Tending the Robots: An Interview About Labor, Technology, and Sexuality -The Toast

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640px-Roomba_originalMy friend M is a virologist who works for a biotech firm where it’s their job to tend the robots. Last fall they completed FemSexNYC, “a sexuality workshop rooted in an anti-oppression framework for all gender identities.” Needless to say, we talk a lot about the boundaries between technology and humans and about sensuality and sexuality. Recently, we spoke by phone about robotics and erotics.

Can you give a baseline and just talk a little about the work you’ve been doing and, broadly, what your experience has been?

Right now I work in this production facility in the research division of a larger [biotech] company. What that means is that we’re responsible for doing the processing of samples for the entire company’s model development program. So we get tons of tail clippings, embryos, whatever–little bits of [mouse] tissue that are usually given to us with no explanation. And it’s my responsibility to extract all the DNA from them, the set of potential information from samples that correspond to particular mice, and to provide that to the researchers who do the actual analysis to figure out if the little experiments that we’ve run to fuck with their genomes have in fact fucked with them in the proper way, or fucked with them too much, or not fucked enough. 

It’s my responsibility to ensure that all the extraction of the DNA is done properly, and because we do this for a scary amount of mice on a daily basis, it can’t be done by a single person, and so I work mostly with these robotic–they’re basically like robotic handlers. And so they do a lot of processes in parallel–it’s very funny, they do a lot of the work that I did for my thesis, and spent a year and a half developing, and they do that unthinkingly, repeatedly, if need be dozens of times a day for hundreds of samples.

800px-FANUC_6-axis_welding_robotsWhat you’re describing to me sounds like old-fashioned factory labor.

Yes, completely. I’m working in a really large corporation that’s streamlined everything to the point that it really is like factory labor. It’s more diffuse in that we’re not, say, chained to our benches, figuratively and literally. We have independent research projects, we’re encouraged to collaborate with other people, [Ed: bread and circus] but at the end of the day I’m charged with doing this single task and for doing it efficiently and well and for not disturbing the rest of the process. And it totally totally involves this mechanization and refinement of everything that I do. I mean, I’ve worked in the service industry and I’ve pulled hundreds of shots of espresso in a single day, but it’s never felt quite as repetitive, as single-minded in many ways. That’s an excellent comparison, basically.

Okay, I’m a little blown away at–I know you work for a corporation, but laid out so nakedly–dealing with biological matter, in a way that my brain associates with manufacture.

Totally. It’s kind of the scary world of biotech. It’s encroachment on life, and it’s kind of been done progressively–I mean, it’s been done always, but never really on this scale. [My friend] Alan has this great thing about how the history of 20th century medical research has basically been the complete domination of the mouse species for total exploitation. It’s also important to think of the degree to which there are these massive management processes that exist [for mice] fifteen feet away from where I work and yet I never really come into contact with them. They’re just–they’re managed, they’re maintained. Whether or not that’s ethical, that’s been debated ad nauseum and whether or not it is isn’t going to change that this work is being done. I don’t know if I feel at all comfortable with continuing [working] in this context because of the sheer amount of exploitation of these animals that goes on. But it’s really scary, the degree to which these new private-sector entities have sort of taken over the management of life, in this species in particular. But you had a question.

Just very briefly, what does that mean, fucking with the genome? 

What that means is engineering the genome–changing the genetic code–to influence how those mice develop and behave. Basically how they function as entities. Changing the genome to try and make different models of human disease, and then checking to make sure those changes have been made properly. So I say “fucking with”– it’s a seriously elaborate, highly controlled process.

You mentioned earlier that you felt like you had a lot of psychological and social ramifications from doing this work.

Yeah. So in terms of factory work, it was very easy for me at the start of my time there to become distanced from my body, to treat my body as another aspect of the process, to treat it as a source of error, which is always this source of self-negating scientific mindset–it’s always another question of, is human error entering into this? Like if we were all perfect robotic entities that never failed we could get better results. There’s this dualist framework kind of encoded into all of that.

I was really increasingly inscribed into very particular motions, into very particular activities, into the structure of the day. so that my sense of time was really defined by what I was doing in that particular moment. Outside of work, on my days off, I still sort of kept up those rhythms to a large degree. It was very easy for me to say “Oh, I should be doing this” and then “Wait, no, I have to check myself, you know, allow myself to relax.

