100Cyborgs: 71-80
Disney Tax

The Digital Downstairs

RoutersAt 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


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It was a (female-voice-)robot reading this out loud for me.

That tickles me! :)

While you rightly point out our modern dependence on robots, the empirical evidence I've encountered suggests human servants are much more environmentally costly than our collection of robots.

Similarly, global economic inequality seems to keep dropping over time (though admittedly not in the United States, at least not in the last half-century) as lifespans increase and many (if not most) average and median quality of life indicators (like physical health) improve.

While it's true the rich benefit disproportionately, this has always been the case -- and this effect is likely lessening more or less in lockstep with lessening global economic inequality.

I certainly don't believe this settles the debates surrounding economic inequality (particularly in countries like my own), but I find it hard to argue against the fairly objective materialist indicators of human improvement over time (at least without introducing somewhat less objective -- but often no less important! -- indicators like the subjective well-being of individuals and communities and such).

And after all, if one day Jeff Bezos gets a splendid robot body and his brain-in-a-jar lives to the ripe old age of 999 -- does it really matter if most of the rest of us had better lives than we otherwise would have without our robot servants?

Hi Nathan,
Many thanks for your continued engagement with #100Cyborgs! I hope it's clear I'm not advocating for human servants! But I am sceptical of your claim that they are "much more environmentally costly than our collection of robots".

I wonder if you are only counting the environmental cost of providing power to them robots in our houses... there are also the environmental costs of constructing the robots (long-lasting batteries in particular cause tremendous harm to the environment) and the environmental costs of the backend computers the robots use (the "cloud"). Indeed, the question of the environmental costs of the cloud is a live research topic given that those who operate their data centres won't allow their practices to be examined, and we are forced to take on trust the idea that they are as environmentally wondrous as has been claimed.

I am also uncertain of your basis for lessening global economic inequality... I assume you mean the difference in wealth between nations. Economic inequality has only intensified in the last century if you ignore nations; wealth is concentrated in an ever-smaller circle of people, and the proportion of wealth they hold increases.

It is true the wealth of nations is rapidly dwarfed by the holdings of the wealthy elite. I am not sure what comfort we are supposed to take from that...


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