The Pleasure Principle

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“Do not bite at the bait of pleasure, till you know there is no hook beneath it.” Thomas Jefferson[1]

Machine Labor and Human Labor are often inversely linked in Science Fiction stories. Not often do we pause to think about what drives the use of Machine Labor, which is the idea that in working less people have more time to realize their most innate and destructive trait: the desire for Pleasure.



Appearances in Class Readings

  • The Winter Market: Rubin creates machines and tools from junk. Little is mentioned about the specific details of these machines; however, it is reasonable to assume these inventions take work off humans' hands.
  • Flesh Made Word: Russ builds an artificial intelligence of his wife and others he had known in the past. Russ depends on these machines to interact with him and help him make decisions. This is a mild case of machines doing tasks that people don't normally like doing on their own.
  • He, She, and It: A core theme of the novel - We are introduced to Yod, the cyborg. Yod is created by humans to protect humanity from the multis. Yod's job is not pleasurable so humans find pleasure in knowing that they are not responsible for protecting their society.

Appearances in Other Media

  • I, Robot: In the movie, I, Robot, starring Will Smith, robots do all the little things for humans. They act as butlers for humans, and they even make up the police force. The turmoil of the protagonist is the fact that the robots chose to save him from a car accident rather than a little girl. They based this off of cold calculations, unlike a human would, using their feelings and emotions. In the end, a robot 'turns bad' and it's up to Will Smith to stop him, and the rest of the robots. But what caused all of this trouble? The fact that humans built these robots to do tasks that they do not necessarily consider "pleasurable", the question we must ask ourselves now is if this really improves the quality of life.
  • Sleeper: In this 1973 movie, starring Woody Allen, Allen's body is frozen for 200 years and is finally revived. He awakes from his sleep as a robot where lives as a butler for a human lady. The society in Sleeper relies on robots to do humans' everyday tasks. The whole plot of the movie is about Allen escaping this new world.

Comparisons to Other Intersections and Tropes

Trope Justification

For years stories have been written, and movies have been made about machines that have become so complex they begin to have their own agendas. Sometimes they become more influential on society than any group of humans have ever been. These stories are commentaries on the direction of society today and, some may argue, they are warnings of what could happen if humanity continues to utilize Machine Labor to maximize the insatiable drive of humans to seek Pleasure.

In the majority of science fiction stories the labor of the future is done by Machines. We see Machines in the classics such as Star Wars, and Star Trek; We read about The Machine in “The Machine Stops”; and we see machines that become “bad guys” with their own agendas in movies such as Eagle Eye and I, Robot. In these stories humans have created machines that are used to make their jobs easier, and do their jobs better, although there are plenty of arguments that agree and disagree with the latter. Some people would argue that while Machines may increase our pleasure by shouldering some of the workload, we lose a certain quality in that machines lack a human aspect. That is to say, they can’t judge whether or not to go ahead with something based on emotion or instinct, which is sometimes the best way to operate (see Appearances in Other Media),. However, Machine Labor in science fiction tends to decrease the the "hard" or "tedious" labor for humans, which, theoretically, gives them more time for pleasure.

In many science fiction stories the cause of Machine Labor is studied more than how it originated. Adam Smith states in his Wealth of Nations as an argument for the division of labor that "Men are much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object when the whole attention of their minds is directed towards that single object than when it is dissipated among a great variety of things."[2] This is how man developed machines and modern technology, and now that these machines shoulder some of the labor that used to be done by men, we are finding more and more "easy" ways of doing things, everything. And it would appear that humans are heading towards a society similar to the one in The Machine Stops, although not quite so extreme, yet.

It is important to remember the combination of Machine Labor in search of Pleasure as we continue to become more and more advanced in our technology. It is very possible that in our search for "The Machine" we will end up destroying all concepts of Labor as we see them today, and therefore altering a defining part of our civilization.


  1. Brainy Quote.
  2. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Pg. 11
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