Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots and the Politics of Technological Futures

By Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, 256 pages, $24.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-1-4780-0386-1)

Surrogate Humanity cover

Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora’s Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots and the Politics of Technological Futures is a wide-ranging and ambitious analysis of the relationships between labor practices, artificial intelligence, and other technologies in modern society. Written from a feminist technoscience viewpoint, the book weaves its way throughout time periods and industries, detailing the ways in which new technologies have disrupted traditional labor practices and how humans have adapted to these changes. The book examines robotization on an international scale, from General Motors’ Cold War era Unimate, a four-thousand-pound arm attached to a steel base used to pour liquid metal into die casts (41), to Spaniard Sergei Santos’s sex robot (sexbot), Silicon Samantha, the 2017 robot “designed for emotional closeness” (190). From the second page of the introduction, Surrogate makes its intentions clear--this is a frank discussion about the intersection of race and technology. Atanasoski and Vora present two 2017 Mother Jones and New Yorker articles regarding the ever-mounting fear of robots replacing humans in the workforce and cut straight to the chase: “The figure of the human most threatened because is it iconically human . . . is white and male” (2). At its core, Surrogate is an attempt to understand what adding intelligence and humanity to inanimate objects says about ourselves, from preconceived notions of gender to unconscious biases about race. What does it mean to have humanitarianism without humans (184)?

Surrogate’s six chapters are broadly focused on five main areas: automation, collaborative work, domestic work, personification of robots, and warfare technologies. Underlying each of these is the concept of surrogacy, defined by Atanasoski and Vora as the “technoliberal claims that technological objects and platforms are increasingly standing in for what the human does, thus rendering the human obsolete, while also foregrounding the history of racial unfreedom that is overwritten by claims of a postrace and postgender future generated by that obsolescence” (9). Each chapter sets up the forthcoming topic with a vignette of its distinct technology, such as chapter 5’s fascinating examination of Afghan designer Massoud Hassani’s Mine Kafon, a wind-powered metal ball with bamboo legs capable of detecting land mines.

While Surrogate is successful in demonstrating the ways artificial intelligence and robots have become increasingly pervasive in a Fourth Industrial Revolution society, in which the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds are increasingly blurred or seemingly nonexistent, it stumbles in its constant attempts to connect the dots between technology, race, and gender. The book relies heavily on the notion of technoliberalism, defined by the authors as “the political alibi of present-day racial capitalism that posits humanity as an aspirational figuration in relation to technological transformation, obscuring the uneven racial and gendered relations of labor, power, and social relations that underlie the contemporary conditions of capitalist production” (4). However, as core concept to the authors’ argument, technoliberalism is then redefined no less than three times in the first forty-seven pages, with each definition contradicting the one that came before it. The third definition notes that, in part, technoliberalism is a “contradictory obsession with race and the overcoming of racism has once again been updated and revised since the dissolution of the threat of Soviet totalitarianism through the frame of a post-labor world” (47). Though set in a chapter discussing post–Cold War America, the sudden introduction of Soviet totalitarianism, absent from earlier framing definitions in the same chapter, is jarring. Similarly, the application of a racial and gendered correlation to technologies often feels forced. In chapter 3, “Automation and Invisible Labor,” the authors attempt to link an art project, the Sheep Market, created via Amazon Mechanical Turk (AMT), to personal robot butlers such as Alfred Club. While the narrative regarding Sheep Market pertains to human labor and ownership, there is a sudden declaration that the “primary understanding of creative authorship is gendered” (106), abruptly--and unconvincingly--shifting the focus of the argument entirely.

Atanasoski and Vora’s book arrives at a crucial time, a post-2016 political climate wherein academics and technologists have a responsibility to ensure that black voices are at the table and communities have the opportunity to tell their own stories. Unfortunately, Surrogate continues a pattern of excluding black scholarly thought. Despite the inclusion of obvious academic giants like Ruha Benjamin and Angela Davis, the authors left out a number of scholars whose work involves technology, gender, and/or critical race theory that would have greatly contributed to discussions of technological intersectionality and the transformation of work through surrogacy. Simone Browne, Alondra Nelson, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kishonna Gray, John McWhorter, and Charlton McIlwain could have easily been referenced in this book. This is not to say that race and colonial scholars have not been cited but to point out the alarming absence of black thought and input, despite heavily leaning on a history of American slavery. Those looking to Surrogate to tackle issues of race will find the book sorely lacking, as these issues are often thin or unrelated to the matter at hand.

Overall, Surrogate provides an excellent overview of robotic technologies and labor--it just does not offer one about technology, labor, and race. Labor and critical AI researchers will appreciate the scope of the book and its examination of the digital work and the gig economy in particular. Atanasoski and Vora are able to quickly explain how robots have evolved to become commonplace in everyday life, from automobile plants to Amazon delivery services and drone warfare. Due to the current state of technology, most examples in Surrogate are less about the actual replacement of humans than they are about their displacement in the workforce, with humans remaining responsible for the operation and maintenance of the machines. Given the rapid advancement of AI and the robotic industries, it is evident that Atanasoski and Vora will have much to write about regarding the intersection of labor and technology for some time.

Andrea Flores, University of Texas at Austin