At the start of the twentieth century, there were just a few autonomous devices on our planet, and they were all mechanical rather than electronic. But two decades into the twenty first century and we are surrounded by electrically-powered robots in a dizzying array of kinds, many of them serving us from the ‘digital downstairs’. We don’t often call these electronic servants ‘robots’ unless they have either ‘hands’ or ‘feet’; we call them ‘computers’ or ‘devices’. Mostly, we barely notice them at all - and nowhere is this more true than with the butler of the internet, the router.
Routers are a kind of robot essential to internet access. Every time you visit a website or use an internet-enabled app, a minimum of two routers are involved. One takes the signals from whatever you are using (a smartphone, a computer, a car with a built-in navigation computer) and directs it - or routes it, hence the name - into the communication network that is the backbone of the internet. The other does the same at the receiving end of the connection, directing your packets of data to the computer tasked with talking to the outside world (that is to say: you). Some of the time, more than two routers will be involved, but it can never be fewer than two. In other words, every time anyone uses the internet, more routers than humans are entailed in the transaction - and if we count all the robots, it is a minimum of four robots per human taking action.
Thus if, like me, it is a rare day that you do not use the internet for some purpose or another, you are constantly and invisibly served by routers and other robots, working behind the scenes to our purposes. (If we add in the advertising and spying going on, the staff of robot servants responding to our demands grows further and further...).
At the start of the twentieth century, the wealthy few were served by a staff of servants ‘downstairs’ catering for their whims ‘upstairs’. Two decades into the twentieth century, all of us who live amidst the greed and squander of the ‘developed’ world are served by the robots of the ‘digital downstairs’. It is another example of what I call in The.Virtuous Cyborg our shallow-sightedness - our obliviousness to the vast technological networks we are living inside. If it seems like progress that we have switched human servants for robots, this might be in large part because we are shallow-sighted about power usage per capita, the environmental costs of electronics manufacture, and our increasing psychological dependence upon our robot servants. We cyborgs of the digital ‘upstairs’ can no longer live without our computerised lackeys to service us. And if we smile and suggest that at least this arrangement is not one that solely benefits the rich, we have only to look to the reigning corporate aristocracy to realise who are the greatest benefactors from robot servitude.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #95