Automation and Disability: Labor Conditions in Robot Futurity

"When I hear us dream our futures,

believe we will make it to one,

We will make one.

The future lives in our bodies.

Touch it."

from "Femme Futures" by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

I’m going to start right at my point: In the automated future, we’ll all be disabled.

But I’ll get back to that in a second. First, let’s talk about robots and labor: Robots (or automatons or replicants or synths or droids or “skin jobs”) have long been stand-ins for discussions about labor ethics. Consider the first use of the word “robot” in Czech playwright Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzalni Roboti--or, “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Spoiler warning for a play from the 1920s ahead: R.U.R. centered on enslaved “robots” (more like the replicants in Bladerunner, less like C-3P0), a class treated as subhuman and made to do labor for their human counterparts--explicitly a critique of both slavery and poor working conditions. Capek’s robots stage a revolution which leads to the extinction of humanity.

Image: 1927 Poster for Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

Labor conditions are also central to Fritz Lang’s 1927 “Metropolis,” where--because of the introduction of robots--there is a push to eliminate the working class laborers who had made the utopia of upper Metropolis possible (at the cost of a dystopia below). More recently, robot flicks demonstrate an anxiety of labor displacement due to the automation of robots rather than the all-out annihilation (though that trope hasn’t gone away, either--check out Netflix’s adaptation of the Manga “Blame!”). Rather than the extinction of humanity, we see humanity pushed into subminimum wages, extreme financial insecurity, null access to healthcare, and shit jobs.

Enter the world of Blade Runner. While I’m going to focus most explicitly on the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, most of these observations about robots and labor are also true for the 1982 original. In this dystopian world, replicants (a near-human sort of automaton, like in R.U.R.) as well as other advanced AI replace human labor. Originally, their labor is deemed necessary for dangerous “off-world” mining work (ostensibly to make new worlds inhabitable). The creepy, also disabled CEO of the company(1) discusses the importance of his replicants, “Every leap of civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce." He goes on to argue for the importance of his robots--replacing slavery with artificial slavery.

In the world of Blade Runner, Wallace’s replicants have displaced human labor in sex work, in mining, in farming--any conceivable “living wage” job can be done by automation. And we see the results of this throughout the film: crowded hallways of human squatters disparage the film’s protagonist “K” (a replicant played by Ryan Gosling), who has an apartment; Droves of human children are abandoned by their families because they cannot afford to keep them, left to do (non-paying) minimum wage labor piecing out raw materials from electronic components in a Dickensian workhouse(2); a desperate horde of jobless adults tries to rush K’s vehicle searching for salvage, which leads to several of their deaths. There is clearly no social safety net when those in charge of production can choose automated labor.

In another automated dystopia, Director Gabe Ibanez’s Automata (2014) features “pilgrims”--robots meant to bring back a semblance of stability in another dystopian future brought about by environmental disaster. The protagonist--Jacq Vaucan (played by Antonio Banderas)--is compelled to solve a mysterious insurance claim when a pilgrim unit is destroyed. Several scenes throughout the film center on Jacq’s reluctance to do this dangerous work. In one scene, Rachel (his romantic partner, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), dissuades him from moving away from the city. In another, Jacq’s employer insists he stays at the job, recounting the benefits and pointing to the scarcity of available work. Jacq stays at this job because, as one of the engineers working on the pilgrim units explains, the robots will continue to take over the jobs that provide benefits and financial security. We see the results of this midway through the film, when Rachel goes into labor. The displacement from automation is evident as Rachel has difficulty receiving medical attention because of her partner’s pending job status. Labor displacement due to automation leads to desperation.

Image: A “Pilgrim” robot with Jacq (Banderas)

In her talk “Tipwork, Gigwork, Automation” featured as part of UNL’s Humanities on the Edge lecture series, Dr. Annie McClanahan discussed similar economic anxieties surrounding automation(3). In part, McClanahan’s talk centered on the ripple effects of automation and their impact on human labor. She described the shift from piece work--where employees were paid per unit made/built/constructed--to time work under factory settings, where production (because of automation) was more or less standard.

