Confessions of a Cake Boy

By Ramsey McGlazerJanuary 6, 2020

Confessions of a Cake Boy
Losing Sleep

IN ALEX RIVERA’S film Sleep Dealer (2008), set in a dystopian future, the US-Mexico border has long since been closed. Mexican citizens are forbidden from traveling north, and US citizens are warned that they enter Mexico at their own risk. The real risks, though, are to people in Mexico, who are shown falling ill, fainting from exhaustion, and dying from overwork. They pay exorbitant sums for everything from privatized water to phone calls. Some are killed by drones.

The drones are corporate sentinels, flown by pilots based in California. Here Mexican lives remain remote and expendable, with pilots never coming into real contact with their targets. But a kind of formal symmetry persists despite these corporate efforts to ensure that power remains asymmetrical in its distribution: like the drone pilots, many Mexican workers in Sleep Dealer are now “node workers.” By means of “nodes” grafted onto their bodies, that is, they’re plugged into giant computers that connect them to their chambas, their gigs. These jobs are, like the drone operators’ targets, located at a distance from the workers who perform them remotely. We see node workers in Tijuana controlling, by miming, the movements of robots in homes and on construction sites far away, but always north of the border. The workers’ bodies remain in Mexico, but technology has made their labor exportable in a disembodied form even while it remains every bit as indispensable to the United States as it is today.

If there is hope in the film’s hellscape, it resides in the possibility that the node workers of the world might unite. Rivera envisions solidarities that begin with defections from the north, as he follows a drone operator’s journey from San Diego to Tijuana and finally deeper into Mexico. It turns out that drones can be used against the militarized corporations that fly them, and this can bring relief from both privatization and price gouging. But the relief may only be temporary, and the view from the south remains bleak even at the end of the film.

In Sleep Dealer’s science fictional Tijuana, coyotes, or smugglers, are called coyoteks; the border-adjacent factories now known as maquilas have become infomaquilas; and the company that employs the film’s protagonist is named Cybracero. In this way, Rivera indicates that in the film’s dystopian future, immigrant labor hasn’t gone away; it has merely been relocated. Automation in the north has become a matter of removing Mexican laborers from view, thus realizing the long-cherished fantasy of “work without workers.” In the south, by contrast, automation means more of the same. Cybraceros are still heavy-lifting, arm-wielding manual laborers, or braceros, cyber- notwithstanding. The work performed by would-be immigrants remains “dirty,” draining, and dangerous.

This work still “poisons the soul,” as the Italian theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi might put it. The phrase is apt for describing what happens in the film’s Tijuana, where toxicity takes both literal and figurative, both environmental and psychic, forms. Berardi is interested in contemporary capitalism’s ways of setting the soul to work. These, he writes, become intensified rather than relaxed under current conditions of technological innovation and exploitation. Although “microelectronic” and digital technologies really do promise a release from hard labor — although they really do let us envision a world in which more people will be free to use their time in creative and unpredictable ways — “the capitalist model” that deploys these technologies has in fact become even more of a “cage, constraining intelligence with wages, discipline, and dependence.” Subsuming even the inner lives, the dreams and desires, of workers, capitalism has become broadly “pathogenic.”

Berardi is not thinking of borders, let alone braceros or cybraceros, here, but his book The Soul at Work (2009) powerfully resonates with Rivera’s film. The book helps us to make sense of Sleep Dealer and heightens our appreciation of the film’s ways of speaking, like much science fiction, to the real present by rendering a fictional near future. For these reasons, I paired Berardi and Rivera in the course on labor that I taught last fall at UC Berkeley. I had taught the book and the film together during the previous year, and it had gone well. I hoped and expected that this new group of students would be similarly responsive. But by the fall of 2018 something had changed, and this made the detour through Italian social theory seem superfluous. Sleep Dealer was already, clearly, all too real for my students, and the reason was not far to seek.

A fleet of food delivery robots had arrived at UC Berkeley. Called Kiwibots, the robots on wheels were made and run by a startup based on campus and backed by venture capitalists. The idea, my students explained, was that you could order a burrito, say, from the library, pre-pay, track the burrito-bearing robot’s progress, and claim your delivery — all without leaving the library.

It wasn’t immediately clear what was wrong with leaving the library. But my students weren’t joking, and the burrito bit really was indicative of Kiwi’s taste level. This being California, the burrito figured prominently in the hype surrounding the startup as well as in Kiwi’s own accounts of the innovative services it offered students. It even appears as the paradigmatic good object in the founder’s story, to which my students referred me in class: “Kiwi Campus founder Felipe Chavez says: ‘there should be a way that we can get things on-demand without paying double or triple,’ after sharing his experience of paying double the price of his burrito just for delivery.”

