Document: The Specter of the Robot

H. Dubreuil, Robots or Men?  A French Workman’s Experience in American Industry, translated by Frances and Mason Merrill (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1930), pp. 182-184.  The author worked in several U.S. factories during 1927 and 1928, including the Ford River Rouge complex.

An Industry EpochThus unchained by mass production, the inventive spirit that should, according to definition, relieve human effort, in reality, on account of inadequate adjustment of various economic equilibriums, brings only misery to a part of mankind. It must be said, moreover, that this aspect of industry does not escape the American public, as is proved by the increasing employment of a new word that seems to denote a state of actual fear in regard to these questions. If we consider as a sign of the times the progressive entry into fiction of characters belonging to the middle and finally the working class, whereas writers in the past brought only representatives of the upper classes upon the scene, then perhaps a sign of the same order can be seen in the appearance of an entirely new character that is taking a growing place in American literature–the Robot.

Sign of the TimesOn the stage and in the newspapers, this character has entered into current speech and vaguely haunts the imagination of the American, who is more accustomed than others to the constant development of mechanization.  For a long time he regarded the machine with boundless admiration.  He considered it as a specifically American creation, and in it he contemplated his own genius, for up to the present he has concentrated almost exclusively on its development the entire force of intelligence which elsewhere is expended in other directions–such as on art, literature, philosophy.  This fact must not be lost sight of in trying to judge the American and in noting certain deficiencies.  Too occupied in exploiting the lavish resources of nature, he has not yet had time to dream and consequently to discover what fecundity lies outside of material activities.  Rather, let us say that only a few have discovered it, and we cannot predict what will come from their efforts when they have attained a better disposition of their latent energies.

The American, therefore, has as yet shown to the world but one great achievement–the machine.  And he has developed its magic power to such a point that he is beginning to be alarmed at it himself.  His admiration is waning and is being mingled with fear.  For on the familiar picture of abundance, to which he is accustomed, there now appears the growing shadow of unemployment.  In the imagination troubled by fear of hunger, the myth again takes human form, and the machine, formerly admired, is becoming a malevolent Robot.

R.U.R.What, then, is the Robot?  The American, whose language is a mosaic of words borrowed from all races and patched on to the English that already was a mosaic, has borrowed this new word from Russia to designate the latest creation of the modern inventor–the Man-Machine.*  In reality the Man-Machine does not yet exist outside of works more or less inspired by Jules Verne, who, with Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue, is one of the popular writers in America.  But to a people accustomed to seeing the machine enjoined with everything, the Robot already seems to be a near reality, and they expect from one day to another to find it bearing the entire burden of labor, whereupon they will have nothing more to do than drowse in rocking chairs and smoke interminable pipes.

But if the Man-Machine is still only an invention of the pen, it is no less true that, without having human form, the machine is already assuming such a multitude of tasks that, whereas once it aroused admiration, it is beginning to inspire fear.  Around the comfortable hearth of the American workman stalks the specter of the Robot.

*In reality, the term “robot” came from the Czeck play R.U.R.: (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, first performed in the U.S. in the fall of 1922.

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