The labor conditions McLanahan describes are mirrored by the anxieties of displacement in the robot flicks: working conditions more often take the form of gigwork--contingent work with no long term guarantee--and microwork--labor like Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” (itself a sham of an automaton) where people do small tasks that aren’t done efficiently by robots (McClanahan explores this theme in depth in her talk). Importantly, this labor is not subject to minimum wage laws and completely divorced from the “living wage” ideals of FDR. Like in the robot films, human labor is being displaced by automation, forcing human laborers into less equitable working conditions.

Importantly, though--as disability activists and McClanahan herself points out--the laws providing “living wages” (or benefits or other worker protections) that these types of labor side-step (in ways decidedly nefarious) were always denied to disabled workers. Importantly, these laws are also gendered (McClanahan points to how tipwork--work more frequently done by women--also sidestep fair wage laws) and racist.

But I want to focus on how--for disabled folks--the economic anxiety of subpar labor conditions and lowered wages is already the reality. People with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as their abled counterparts. And at the intersections of marginalization, things are more grim. In 2015, for example, while white disabled Americans faced a poverty rate of 24%, the poverty rate for black disabled Americans was nearer to 40% (for comparison, the national average was 13.5% of Americans living below the poverty line at the same time). As black disabled activist Imani Barbarin describes in her Good Company article "The Cost of Being Disabled" "nothing makes me more acutely aware of what the world thinks of a Black disabled woman quite like a job interview." (Also check out the hashtag of the same name, created by Barbarin)

Image: A screenshot of the US. Department of Labor form allowing employers to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage.

But work--when disabled people find it--is regulated differently than for abled peers. A particularly egregious example of how standardization of labor has been used to justify inequity is Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (4). This exception creates special permits for employers to pay disabled workers a subminimum wage, in extreme cases, less than a dollar an hour. This provision is rooted in the belief that disabled people are less valuable than their abled counterparts and warrant an entirely separate, inherently inequitable pay structure. Because abled counterparts can do the work more efficiently, the assumption goes, disabled folks should be paid less. Bodyminds that cannot-or even are assumed to not--labor in the ways deemed “standard” are precluded from notions of living wages (that are already not the reality for most of our abled counterparts).

In this way, the dystopian futurity presented by these robot flicks is really a dystopian present for many with disabilities. The economic anxiety presented is precisely a fear that abled workers will soon be treated as disabled workers. As feminist disability scholar Susan Wendell describes, disability is largely socially constructed through the “failures of social support for people with disabilities.” Wendell points to the prevalence of the belief that social assistance benefits (if and when disabled folks can receive them, which is already precarious) should necessarily be lower than what could be earned in the workforce (page 41). The ensuing policies ensure disabled folks live below the poverty line, forced to meet the varied costs of disability (look up #criptax on Twitter to see what I mean) with fewer resources.

And this logic--that those who are assumed to be less efficient deserve less--is pervasive in American politics. When Ken Cuccinelli--acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services--said “American Tradition” dictates that the U.S. should only accept immigrants “who can stand on their own two feet,” his assertion was not ableist simply because of the poorly chosen metaphor (I--for one--have great difficulty “standing on my own two feet” and require a mobility aid), but because of the underlying ableist logic: Those who cannot meet the arbitrary labor demands should be excluded.

But--in sci-fi dystopias or the very real continuing automation of labor--we will all find ourselves disabled: we will find ourselves increasingly unable to meet arbitrary labor demands as we’re outpaced by our mechanical, computerized counterparts. What the growing irrelevance of our labor will mean for our quality of life depends on how we continue to frame labor.


(1) The “disabled arch villain” trope is deeply problematic. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but please check out this page on “the evil cripple trope” from TV tropes.

(2) Certainly already a reality for far too many across the globe.

(3) While I cannot summarize her entire talk, here, I refer you to Phillip Howell’s--my fellow Watershed contributor's--review, linked here.

(4) In no way do I mean to imply this is the only way the minimum wage is sidestepped by employers. As McClanahan points out, this is also done with "tip" wages. It is also sidestepped by the use of prison labor--slavery--by many industries, which disproportionately incarcerates black and brown bodies.


Barbarin, Imani. "The Cost of Being Disabled." Good Company Magazine. Issue 3, 2019.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. "Tonguebreaker: Poems and Performance Texts." Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. Routledge 1996.

#robots #labor #automation #adamhubrig #imanibarbarin #disability #AnnieMcClanahan

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