Later, another Kiwi representative, quoted in another UC Berkeley–sponsored puff piece, argued that “one could save five or six dollars per delivery using a Kiwibot instead of a human delivery service. More money in the pocket is good for everyone, he said. ‘If you use a Kiwi Bot for your Chipotle, after the second delivery you’ll have saved enough money for a third burrito.’” The pockets of those providing “human delivery service” have conveniently gone missing from the claim that Kiwi delivery means “money in the pocket […] for everyone.”

But Kiwi’s product wasn’t really about savings; it was, I learned, about the brave new world of AI added to the allure of consummate convenience. According to a (possibly self-appointed) spokesperson for the company:

In addition to its many benefits in lower delivery prices and increased speed of delivery, Kiwi offers extensive discounts to accommodate students because it is particularly wired to respond to student needs. While ordering Kiwi, you do not need to move to pick up your food or go through the hassle of finding the driver who is denying [sic] to leave their car. Just wait on your doorstep with your pajamas and fuzzy socks; the Kiwibot will simply come to you.

This was dystopian, though not quite in Sleep Dealer’s sense. As a portrait of the college student as a passive consumer — “just waiting” while she’s waited on — it was worse than unflattering. If this wasn’t unfortunate fuel for the right-wing claim that this generation of students has been “coddled,” I wasn’t sure what would be.

But here’s where things got really interesting as well as truly strange, taking a turn south. My students, many of them aspiring engineers and computer scientists, went on to describe how the Kiwibots worked. To everyone on campus they appeared to be fully autonomous, successfully self-driving. But they were in fact constantly monitored and regularly remote controlled by human workers based in Bogotá. These Mechanical Turks were Mechanical Colombians. Kiwi Campus had managed to outsource the labor of food delivery to people working — surely in some kind of infomaquila — a continent away.

This was shocking. The Kiwibots fully realized the fantasy of “work without workers” — or rather work without visible workers — that is the subject of Rivera’s film. Again, according to this fantasy, workers no longer have to appear in person in the north in order to fulfill its “needs.” Their labor becomes that much cheaper, is that much more exploitable, because it has disappeared, been displaced, become invisible to consumers in the United States. This was already happening with the replacement of delivery workers by robots in Berkeley.

But I was also incredulous for another reason: although my students said that the robots were already all over campus, I had never seen one. My students found this implausible, as did the colleagues and friends I told later. The realization dealt a blow to my ego, because I wasn’t one not to notice such things. As an “old millennial,” I had prided myself on my ability to relate to my students, to share their reality even while I taught and took some distance from them. It was true, though: if a Kiwibot had entered my field of vision, it hadn’t registered. I’d missed it, or had found a way to make myself miss it. I hadn’t seen, couldn’t see.

Learning to See

“Since sight is, of all the senses, the one from which the mind’s judgments can least be separated, much time is needed to learn how to see.” So Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in Émile, or On Education.

Learning to see takes time, he thinks, because the sense of sight is complex, composite. It calls inevitably on “the mind’s judgments,” involving our assessments of “heights, lengths, depths, and distances.” Unlike touch, which “concentrates its operations in the immediate vicinity of man, […] sight extends its operations beyond him. That is what makes the operations of sight deceptive.” But the deceptions are, Rousseau adds, “necessary,” because paradoxically “without false appearances we would see nothing in perspective.” He continues:

[W]ithout the gradations of size and light we could not estimate any distance, or, rather, there would be none for us. […] If we perceived all the dimensions of objects in their true measure, we would see no space, and everything would appear to be in our eye.

To see clearly, then, we must be deceived. Only distortion prevents our surroundings from imploding, from collapsing in on themselves “in our eye.” In the child’s effort to see, then, there’s no avoiding the funhouse mirrors of warped perception or the hedge maze of deceit. But, this being Émile, Rousseau prescribes a remedy — not a quick fix, but a technique for strengthening the sense that’s “most defective” because necessarily duped. Here is his advice for teachers: “Instead of simplifying the sensation, double it, always verify it by another. Subject the visual organ to the tactile organ, and repress, so to speak, the impetuosity of the former sense by the heavy and regular step of the latter.”

