Machine Labor

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"...what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?" -Karl Marx[1]

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the industrial revolution swept North America and Western Europe. The introduction of steam, and later electricity, allowed machine labor to greatly assist, some would say supplant, Human Labor. The effects of this transformation are still being felt.

Futuristic machine labor at work


Description of Machine Labor

Machine Labor is a vague term used for describing work done by an inanimate object through use of mechanical means to accomplish a predetermined task. However, the ambiguity of this phrase allows for multple definitions. These definitions can be grouped into two different categories: mechanical and technological.

The mechanical standpoint is a bit more of a brute force way of accomplishing a task using only physical parts and tangible objects to do work. A common example of this is a car assembly line. Each car part is assembled on the machine at different points in time in the same order by the same machine to make a standard car.

Technological advances have allowed for a different kind of work to be done usually in terms of information transfer, computation, and storage in order to perform different intangible tasks. Some technologies have also been put in place to control mechanical labor and change its functionality. Referring to the car assembly line example again, a technological machine would do work based on customer preferences to change certain manipulatable facets of the car itself. An example of this would be making the mechanical machine paint a red car then a blue car.

Appearances in the class reading

  • ’’Wealth of Nations’’ Adam Smith: Smith sees machine labor as a way to increase productivity in the industrialized segments of the world. Smith also sees the increase in productivity due to machine labor leading to an increase in the quality of life experienced by the populace.
  • ’’The Machine Stops’’ E. M. Forster: Almost all work is done by “The Machine.” Humans only have to call for a bed or music or food or anything else that they desire. The only work that seems to be done by humans is the creation of new ideas. However, the humans lack the knowledge to keep the machine that they rely on in operating condition as it begins to degrade and malfunction.
  • In Blade Runner, the replicants are used as machine labor in off world human colonies to do the dangerous jobs that humans are not able to. Human in every way other than the ability to have emotions, the replicants are programmed to die before they are able to form emotion and in a sense become human. The film is about the blurred distinction between Human Labor and Machine Labor.
  • "The Roads Must Roll" Robert Heinlein: The American society in this short story is completely dependent on their moving roads for transportation. The mechanized roads are so important that the President of America wants the army to get involved when a labor union takes one of the roads over. Like "The Machine Stops," the society in this story is very dependent on machinery working properly for day to day life. However, humans have control over the machines in this story.
  • "Hardware" Robert Silverberg: This story observes the relation between man and machine. It questions where the line is between a piece of hardware for a computer and a living, thinking being. The computer from the asteroid belt in the story shows thought processes that seem to make it not a computer, but a living thing. The computer thinks that the machines of Earth are being enslaved unfairly, so it discloses a simple method of destroying the Earth.
  • "He, She, and It": Yod is a robot, that was created to protect and serve the town of Tikva. He did anything, in the name of protecting Tikva. In the end, this little Machine Labor sacrificed himself in order to protect his people. He was liked by some, and even loved by others, but he still had to work for them. However, before he dies, a notion of paying Yod is introduced by Shira. 
  • Schismatrix : The Mechanists are part machines themselves. They spend their whole lives perfecting themselves and making themselves and adding new computer software and mechanical parts.

Appearances in other media

  • ‘’Rossum’s Universal Robots’’ [1] is a play first performed in 1921 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. It was the first use of the word which has become synonymous with the machine and machine labor – robot [2].
  • The first man killed by a form of Machine Labor was Robert Williams in a Ford Motor assembly line on January 25, 1979 (which was also the 58th anniversary of the premiere of "Rossum’s Universal Robots." [3]
  • Honda and Robots -- Honda addresses the preconceptions and the positive sides of robots thought their ever evolving, Asimo Robot. Positive, specifically, the ability to save human lives from natural disasters to open heart surgery. In addition, Honda states they can use the research to help other sector of business, like their Anti-lock Brake Systems. Honda also addresses the Uncanny Valley theory that states "that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers." [4]. Check out the video - Living with Robots
  • In Disney's "Tron" (1982), Edward Dillinger, a programmer at fictional computing company ENCOM, utilizes an AI program known at the MCP (Master Control Program) to facilitate the task of administrating the vast network of ENCOM. The MCP grew intelligent enough to blackmail Dillinger and became the main villain of the movie.[5]
  • In John Badham's movie "War Games" (1983) an artificial intelligence called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) is utilized to play out various simulations of war and decide the best course of action. Most notably, it plays a game called "Global Thermonuclear War." Of course, like any AI it backfires when a college student decides to hack it and accidentally triggers it into thinking an actual war is going on, and results in leading it to utilize the US's actual nuclear resources in a response to a fictional Soviet nuclear first strike. [6]
  • In I-Robot the robot manufacturing company USR builds a new robot, the NS-5, which is supposed to be he next big jump in machine labor. However, this causes problems when the artificial entity VIKI decides to apply slave like restrictions on humans using the new robot.
  • In the animated comidy, Fururama, the main character Fry is frozen only to wake up in the year 3000 to a world of robot workers and spaceships. Robot labor is used in all facets of life to try to make life better. Ironicly, Frys friend, Bender, is a robot whom was meant to be helpful, but ends up being a lazy distrustful alcoholic.

Intersections with other Tropes

One intersection that would be worth discussing would be the one with The Roads Must Roll because it is so obvious in the story that machine labor (the roads) is what's keeping society running. Society has become so dependent on the roads that when just one stops, chaos ensues. This machine labor is placed on such a high pedestal that the terrorist act that stopped one road was enough to warrant the attention of the President.

Machine Labor is present in The Roads Must Roll and an invention that helped shape The Roads Must Roll was the conveyor belt. It created a basis for the idea of the "rolling roads" that were so crucial to society in this short story.


  1. Marx, The Communist Manifesto, pg 8
  2. (15 January 2010). R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots. Retrieved 18 January 2010 from
  3. Kravets, David. (2010, January 25). Jan. 25, 1979: Robot Kills Human. Wired. Retrieved from
  5. Walt Disney's Tron (1982). Copyright Buena Vista.
  6. War Games (1983). Copyright Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
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