Tanya Serisier investigates the concept of ‘violence’ and considers the insights and limitations...
There’s a scene in the film The Internship where the two salesmen have just been told that they’ve lost their jobs. Their (ex-)boss tells them everything is done with computers nowadays, everything is done online. Trying to hold back the implied tide of technological progress, one of them replies “people have a deep mistrust of machines. Have you seen Terminator? Or Two? Or Three? Or Four?!”
When people think of the deep automation of social life, it often ends badly. Like Terminator badly (or The Matrix, or hell, even Electric Dreams). There’s always the inevitable conflict between newly sentient machines and a seemingly surpassed humanity. However, another tone has seeped into Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) narratives in recent years, one that focuses both on how our world escapes our grasp, and how our problems can’t be fixed by tools. It’s a more hopeful type of A.I. story, despite the melancholic tone of many machinic narratives. This is not to say that there aren’t still endless machine vs. humans stories being produced (Terminator: Genisys or the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron?). It’s just to say that something else has turned up. The Channel 4 sci-fi drama Humans is part of this turn.
Humans explores a near-future in the UK where synthetic humans (without consciousness) are being mass produced and used for ‘low-skill’ labour and social reproduction – picking fruit, administration and call-centre work, cooking and cleaning, fixing cars and doing deliveries, fucking people and driving the kids to school.
In many ways, Humans has more in common with the set-up of The Internship – both are stories about how humanity is engaging with a radically transformed social world. They’re about the changes to how we work (and what kinds of work we do) affected by the massification of computer technology, the internet, and complex algorithms that autonomously organize and manage people’s labour, often as a part of a deepening of the intensity and precarity of both white and blue collar jobs (think Amazon or Walmart). At times this also means an intensification of the administration of our work but worse for many, and captured by The Internship, it also means the eradication of many forms of labour, both in absolute numbers (from farm hands to factory workers) to whole jobs that are increasingly automated (from salespeople, to phone operators, to, if reports are to be believed, real estate agents and lawyers).
Humans features the conflict between an increasingly superfluous humanity and a sea of automatons, a handful of whom have consciousness and are fighting to be free of the shackles of humanity. However, that’s not the bulk of the content. Most of the series is concerned with the consequences of the automation of not only work, but of social reproduction. In the process, we’re shown a series of snapshots of what it would mean for machines to care for us. The synths, as the machines are called, have been made not only to do our work, but to undertake our social reproduction as well.
By this I mean more than the sum of the activities the synths undertake – from cooking and cleaning, to driving the kids to school and playing with them, or reading to them, to fucking and medical care, even to hosting the memories of the elderly. Humans describes a broken world, where social relations have started to fray and crumble under the conditions of neoliberalism: low expectations of future security or wealth, long working hours, broken marriages held in place, social isolation and frustrated desires. It describes our world.
And into this world comes a fix – synths to repair the broken social fabric by undertaking all of those ‘repetitive, banal labours’ of the home and family. As one of the characters says in the early episodes to his wife, having a synth will mean more time to spend with each other and the kids.
Except it doesn’t. The various characters in Humans end up just as trapped as they were at the start. The isolated are no less isolated. Having a synth to look after your children doesn’t mean more time spent with them – it means more time to work at the office while the kids bond with the machine. More poignantly, we see synths stepping in as surrogates for partners – from sex to companionship – as people find, when they have more time together and less social reproduction to do, that they have little in common. Synths fail to fix the broken social fabric, and the damage is all the more apparent for it. In the end the synths appear like nannies working in loveless marriages. But unlike a nanny-drama, the synths do not save the marriages pictured. Instead, everything just continues on in its broken fashion.
At this point in the TV show we could expect to see some banalities about the crucial nature of social reproduction trotted out, that people should care for people. Except that Humans doesn’t suggest this, and nor would I. Instead it is subtly demonstrated that the crisis of social reproduction won’t be solved by contracting out those labours that we dislike, or have no time for. If anything that deepens the crisis, as the crisis is one of meaning and value.
Humans moves towards a resolution of sorts at the end of the first season. A family take in the conscious synths, and ally themselves with them. Not in a humanistic gesture, but as a part of something more unsettling. Their world is transformed by the arrival of conscious machines, in that what appears is the coming to life of their tools. Their reaction to the animation of technology is to seek to care for it – for them, as the conscious synths form a family of sorts. In the subplot, a similar process of alliance takes place between an old man who can no longer care for himself and the synth that he has to look after him (and for whom he, in turn, cares). In both instances, it’s the breakdown of the synth as machine-servant that enables a project of care to emerge. But this care is haphazard, tentative and not entirely welcome. As such it’s a mirror image of the failed care of the humans by the synths. And it’s here, when care becomes a collective activity, a project that everyone has a stake in, that the crisis of social reproduction begins to be resolved: not in some kind of saccharine fantasy-way, but problematically, messily, as an open and never-ending process that entangles bodies – real and synthetic – into a community.
This is the point of Humans. It sets out our broken social world, one where the tendencies of neoliberal capitalism suggest the future holds only a deepening of the current crisis as the algorithms take hold. It suggests too that the problem is not one that can be solved through either money or automation (servants or machines), but only by recognizing the nature of the break, and setting out to overcome the erosion of the social, and the isolation of neoliberal life, through the collectivization of care and the socialization of our individual anxieties, problems and isolations.