All of this may seem awfully abstract, but here Rousseau introduces a visual aid in the form of an anecdote, one that I remembered when I began to see the food delivery robots in Berkeley:

There was an indolent and lazy child who was to be trained in running — a child not of himself drawn to this exercise or any other, although he was intended for a military career. He had persuaded himself, I do not know how, that a man of his rank ought to do and know nothing, and that his noble birth was going to take the place of arms and legs as well as of every kind of merit. […] The difficulty was all the greater since I wanted to prescribe to him absolutely nothing. I had banished from among my rights exhortations, promises, threats, emulation, the desire to be conspicuous.

This is because the tutor has been devising a new approach to education, one summed up in an earlier set of recommendations (indeed, exhortations) to Émile’s reader: “Let [your pupil] always believe he is the master, and let it always be you who are.” So scolding is out, as is every other top-down teaching technique, meaning most of those in the traditional educator’s repertoire. The alternative approach that Rousseau develops involves something much more insidious and, in his view, much more effective: a “subjection” made “perfect” by virtue of the fact that it “keeps the appearance of freedom.” Under the influence of this pedagogical magic trick, the child comes to mistake schoolwork for play and assignments for his own free impulses.

But how does this work in the case of the “indolent and lazy child,” determined to rest on his unearned laurels? How to “give him the desire to run” while sparing him both the rod and the rant? This is also a question about how to teach the entitled, title-bearing pupil how to see, because, again, according to Rousseau, it is through the “heavy and regular step” of touch, implicitly through exercise, that any child learns to use the faculty of sight. So the training’s two-for-one: while he learns to run, overcoming his initial reluctance and inherent indolence, the child will also learn to look by being made to keep his eyes on a prize.

This child has a sweet tooth, and so his prize is cake, that dangerous nutritional supplement. Taking the boy out for afternoon walks, Jean-Jacques carries cakes small enough to fit in his pockets. At first he carries two of these at a time, one for himself and one for the child. Then he slowly scales up. He brings an extra treat and entices the child with the hint that there are more where this one came from. But rather than sharing this small initial surplus, the tutor makes other “little boys compete for it” while he and his pupil watch. This first of many races is rendered in the language of gladiatorial spectacle, made mock epic by the age of the competitors and the minimal, because bite-sized, stakes, The tutor persists, pocketing even more cakes and inviting more runners into what become elaborately contrived “Olympic games.”

The races involve more and more cakes and contestants; the tutor builds lanes, lengthens racetracks, and stages victory celebrations “with ceremony.” All of these tweaks turn out to allow the tutor to advance his overall educational “stratagem”; they all become means by which to convince the child, in other words, that he’s leading, not being led. This trick works, and the lazy pupil begins to train on his own, at first “in secret.” Moved to action by his appetite for cake, the boy soon also acquires “a taste for this exercise.” Slowly and steadily, this taste becomes so developed that the boy gets into the habit of winning.

As we have seen, acquiring this habit is no piece of cake, either for the boy or for his tutor. But it does entail an unexpected bonus, an ethical boon, an icing:

[T]his accomplishment produced another of which I had not dreamed. When he had rarely carried off the prize, he almost always ate it alone, as did his competitors. But, in accustoming himself to victory, he became generous and often shared with the vanquished. That provided a moral observation for me, and I learned thereby what the true principle of generosity is.

This, though, is not the end of the anecdote, because although the child now loves to run and has even learned to share the spoils that are his reward for running, his eyesight has not yet been fully developed. So, in a further twist and final pedagogical triumph, the tutor manipulates the distances to be run by his student.

He trains this cake boy’s gaze by prompting him to gauge the distance between his starting point and his prize, his “play” all the while “becoming a sort of passion”:

He practiced himself, therefore, at seeing better, at estimating a distance better by sight. Then I had little difficulty in extending and nourishing this taste. Finally a few months of tests and corrected errors formed the visual compass in him to such an extent that when I told him to think of a cake on some distant object, he had a glance almost as sure as a surveyor’s chain.

The route has been roundabout, but now the tutor’s lost time is turned to profit, and his goal stands achieved. No longer “indolent and lazy,” the boy has become both mobile and far-sighted. He is motivated — literally set in motion — but in the right direction, his “passion” a matter of manipulation rather than free will. Finally, the child is able to see, where seeing is no small feat and far from automatic.

