Protest: EMA on Embracing Automation | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 22nd, 2024  

Protest: EMA on Embracing Automation

Robot Socialism

Sep 01, 2017 EMA Photography by Erika M. Anderson Bookmark and Share

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Protest is our recurring feature where a musician writes about a political or social issue that interests them and then submits a photo of them holding a self-made protest sign relating to that issue. This issue’s participant, EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson), is no stranger to political songwriting. The South Dakota native’s last album, 2014’s acclaimed The Future’s Void, examined our culture’s addiction to technology and the Internet. Her new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, continues to hold up a mirror to modern society and is described as a “dark portrait of what it means to be American in 2017.” Read on as Anderson analyzes what automation may mean for artists.

A friend of mine recently asked me how long it had been since I’d had a “real” job, and I had to think. In the past I have been a waitress, a substitute teacher, and driven all around the LA area videotaping depositions, among other things. But it had been a while since I had shown up every day to a “workplace.” Basically, I make my money mostly off of art, music, radio stufbut it’s really up and down. And at the time she asked, it was really down. So I felt ashamed when she then asked, “So you basically just self-direct and work on art stuff all day?” For one thing, it was a lot harder than it seemed, and for another, I was worried that all this time out of the traditional workforce had fucked me for life. I’d soon go broke and never be able to be hired. “Oh that’s great!” she said. “You’re gonna do so well when robot socialism comes!”


“Yeah,” she continued. “When everyone’s job is replaced by a machine and they have to figure out what to do with themselves all day long.”

The way she looked at it, directing your own time in fulfilling ways outside of money was a skill for the future, not a liability. Well of course this outlook was appealing to me, as it made me into someone competent, not “lazy.” Not worthless. She also had some real points: a lot of jobs were already going away, and they weren’t coming back. From truck drivers to paralegals, a large portion of American jobs could be better done by machines, and would be in the near future. I don’t really have a problem with this. Also, I don’t really care about robots. What I do care about is taking care of the people left behind when their industry is automated.

For the first time in decades, the life expectancy of certain sectors of the American population is going down, not up. White Americans without college degrees are dying in record numbers from suicide, drugs, and alcohol. In a 2017 interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton explained that “a lack of steady, well-paying jobs for whites without college degrees has caused pain, distress, and social dysfunction to build up over time.” They have deemed these deaths “deaths of despair.” (It’s also noted that black Americans still have a lower life expectancy than whites, and if racial discrimination plays a factor in access to “steady, well-paying jobs,” then it’s not hard to extrapolate why).

What’s happening in America is obviously a complicated situation. But it’s easy to see that in a society where an individual’s net “worth” is correlated to how much money they have, people without jobs or money are going to feel worthless. I think it’s time to reevaluate an individual’s contributions outside of their market value, and also decouple an activity’s merit from how much money it creates. In our society, a teacher is less respected than a day trader, a plastics manufacturer has more standing than a caregiver, and art is only compensated when it’s put behind a strong paywall. And that mentality is warping our values and deforming every aspect of our world.

So let’s have robot socialism now. But let’s not let the benefits of automation go only to the owners or shareholders. Let’s spread the wealth. Let’s free workers from monotonous jobs that robots could just as easily do. But beyond that, let’s let everyone know that their “worth” is not defined by how much money they can make, that their time is not “wasted” if it doesn’t have an immediate monetary return. Because no matter what the robots end up doing in data-sorting and manual labor, we need human beings to love and take care of one another. It doesn’t make much money, but its returns are intangible, and some would say life saving.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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