Laproscopic_Surgery_RobotAnd to have choice in those off moments.

Completely. I was very much constrained by the whole thing. It did reach the point where it felt really good to be embodied, to be moving around, directing myself in a purposeful way after so much of the abstract, cognitive labor of being a student. It was nice to have these physical tasks, but it meant that I was increasingly alienated. Not to mention the results of what I was doing, which couldn’t have mattered less to a person in my position. I mean, I didn’t always know what I was doing and it was always for the service of a larger task that the corporation had assigned my research group. It started to feel very bad and I got kind of dissatisfied with the work. Simultaneously I entered into this kind of meditative state where I allowed myself the time to think, and I started listening to music again in this really contemplative way, and that was really, really nice. But I had a lot of time to let my mind roam while my body functioned.

Do you want to elaborate on emotions separately?

There’s totally this blurring that goes on when I’m working with the robots. I said that I feel like a handler, and that’s totally the case. It’s just me invoking the program to do this labor that I’m theoretically capable of, but thousands and thousands of times more efficiently and faster. And then, when they don’t function properly, when the errors crop up–and they always do, in spectacularly catastrophic ways–it sort of feels like a rebellion because I am telling it to do this thing, and it doesn’t follow my instructions. And then it becomes this question of management. Can I convince this entity to do for me what I want it to do and what the entire company is telling it it should be doing? And so when I see it rebel, or when I personify it in such a way that I perceive its actions as rebellion, it becomes much more so that I perceive an actual relationship with it. 

For instance, it was doing this thing several weeks back where instead of dropping all the plastic pipette tips like it was meant to, it was sort of throwing them everywhere. The ejection mechanism was malfunctioning and in that moment all I could think of was that earlier that week I had been babysitting for a three-year-old, and he had taken literally every car he owned, which seemed like tens of thousands of tiny metal cars, and thrown them across the room. This robot was doing something very similar, ejecting pipette tip after pipette tip, and just sort of throwing them everywhere. And it was sort of like, okay, I have a relationship with this thing–managerial, and it obviously doesn’t have a relationship with me, but I’m able to impose this narrative of agency and individuality on it. It does very weird things to me. I know that for instance, a co-worker of mine left the lab. She found a new position, came in for her last week. And she went around and said goodbye to every single robot. There are a lot of them, some much harder to personify, and some much easier to consider as being agents. Like there’s one in particular that’s extremely cute. It makes these little whining sounds, it has an external grabber, it tells you if you did something wrong. It makes this little wailing sound if it bumps against something. It’s very easy in that moment to think of it as a child, a child you’re coaxing into doing something you need it to do. It’s the weird thing–all these are just extensions of my labor, and as machines don’t have the capacity to think for themselves, except in the ways they’re programmed to do. This is not artificial intelligence, they’re just simple machines. So in that regard they’re–

Automation_of_foundry_with_robotSo they’re factory machines who only do what they’re programmed to do, unless they mess up and start spewing pipettes everywhere, but they’re also these emotionally commanding physical beings. What you’re describing sounds almost as much like care work as it does like factory labor.

Oh, completely. For instance, everyone in the lab would talk about how Robot 3 was the rebellious one. We’d had it for a number of years, it was going through its rebellious stages, there’s definitely a lot of care involved. I’m not even a technician for the robots, I’m not the person who has taken them apart and dealt with them on this structural scale. But I do know that all the people I work with have intense and very different relationships with the robots. Or at least, all the people I’ve spoken to about it have confirmed that.

Did you ever have a Tamagotchi? 

I did, totally. 

I was so jealous of those people.

I had a Digimon one that my friend gave me, I think because he got a new one and gave me the old one. I think it had a bug in it, though, because it kept dying no matter what I did.

svedka_smYeah, I was always really jealous of the people who had them, even though I didn’t trust myself to be a good caretaker, but they seemed like this–that anxiety got to me, and I didn’t think I could handle the pressure. 

All this emotional intimacy with the robots is something that’s sort of admitted jokingly in my work, or not talked about at all. And we haven’t discussed the sensual or erotic intimacy. I can’t imagine ever sharing something like that, particularly because it’s the workplace, but also because that feels subversive. 

But non-sexual care doesn’t?