The Future Bites

I returned to Rousseau in a spirit of self-help, in an effort to understand how I could have been so oblivious, blind for so long to the robots in Berkeley. I hoped that by rereading I’d arrive at answers to these questions: which of my “mind’s judgments” had clouded my perception before my students opened my eyes by simply pointing to the robots? How could I have exempted myself from the recognition of this shared, robotic reality? Because they were right: once I started looking, I saw the Kiwibots everywhere.

It seemed unbelievable that no one, at least no one I knew of or read about, had taken a baseball bat to the bots or decided to drown them in a campus creek. Instead, students reportedly “rescued” robots they found “in distress,” performing free labor for Kiwi in the process. I noticed that individual robots were sometimes covered with stickers or otherwise tagged. This, though, was surely too little too late, and what took the cake was that the robots were now taken for granted. This left me feeling like a lone Luddite, though I couldn’t really have been the only one enraged by the robots. Their presence was not only irritating on its own; a second-order irritation came from the fact that this presence was uncontested, firmly established. Had students and faculty — in Berkeley, of all places — really become so docile, so accepting of these new and gimmicky providers of patently unnecessary services? Had no one complained about how obtrusive the robots were? Had no one thought to inform the administration about the workers being exploited in Bogotá?

By then I knew better than to be surprised that this kind of thing could happen “in Berkeley, of all places.” Still, I was furious. My rage wasn’t only about the robots, which I knew were symptoms, not the disease. But they became targets for my anger and fodder for my revenge fantasies — and, I still think, for good reason. They stood so clearly for a set of priorities that had devalued — and continue to devalue — the lives and labor of so many. In the context of severe undergraduate and graduate fee hikes and deep cuts to the critical humanities and social sciences, UC Berkeley’s administration had looked to Silicon Valley for “solutions” to nonexistent problems. While working hard to counter the efforts of service workers to organize for a living wage, the administration had sought to rebrand the UC as a safe space for startups and a springboard for future owners of the world. As the market for sustainable academic work dried up disastrously and adjunctification continued apace, as local rents rose obscenely and the Bay Area’s homeless population increased beyond all imagining, the administration devoted resources, which it said were scarce, to the promotion of new techniques for on-demand burrito delivery, colluding with Kiwi to stage a techno-positive parade of false “autonomy.”

I imagined bringing this parade to an end once and for all, organizing a collective act of counter-Kiwi sabotage. This effort would culminate in a great explosion, a rainstorm of robot innards and burrito filling, with no harm done to human beings. Colombian workers, making common cause with indebted Berkeley students and underpaid adjuncts, would, in maneuvers learned from Sleep Dealer, steer the robots to their doom without losing their own livelihoods. Far from being the victims of extraction, bot-drivers in Bogotá would expropriate the expropriators, and the vanquished venture capitalists would beat a retreat. These fantasies, however, didn’t seem to be widely shared. I gathered that the bots struck most of my co-workers as laughable rather than menacing; they were, if not endearing, then simply absurd, not altogether enraging. One “fed up” Berkeley driver did in fact kidnap a bot, but this turned out to be a mere flash in the cake pan. If this act of refusal was the exception, then the rule was acceptance of the robots and the UC’s material support for their marketers. Apologists would point out that this support did not take the form of money. Still it did entail the free-range (if secretly remote controlled) use of campus space, claims on student attention, and, crucially, access to the Berkeley brand.

No wonder, then, that my students were so quick to identify college — not just this or that part of college, but college as such, the whole package — with gimmickry. According to Sianne Ngai, gimmicks at once over-perform and under-deliver; they go to elaborate lengths to offer a product or service that is ultimately underwhelming. Kiwibots bring your smoothie directly to you, but since you could just as easily “move to pick up your food,” it’s no great shakes. Like the bots, the whole institution was more about hype than substance, my students said, more committed to its brand than to the integrity of its “product.” I resisted the idea that education was a product or service like any other. But here again the students were sharp, and I saw where they were coming from.

The UC itself has encouraged this view of education as a commodity, and of the university as a place for buying, selling, and the formation of future buyers and sellers. Perspectives on all of the other things that one might be and do fall away in such a place and under this kind of pressure. The Kiwibots offer just one egregious example of this process. In a kind of cutting-edge commodity fetishism, the bots are built to occlude the human labor on which they depend. What’s called “the coddling of the American mind” is in fact, in a context like this, a form of cognitive deprivation.

