“It looks ice cold.” He took a gulp of hot latte (steamed milk at 150 degrees as per franchise regulations) and burned his tongue, looking me dead in the eye, daring me to challenge him again.
“I can assure you, sir, it isn’t, but I’d be happy to make you another if it isn’t to your satisfaction.” A queue was forming behind me, I tallied up the next 10 drinks in my head, rearranging them into two simultaneous categories organized by drink type and customer, calculating the most time efficient way of getting through the post-lunch flurry. My feet ached, but my cheeks bothered me more; I wanted to duck behind the pillar which served as a blind spot to customers and relax my face, just for ten seconds.
Slamming the glass down on the counter, he grunted and stalked away, muttering under his breath. “Useless girl,” the words reached my ears. I was twenty-one years old and I could see steam rising from the wasted latte I would have to explain away on the staff sheet before my shift’s end. It was now at around 140 degrees.
I turned to face the restless queue, sensing the eye roll from my coworker on the till, unexpressed but assumed. “Sorry about that,” my work voice is pitched much higher than my regular voice, “Three cappuccinos one skinny decaf one skinny, yes?”
The typesetter, poet, lesbian, and socialist feminist activist Karen Brodine wrote in Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, that ‘this is not automatic or deadening.’
She is describing the pain in machine labour, in the physical sense of growing more capillaries, visible bleeding, being subjected to the rays of the cathode, but also of the titular ‘thinking.’ To be a conscious human being, a woman, and thought of as the machine itself, its operator conceived of as a ‘part’ in its purpose, so that purpose becomes yours also: This is a definitive pain. Emotions are not deadened simply because a job does not require or respect them. Human bodies are never automatic.
What better way to fix this problem than to remove the human being altogether?
The robots doing care work and ‘emotional labour’ – insofar as it is labour typically associated with performative emotions e.g. consistent smiling, imperious customer empathy – are often feminised. Their voices are softer, higher, if they perform service work they are fetishised, made to dance or perform for sexual titillation. They are entertaining, comforting, and always willing to help in whatever way they ‘can,’ with their ability dictated by their programming. They are Alexa and Ava and Samantha and EDI. What does this create but an expectation that the women performing mechanised tasks, supposedly automatic or instinctively coded into muscle memory, should be robotic also?
We must travel further back to explore the shared narrative of women and machinery; through human computers such as those hired by NASA and highlighted in 2016’s Hidden Figures, typesetters like Karen Brodine herself, to the birth of the Analytical Machine. Ada Lovelace, typically remembered alongside her work partner Charles Babbage, and as the daughter of Lord Byron, solidified the relationship between women and machine labour with her brilliant analytical mind. This is not where the story starts – it starts, perhaps, with questioning what a ‘machine’ is, what a ‘tool’ is, what ‘craft’ is, and how gender defines those divisions – but it is where the threads most clearly and decisively interweave.
Lovelace’s prescient innovation was to take the technology of the punch card used for the operation of the Jacquard loom (invented in 1804 by Joseph Marie Jacquard to allow the control of individual yarns, leading to the mechanised production of patterned fabrics) and conceive of it as a way of storing or calculating data. This feminised labour viewed and understood by a woman lay the foundations for computing hardware. It also lay the foundations for a continued cycle of feminisation and devaluation in manual mechanical labour. Those NASA computers were largely women of colour – their complex calculations thought to be drudge work – until they could be replaced by ‘real’ machines. Then they became machine operators, once-removed but always present in the rooms where that drudge work took humans to the moon. Even at the roots, technology and gendered labour are inseparable.
In popular culture, we find an exemplary starting point for a consideration of women and mechanical labour in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Maria’s robot double, which Andreas Huyssen terms a ‘mechanical vamp,’ is created for subjugation and becomes villainous in overstepping it. From the offset the film is concerned with capital and labour, opening with shots of machinery and images of ‘clocking in and out.’ Maria represents the anxieties of capitalist expansion and machine labour, eventually leading a workers’ revolt of sorts and, as punishment, is burned at the stake, witch-like. The woman-robot becomes threatening as technology is increasingly perceived as a threat; Metropolis was, of course, released in the aftermath of the First World War.
We are now inundated with machine narratives. Films concerned specifically with the perceived threats of a truly Artificial Intelligence are released at a rate of several per year. Since 2008 we have seen the release of WALL-E, Prometheus, Her, Ex Machina, Chappie, and Alien: Covenant, to name a few, with Blade Runner 2049 primed for release this year. A.I. has seen similar success on the small screen, in Black Mirror, Westworld, Person of Interest, and Humans. This is not some shiny new anxiety for the posthuman age, but a more technically developed, specific brand of the same postwar labour concerns. We are in a later phase of the natural post-Metropolis progression, 90 years since its release.
Those fears are borne of twin concepts of subjugation and autonomy. We continue to create robots and live in fear that they may topple us from our organic thrones; This fear finds its ultimate expression in the woman-machine. That women, subjugated, might rise up from the confines of their labour, even question its conditions and justifications, is a narrative of anxiety shared in the handshake of gender and machinery. In film, in literature, we continue to find the synthetic woman double-bound and all the more terrifying for it. In Metropolis we see this in the bellydance the robot-Maria performs, vampy and threatening. In Ex Machina this sequence nigh-on repeats itself as Kyoko dances for Nathan, a temporarily stymied threat only as she performs her subjugation for men’s entertainment – and their reassurance. The film is, after all, about AI autonomy and control, bubbling under the surface even as Kyoko performs her role.
It is near-Frankensteinian, this fear of the subjugated or ‘created’ overcoming external definitions. When the creature, thinking and with a greater awareness of power and autonomy, faces these anxieties in others, he becomes monstrous.
These are themes which run through Gibson’s Neuromancer, through Blade Runner, through Ghost in the Shell. Control, autonomy, and where to locate them as a woman or a robot or both. We have been the machine, the computer; We have been a part of the machine, the operator. There is a labour of the body in all of it, and a labour of emotions – for robot women and labouring women alike the labour of emotions is often to prove you have them, that the surface smile is a part of the machine’s structure, that ‘this is not automatic or deadening.’
My parents recently bought an Amazon Echo Dot. Mum has Multiple Sclerosis and the ease of spoken command, of ‘Alexa, please add eggs to my shopping list,’ helps with the short-term memory loss. That ‘please’ always gets me, the ‘thank you’ voiced after Alexa’s microphone is already back in standby, waiting for the next trigger command of her name. Alexa can be renamed, should you wish. If you have a pet or a child with an awkwardly similar name, you can reprogramme the system and opt instead for the more neutral ‘Echo’ – an eerie reference for anybody familiar with the Greek myth of Narcissus – or ‘Computer.’ But Alexa is the default, her voice unchanging.
In the novelty of Alexa’s first few days as a resident in their home, Dad printed off a list of ‘Easter Egg’ questions; You can ask Alexa to ‘Set phasers to stun,’ and she will respond with a Star Trek reference in kind. I roll my eyes, thinking of those who programmed her, but am charmed all the same. When I visit, I like to try and come up with questions not on that list, like verbal cheat codes in a game. There was one I thought of about an hour after making her acquaintance.
“Alexa, can you pass the Turing Test?”
In a soothing, consistently helpful voice, unfazed by my asking such a personal question, she responded. “I don’t need to pass that. I am not pretending to be human.”
I think of coffee, and of money, and of smiling.
Brodine, Karen, Woman Sitting at the Machine Thinking (Red Letter Press: 1990)
Huyssen, Andreas, ‘The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,’ New German Critique (1982)