Automation Now and Then: Automation Fevers, Anxieties and Utopias
This article discusses the cyclical nature of automation anxiety and examines ways of thinking about the recurrence of automation debates in culture, particularly with reference to the 1950s, 1960s and today. It draws on the concept of topos, developed by Erkki Huhtamo, to explore the return of automation anxieties (and fevers) and the relationship between material formations and technological imaginaries. We focus in particular on recent left thinking where automation is used to invoke a postcapitalist utopia. Examples include Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015) and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (2018). This strand of contemporary thinking is re-framed through our return to early automation scares emerging in the late 1960s. We explore engagements between labour, civil rights, left public intellectuals, and emerging industrial figures, over questions of automation and work. We pay particular attention to questions of ‘who benefits and when?’ These are germane to the question of utopian futures or non-reformist reformism as it recurs today. What interests us here is the concept of revived salience: not only how the tropes evident in these debates are revived and re-embedded today, but how do they find their force, and what do they imply.