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A Conversation with Dustin Abnet

From its outbreak, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a wave of speculation, and worry, over an expected acceleration of the use of automated labor. After all, “the machine doesn’t fall ill.” Worries over the future of labor in the face of competition from robots and computers is especially acute, and serious, today. But as historian Dustin Abnet explains in his book “The American Robot: A Cultural History,” the idea of robots supplanting human  workers has captured the American imagination almost since the nation’s founding.

The American obsession with robots is not confined to labor. As Abnet argues, the robot has been used as a symbol across many different spheres of American society. Through fiction, film, and even traveling exhibitions, the robot has reflected dreams and paranoias around race, gender, class, and labor. Furthermore, robots have often been used to reinforce social and economic inequalities. By examining the robot in American culture, Abnet brings a fresh understanding of the complex interactions between economics, politics, and culture.

BackStory recently spoke with Dustin Abnet. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Cover of "The American Robot: A Cultural History" by Dustin A Abnet.BackStory: You cover a lot of ground in this book, using the symbol of the robot to bring together different elements of American culture and history. How did you come across this topic? 

Abnet: I came into the topic from labor and working class history. I was doing readings for 1960s and 1970s American economic development, and kept coming across scholars using the term “robot”.

What was interesting to me is that they used it in two different ways. One of them, the way I expected, was to talk about advanced automation and the kinds of assembly line arms that started entering factory floors in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, there was the other usage of “robot” to refer to workers themselves.

To this day, we use the term to refer to both machinery and people who seem vaguely machine-like. I thought it was a really interesting way to get into the history of not only how we think about ourselves, but how we think about other people.

That is a really rich topic, it encompasses so many different things. What started out as a question about work and technology became something that involved religion, science, class, race and gender as well. 

BackStory: You have a huge number of textual and other primary sources in the book. How did you work through and organize all of these documents? How did you decide what to leave out?

Abnet: That is probably the most challenging element here. There is a lot that has been left out, particularly in the post-World War II period. There are just so many robots that it’s impossible, it would be thousands and thousands of pages of textual analysis. But before World War II, I’ve included many of the major robot stories and examples in the United States. 

I chose the stories that were particularly emblematic of the larger themes that I was talking about, and that also were relatively popular and important at the time.

In the post-World War II period I talk mostly about film robots rather than pulp science fiction robots. That’s because in my estimation, the film robots were more popular than the pulp magazine robots. It’s a combination of popularity and thematic resonance that shaped how I chose particular robots.

The iconic 1950s and ’60s robot, Robby, in a poster for its second film, “The Invisible Boy.”

BackStory: Did you find any sort of robot tradition or metaphor in other cultures as well? For example, African Americans culture has a strong UFO tradition in parallel to white America, but takes it in a very different direction.

Abnet: I looked hard for this, and did not. I looked in a lot of the digitized databases for African American newspapers and various different magazines, and there’s not nearly as strong of a tradition.

The term itself rarely appeared. Women’s magazines, as well, tended not to use it. You can find occasional references to it, but not nearly to the same extent that I found in mainstream publications written by white editors and writers.

I don’t want to say that it’s not part of that conversation, but that this is a conversation that is, at least at the national level, dominated by white men. This is basically a fantasy of enslavement, and that has a particular resonance with powerful figures.

BackStory: I thought it was fascinating how the idea of the robot reflects different anxieties and ideas about the division of labor between the genders. 

Abnet: From the 19th century to the 20th century robots reflect this ideological gender division with labor, both inside and outside of the home.

What I find really interesting is that in the 19th century, stories about mechanical women located in the home tended almost always to end in disaster. But in the 20th century it was reversed. By the 1930s, female robots have become objects of desire. By the 1950s, they’re the perfect maids and caretakers of children. 

The gender division of the robot suggested that men saw their role in the world as more mechanical, regimented, and controlled than women’s labor. In other words, men could be mechanized, but women could not. That kind of gender division, I argue, shapes how we understand robots into the 20th century.

From a 1789 book that tried to explain the illusions behind the Kempelen chess playing automaton (known as The Turk) after making reconstructions of the device.

BackStory: You’ve positioned this idea of the American robot as a focal point for different questions around race, labor, gender and how individuals relate to society. Has this metaphorical lens led to any insights into the relationship between these different spheres of American life? 

Abnet: I want to stress how much these ideas intersect with each other, especially between race and class. One of the things I argue about the original meaning of the term “robot” is that people initially didn’t define it as a machine, they defined it as a worker. But in the context of the United States, with a highly racially segregated workforce, it acquired a racialized meaning as well. 

The key idea I take away from this is how much our analysis needs to interweave race, class, and gender when we think about who counts as a worker and what counts as work in the United States. In the 1950s, when they started talking about consumer robots in the home, mens periodicals were all in favor. Women tended to be a little bit more skeptical about it because they saw that as devaluing what they could do.

A couple of weeks into the coronavirus crisis, there were a lot of articles about how we need robots to fulfill certain jobs in the name of safety. At the same time, these workers are finally being labeled essential.

You have a mixture of, “Your work is essential, but we should have it done by a robot.” It’s that combination of how we think about other people and the work they do in our society that is so intrinsic to what the robot means.

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