The robots are coming for our jobs, artificial intelligence is ascendant, and invisible programs are taking over our lives. “Automation” is the word that comes up in each of those contexts and plenty more. It’s certainly one of the looming concepts of Our Times-a business imperative, an economic driver, a utopian ideal. We’re automating work, systems, services. Surveillance, commerce, manufacturing, policing. Everything, almost, or trying to. But it’s a deceptively nebulous concept, one that strikes a chord in our psyche beyond definitions like ‘the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.” Understanding how our thinking about automation-and where the drive to automate stems from-should help us better grasp how it’s playing out today. It’s only relatively recently, after all, that we’d pin the push to automate on something like “business owners who want to capture more profits and cut labor costs.” So, I set out to locate the origins of automation. I did so in a series of conversations and correspondence with scientists and scholars whose work focuses on subjects ranging from Greek mythology’s robots to the biological roots of abstract thought. The instinct to automate, classicists and zoologists seemed to agree, may be among the most ancient and universal human traits. In fact, one argued that it’s nothing short of the act that separates man from beast. ‘Automation,’ specifically, entered use in the mid-20th century. The ubiquity of the word has helped to obscure the fact that it has a weird, distinctly midcentury corporate… [Read full story]
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