I think it’s more just the sterility of the workplace, and the fact that, yes, there’s emotional labor everywhere in corporations, but it’s not meant to be explicit, and it’s not something you engage in to any degree that is beneficial to yourself. Do you want me to talk more about the sensual aspects of this care?


Okay, so this is sort of a major topic-change, but part of what was really radical about FemSex [the sexuality/identity workshop] for me is the way it encouraged presence in my body, and that’s something you’ve talked about many times, that I’ve always drawn a lot of inspiration from. Doing that in this formal setting really forced me to do a lot of that–to identify with myself, to identify with my body, and in the context of the curriculum I was trying to be present in my body and to understand what that meant for me sexually right as I was starting this line of work. 

So I was sort of relishing the opportunity to be a physical creature with sexual desires and these lived bodily experiences right at the time when I started this very specific set of activities which almost all involve physical contact with these robots, which I was almost sort of developing physical relationships with. Work itself, and the emotional care for these entities became very sensual, and because of the stage of my life I was not spending a lot of time touching people, and was feeling very sexual at the time. And so it’s not like the robots became an object of sexual desire for me–go into that if you want, this history of my sexuality as it intersects with technology. 

All that to say that the activity with the robots became very sensual and became this opportunity for me to be really present in my body, for feeling sexual. And so because of that association, the work that I was doing bled over into my sexual experience and my sex life, and for the longest time, when I was having sex with people, I felt very uncomfortable with actions that came too close to the actions that I made with the robots. So there was this initial conflation, and then I tried very deliberately to pull back and constrain that. But more than the physical aspects of sex, interacting with the robots and the act of controlling them, and controlling their behavior, became this exercise in exerting my will and exerting my authority, because there were many times when I had to trick them to convince them that they were doing the right thing to continue with the procedure we’re doing. This element of very mild control with was, more than anything, a sort of fantasy that I was imposing on my labor–that itself took on this sexual element, and was something I was trying to think about a lot more in the context of FemSex, in the context of my sex life with my partner. That question of control was another part of the common ground between sex and my work. 

HERWow, that made so much sense. So as you’re moving into talking about questioning aspects of your sexuality and identity you sort of casually dropped what I don’t think is a casual droplet but a compressed universe–a note like, oh, just a little history of my sexuality and technology. I would like a little history.

I mean, I have been using erotic media since I was quite young, and that has influenced so much of what I perceive of sexuality and sexual culture. So, a couple thoughts: The idea of a sex toy that is a commercial product that sets up expectations of how people have sex, either with themselves or with each other. The other thought I was having was that I’ve engaged in erotic media through many different portals of access–through my laptop, through my phone, through–I guess not really books, I guess I’ve never had erotic literature in physical incarnations–but it’s all been mediated by physical devices that I’ve never really taken on, I guess because the mediating device also does many other things. But for instance, I have definitionally had sex with my laptop many, many times. Not necessarily with in the sense of physical intimacy, but it’s been present, and it’s been present with partners before. I’ve had sex with people and with my laptop. Sometimes we’ve watched porn together. Technology is by no means separate from my sexuality, and has conditioned it in so many ways. It felt very different to be eroticizing the interactions I was having with these robots, with these very physical entities, because that was very much in the realm of myself and my imagined relationship with these things. 

And you’re forced to ask, what am I imagining, what is the reality I’m creating, what is sex, does sex mean touching? Do I have it with a person, with a computer, with both? How do I interact with them differently?

Yeah, I feel like that always enters in–in this particular case with the robots, it was my sexual relation with myself that was being mediated by the physical interaction with these beings. And I tried to pay attention to that, and it was ultimately fruitful, but something I could pick up and take with me–for instance, this aspect of control that I was really enjoying with them. It’s something I would really rather explore with a person. 

I feel like I’m having to stop myself, because if I ask you anything else I feel like I’m going to launch us into the future. Do you feel like you have any final words on the topic?

That it makes me realize how much I really enjoy theorizing these relationships with technology, but how much that is distinct from…no. No. I have no more thoughts. [Laughter]

I don’t know, this was my quasi-masturbatory experience trying to subvert the demands of the corporate workplace. 

Diana Clarke is not yet a cyborg, but you can find her @dclarkwithane, or in West Virginia if you happen to be out that way.

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