When I realized this, something shifted. Or maybe I mean something broke, a lingering faith in or last-ditch identification with the institution. My disillusionment, a decade in the making, became impossible to deny or defer. I hadn’t seen — or had managed to unsee — the robots because I hadn’t wanted to reckon with what the university had become. Although I had read about and even worked on writing about the changes that the institution and others like it were undergoing, I had been unable or unwilling to face the fact that these changes had already taken place. I knew that universities, both private and public, had long colluded with capital, that they had always been in the business of reproducing hierarchies, maintaining distinctions, enforcing exclusions of various kinds. Still I had wanted to believe that the university or some part of it could be a place for open-ended inquiry, that it could sponsor the pursuit of complex questions, the elaboration of new arguments, and the cultivation of critical sensibilities.

All of this requires some kind of distance, if only a minimal, imagined, or aspirational distance, from the market — a suspension of your awareness that you’re serving its needs, carrying out its orders, carrying its pathogens. The robots brought the bad news that any such distance had collapsed, and that any such suspension had become impossible for most of us, at least, though maybe not for the tenured few. The robots announced, with what I came to realize was their already pervasive presence, that the UC no longer aspired to any kind of real autonomy. It no longer even pretended to be qualitatively different from the Amazon Student Store (now located ominously on Sproul Plaza, across from the steps where Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement began).

If this last claim sounds exaggerated, then consider Berkeley SkyDeck, a venture capital–funded startup “accelerator” and “hub for entrepreneurship” housed on campus. SkyDeck’s “founders,” not all of them affiliated with the UC, “dare to strap themselves in and launch into the unknown.” That’s according to SkyDeck’s own self-promotional copy. And this copy is of a piece — a cake piece — with the way in which Kiwi Campus, the Kiwibots’ Skydeck-sponsored parent company, describes itself, as when its slogan urges potential users to “Bite the future.” (The company has been rebranding itself, and the slogan is now spelled “Byte the future.”) This injunction is as inadvertently comical as it is cliché, as if a slogan-generating algorithm had combined the taste of the rainbow with the future that’s now. Thus predicted and prêt à manger, the future becomes anything but “unknown” in this discourse, which is so supremely stupid that it sounds like a parody of itself, or of startup culture more generally. All that incubation, acceleration, and entrepreneurial courage, all that strapping in, venturing out, and dreaming big adds up to nothing more than this: your own private burrito. It’s enough to make one miss Rousseau’s mock epic, which was insidious in its implications but was at least self-aware. Here instead, in Kiwi’s slogans as in the language of SkyDeck’s “launch into the unknown,” there’s no irony, no self-awareness, no soul but the soul at work.

Far from self-ironizing, the Kiwibots are everywhere said — by the company, but also by some students — to be “adorable.” But as Ngai elsewhere reminds us, the aesthetics of cuteness is about disarming an object that might otherwise threaten us, if only with reciprocity. We can therefore see the Kiwibots’ diminutiveness — in keeping with the small, fuzzy fruit encoded in their names — as more than a marketing strategy. It’s a defense, a way of warding off aggression, the robots’ and our own. It thus implicitly acknowledges the fantasies I had earlier entertained: fantasies of property destruction, of student revolt, of robotic death by drowning.

I felt a surge of schadenfreude when one of the bots burst into flames. No one was hurt, and Kiwi explained that the fire had been caused by “human error.” This happened in December 2018, and by some accounts students were “devastated,” going so far as to organize a candlelight vigil for the fallen robot. (It’s not clear whether the vigil was a piece of performance art, but if it was, then this was lost on the journalists who covered the event and on Chavez, Kiwi’s founder and CEO.) Other students, refreshingly, labeled the fire “funny as fuck” or called the now-destroyed robot a “hero” and “legend.” Here finally a hint of mock epic returns, proving that students see through the startup’s language, that they recognize the robots’ absurdity.

It’s not clear, though, how many of them see all the way to Bogotá. They may view the bots as silly and Kiwi Campus, like campus itself, as a gimmick factory. Whether because they are techno-skeptics or because they are simply, understandably cynical, they may have no illusions about the future promised by Kiwi or, for that matter, by UC Berkeley. Some, if not many, of these students aren’t biting, and they aren’t buying. In this sense, they’re unlike most of the people by and with whom I was educated, unlike many “old millennials,” unlike me in my moments of obliviousness.

It is a relief to know this. But even the savviest students are prevented from seeing, made to unsee, the human labor hidden by the Kiwibots. Custom-built to come bearing one burrito at a time, to cater to one student per delivery, the robots are pacifying in more than one sense: comforting in their cuteness, infantilizing in their functional resemblance to other kinds of pacifiers, they also keep students off the streets, in fuzzy socks or in the library or (ideally) both. Here — in Kiwi’s world, where maximal comfort strangely coincides with “hyperproductivity” — students are safe from the conflicts staged in the public world, their eyes on the prize, their minds on their midterms and thus that much closer to being market-ready.

