Object 2: Anti-robot protest in California, May 2019

June 2, 2021


This is an image of an anti-robot protest by longshore workers in Southern California (May 2019). They protested in response to the automation of the port sector which threatened their livelihoods.

Automation of port-related jobs at the Port of Los Angeles TraPac have received a mixed welcome. Although they are an impressive scientific feat, a modern-day industrial revolution, there are plenty of luddites resisting this progress. The efficiency of these robotic carriers and cranes is deemed valueless when it comes to the issue of unemployment and the threat to 9,000+ jobs. A strand of our criteria for ‘improvement’ is the knowledge in question’s relationship with humans. In this case, the improved robots aren’t aiding humans but instead potentially replacing over 1200 jobs. Hence, the workers protesting don’t consider robots an improvement (despite the technology’s potential to reshape the workforce) as their perceptions of improvement are fear-driven, loss-averse, and strongly based on human values. Our society tends to reject new technology when it replaces, rather than strengthens our humanity and the improvement factor is determined by whether the new knowledge reinforces current social conditions or undermines them.

However, depending on our role in society, our perception of ‘improvement’ can vary. For the Port Commissioners, the adoption of robotics promises increased productivity and maximised profits and is, through their lens, an improvement from past knowledge (manual labour). They also argue that the deployment of robots will create more fulfilling job experiences as automating monotonous tasks enables employees to do more creative and stimulating work, despite the workers’ obvious disfavour.

In this way, the object enhances the exhibition as it shows how the relationship between past knowledge and current knowledge in the context of ‘improvement’ can change depending on our values, concerns and potential benefits from the knowledge in question.

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