by Finch & Bluebird, November 2018
In product marketing, sometimes the human labor that goes into a product is emphasized, and sometimes the machine labor is emphasized. In mass production, it’s easy and common to disguise one type of labor for the other. In the technology sector, machine intelligence has attracted consumer attention and become marketing lingo: products are billed as using machine intelligence while actually relying on the labor of workers. AI is becoming an aprochpycal advertising message, used to erase the work of underpaid, undervalued men and women. The great Astra Taylor has named this phenomenon fauxtomation, combining the words “faux” (French for fake) and “automation,” a popular term for the computerization of tasks and work:
One recent afternoon I stood waiting at a restaurant for a to-go meal that I had ordered the old-fashioned way—by talking to a woman behind the counter and giving her paper money. As I waited for my lunch to be prepared, the man in front of me appeared astonished to receive his food. “How did the app know my order would be ready twenty minutes early?” he marveled, clutching his phone. “Because that was actually me,” the server said. “I sent you a message when it was done.”
The information-science scholar Bonnie Nardi has similarly coined heteromation referring to the combination of humans and non-humans in the completion of work. We think these terms too opaque and humbly suggest instead anthrotechnomisnomia. Both “fauxtomation” and “heteromation” ignore the larger geopolitical economy in which such messaging takes place. While Silicon Valley in one sector of consumption (apps and services) erases human labor to valorize machine intelligence, in a different sector (crafts and gifts) they go the opposite direction. Online markets for “hand-made” products have exploded. Etsy pulls in yearly revenue nearing 200 million dollars. Amazon, one of the largest abusers of human labor in history, this year introduced the Etsy-like market “Handmade.” Both espouse the value of human-made products. Yet, journalists report that Etsy appears to be host to rampant misleading labeling, with factory-made products being sold as “hand crafted”:
... a problem that pops up in real life art markets across the globe plagues Etsy as well: mass-produced goods sold under the guise of being handmade. … According to a report from Wedbush Securities, which was the focal point of this Forbes article from May, as many as two million items for sale on Etsy might be trademark violations or blatant counterfeit.
A pattern emerges. “Fauxtomation” takes place within a thread of capitalist activity, not only mislabeling goods produced by humans as being made by machines, but also its inverse, mislabeling goods produced by machines as being made by humans. Erasure goes both ways. Thus, anthrotechnomisnomia, combining “anthro” (human), “techno” (machine), and “misnomia” (misnaming).
Which leaves us with the question, what’s the underlying motive? Why are humans valorized in some sectors, and machines in others?
At American Cyborg, we ground our interpretations of the interplay between humans and machines in humans’ long standing relationships with, and constructions of, animals and the ‘natural’ world. We nurture a product market where animals, humans, and machines each get to perform the tasks they are uniquely qualified for. From this might emerge a truthful marketing economy, where products can rightfully boast about their workers being happy and fulfilled in their roles.