposed to waiting in line for a cashier? Or when ordering take-out, did you use an app? More and more, consumers find themselves with the option to engage machines, as opposed to human beings, when making purchases. As evidence, see the recent announcement by Estonian technology company Starship to bring the company’s robotic food delivery carriers to the University of Tennessee, joining a growing list of college campuses–including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California Los Angeles, James Madison University, and others–utilizing autonomous delivery services.

Even the phrase—robotic food delivery carriers—suggests a kind of substitution: jobs once performed by human beings are now being performed by robots. Such discourse inevitably prompts the question: Will there come a day, when humans no longer perform physical labor?

Put simply, the answer is no, at least according to Jason Resnikoff. And we may not even want such a world. Rather, the important question, according to Resnikoff, is how to transform the nature of work to make it more compatible with freedom and human flourishing. In this episode, Resnikoff explores this and other questions as part of our conversation on the discourse around automation, which he traces from its origins in the factory to its wide-ranging implications for political and social life. Far from eliminating the need for human labor, the automation discourse, he shows has tended to obscure the human beings who continue to labor, often in sped up and intensified manners, alongside machines.

Check out the episode here!

Jason Resnikoff is a lecturer in the Department of History at Columbia University. He is the author of Labor’s End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work.

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