On the one hand, then, a return to Émile shows that food has long been used to incentivize students, one at a time. Kiwi Campus participates in a long history of educational efforts to get the young to do what their elders want and to confuse this with fulfillment, even freedom. On the other hand, though, at least Rousseau’s tutor wanted his student “to learn how to see” ultimately beyond the cake placed in front of him. Today, by contrast, university administrators give pride of place to companies that work actively to thwart perception. This is not the kind of “false appearance” that, for Rousseau, served ultimately to enhance “perspective,” to sharpen sight. On the contrary, what Kiwi seeks is the erasure of “heights, lengths, depths, and distances,” their collapse into the now of consumer demand or so-called “student need.”

I have been trying to forgive myself for having been so naïvely slow to see that this was happening or had happened, for having been blinded by my earnest — make that my arrogant and ignorant — belief in the resilience, or at least the remnants, of an institution that never existed. Rousseau teaches us, after all, that learning to see takes time. But I do not think we should forgive the university for what it has done to its workers, or for what it has been doing to its students, who are not only ever more indebted but also under increasing pressure to become robotic, to become library-bound learning machines, themselves. These reforms — technocratic, antidemocratic, exploitative, and anti-intellectual — should not be forgiven. They call for political rather than moral responses, and so forgiveness is not even a relevant category, really. Instead such reforms should be refused, and the university reimagined.

The call for free public higher education in the United States marks a step in this direction. And recent responses to this call show the entrenched common sense it’s up against. Carol Christ, UC Berkeley’s chancellor, recently said, “free college is a dangerous and deceptive slogan, because someone always pays.” (As if SkyDeck’s companies trafficked only in truth, never in deceptive slogans. As if there weren’t people in the state — people other than indebted students — or Californian corporations with more than enough money to pay.) The Kiwibots’ presence on campus follows the same merciless market logic. Hovering drone-like in the vicinity is the idea, inherited from Émile, that we only share wealth when we are winning. Competition comes first, and it’s only after we have trampled on others or left them in the dust that we can give into our philanthropic impulses.

“Someone always pays” indeed. But the people paying for (only partly) automated food delivery on campus aren’t only student-consumers and the startup’s venture capitalist sponsors. In Bogotá, unseen, unseeable workers are also paying, however much they may be paid — “less than $2 an hour,” according to a recent report. Far removed from the food that they deliver and the machines that they operate, these “Mechanical” Colombians are paying with their intelligence, their offshore labor, and probably their sleep. They are paying, in other words, with what Berardi would call their souls. And so are we, although this is bound to sound hyperbolic if not hysterical to many, and although it may take a detour to see.

I mean a detour through Berardi’s theory, through Rivera’s film, or through Rousseau’s fictional cake race. I used to believe that these kinds of detours were what the university could and did offer, if only despite itself, in its margins, in the accidental encounters with texts or teachers or the unforeseen solidarities that it made possible. Now, though, even its marginal spaces are being overrun, its conversations rendered robotic, its accidents and unscripted solidarities programmed away. So the robots signal the demise of detours that, like Rousseau’s distortions, are indispensable to sight, to understanding, and to some (not all) collective efforts to determine what’s worth paying for.

There are of course many ways to answer this question, and some people will include robots, maybe even the robotic purveyors of burritos, on their lists of public goods worth underwriting. But surely this response, this belief in the toxic promise of work without workers, should not be assumed or preemptively assigned to us as it has been by the current administration. For my part, I am inclined to agree with a claim that Raymond Williams made almost 50 years ago: we “need a good society,” and “we need food […] But the slip into the robot world, so easy to make, is against these needs even when it claims to satisfy them.” We already live in “the robot world,” by which Williams means the capitalist robot world, at least north of the border, at least in places like UC Berkeley. But another robot world is possible, one not built on hidden human labor and not dependent on damage to the soul. The slip into this one is not as irreversible as they have made it seem.


Ramsey McGlazer teaches at the University of St Andrews. His first book, Old Schools, will be published by Fordham University Press tomorrow.

LARB Contributor

Ramsey McGlazer teaches at the University of St Andrews. His first book, Old Schools, will be published by Fordham University Press tomorrow.


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