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The Overlords of Automation Insist You Have a Bite to EatThe Overlords of Automation Insist You Have a Bite to Eat

May 21st, 2017


BY Christian Ford

Remember when San Francisco was a city of hills with modest white buildings stair-stepping down to the white-capped bay?   Yeah, me neither.  But I have it on good authority that it was once, that right around the moment when Kim Novak threw herself into the bay, San Francisco really was what a Greek island village might have been if it grew into a great city.

But the city that created the legend of The City is gone and the legend ended up destroying most everything legendary about San Francisco.  Still, I wouldn’t say all is lost, because it makes for an instructive fable, one in which bohemian diversity shrank into capitalist monoculture, leaving the tech elite on the Google bus puzzled about why people are throwing rocks at them.

The irony which grounds our fable is that San Francisco was born as a gold rush town, the entrepôt[ôt] of gilded dreams and the men compelled by them.  Those men — and they are mostly men — are back,  only this time, they are staking claims on terrain that’s more animal than mineral.

South of San Francisco’s Market Street is the tech district called SoMa, home to companies whose website copy inevitably  emphasizes the “grittiness” of a neighborhood that long ago became the domain of overfunded startups.  One of those small companies inflamed with big dreams is called Momentum Machines.  MM’s inaugural product is a device capable of producing 360 “infinitely personalizable” hamburgers per hour, free from human intervention. Though it looks like a Rube Goldberg contraption — a scaffold barely containing griddles, tubes of produce, conveyor belts, and meat grinders — it is a hamburger-making robot.

Place an order and your robotic servant grinds and forms the patty, slices the vegetal ingredients, performs the cooking, applies the condiments, and emits a bagged burger, just for you. It’s ambitious in concept, though the reality hasn’t quite landed at an announced burgerbot restaurant intended to feed denizens of SoMa.

Whether or not MM’s personalizable burgers ever hit the gastronomical spot, the invention does deliver some philosophical beef.  Alex Vardakostas, the man behind the machine, grew up with a father who ran a small chain of burger joints, so he was born into the business.  Perhaps that’s what informed the question from which his invention sprang:  “What’s the one tool a restaurant could have that would destroy the competition?”

In Alex’s mind, this tool was a machine that could replace two or three low-wage line cooks for a savings of approximately 100,000 dollars a year. He wasn’t shy about his thinking here, commenting that “our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

What I particularly enjoy about this quote is the nakedness of its intent. I’d like to think that – working as he does in the cockpit of the Tech industry – Alex is conditioned to use this kind of language because of the Pavlovian effects it has on venture capitalists.  Or, maybe, Alex spent too much of his childhood working for dad and internalized an abiding hatred of burger flipping.  But since we can only speculate at the roots of his motivation, let’s take him at his word and assume that his goal really is to eliminate paying jobs.  In this, he’s only a part of the looming “robot economy,” but because we’re talking about something as quintessentially American as the hamburger, this strikes me as a near perfect microcosm.

In one way, MM should be applauded for their achievement. The fry cook may be a humble job, it’s complex, requiring a suite of skills — from tomato slicing to gauging of doneness of meat — that have safely been the domain of human workers.  There’s a faint irony in that the competitors which Alex dreams of “destroying” are the fast food restaurants which have mastered the application of assembly-line logic to food. And who’s to say that MM’s device is not in fact an improvement over imposing machine-like behavior on underpaid high school students.

The machine-like behavior prized by both MM and McD is, interestingly, not all that new.  Their inspiration comes from the same playbook, The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911.  This, the sacred text of the Cult of Efficiency, was written by a man named Frederick Taylor.  Beloved of management (and loathed by the people actually doing the job) Taylor was the pioneer of the “time and motion study,” which began when our man, armed with clipboard and stopwatch, relentlessly observed the most efficient factory workers.  This was how Taylor determined “the most” efficient motions to complete a task in the shortest possible time — so that those motions could then be imposed on every worker engaged in the same work.

Robots, of course, are Taylorist nirvana made mechanical flesh and they’ve been at work for some time, particularly in that most Taylorist of industries, automobile manufacture.  Now, while I don’t dispute the poetic resonance of iron workers tirelessly producing an iron product, cars are mostly plastic now and MM’s food-making robot strikes me as something different, too.

That’s not just because we have a machine robot confronting the intrinsic variability of everything from lettuce to ground beef, but because the act of providing food for another person being is not quite the same as stamping out a widget. It bears remembering that hunger is a discovery, that all newborns simultaneously encounter the existence of other people in conjunction with the first shocking pangs of an empty stomach.  It’s not the hunger that is familiar to most of us, but rather a hunger that is literally existential, and which can only be assuaged by another person.

Just not south of Market Street.

We speak euphemistically of a tension between labor and capital.  But that tension only goes back a few centuries.  It took the birth of industrial society to create the class of people who owned almost nothing but the ability to sell their own labor, and thus became utterly dependent upon another new notion, “employment.”  Labor and capital tussled to an equilibrium in the mid 20th Century, and it was a remarkable thing, largely responsible for the “great” version of America that so many (white) people want to return to.

But labor unions are shadows of what they used to be and the automation age is looking to move them entirely into the realm of historical curiosity.  Alex’s dream is to obsolete an entire class of food workers and, if his device works as promised, he might have a real chance at achieving that. That’s because the system is gamed, with companies rewarded for spending money on “capital costs” such as robots and punished for what they spend on employees.

But what fascinates me most about Alex and his burgerbot is that he feels no need to hide the reality of his agenda.  After all, wouldn’t you think that you’d lower your voice a just a tad if your ambition was to create a corporate utopia where bosses have bots and no warm bodies to disturb the flow of profits to the top?  I know I would.  But combine automation with full-throat fantasies of abolishing the minimum-wage food jobs and the monster crawls all the way out into the light, bellowing its siren song of stripping employees from the payroll and converting them to the only role that many companies actually value — that of the consumer.

I do question some of the assumptions underlying the robot revolution. One is the presumed quiescence of all those people who lost their jobs to machines. Assuming that they can find some source of income, will they really be all that eager to patronize establishments which participated in their degradation?  Will they, in fact, even put up with it? If there’s one unmistakable lesson from the age of Trump, it’s that people who feel completely cut out of the social compact are more than willing to break stuff. The distance from trashing the ballot to torching the robot burger joint down the street is, I’d bet, shorter than all the disrupters south of Market might assume.

After all, we need to be clear about what Momentum Machines and the thousands of companies following the automation star are really doing.  The MM device is no more a machine for making hamburgers than a pencil is a device for making the letter ”F.”  They’re both meant to accomplish a more wide-ranging task, and in MM’s case, it’s a type of immiseration engine, extracting money, power, and self-determination from the lives of employees and delivering them, in concentrated form, to the owners.   One hundred and fifty years ago Marx commented how factory machines had become “a means of domination and exploitation… they distort the worker into a fragment of the man, they degrade him into the level of an appendage of a machine.”   Ah, the good old days, when humans still rated being appendages.

Now, I’m just a humble food columnist.  While I do often speculate on the connections between our industrialist/tech-ist religion and the things and ways that we eat, I probably don’t have the remit to predict what seems insanely obvious — that once the 99% realize that they’ve been written right out of the robotic redraft of the American Dream, that more than a few will improvise man-operated ways of getting even.

So, instead, let’s focus on what the burgerbot means to the hungry customer. This is where I am taken aback by the abiding pettiness of Alex’s ambition, because, as even the makers of the best hamburgers in the country will tell you, no one needs another hamburger.  As a nation, we are awash in hamburgers and though we love them, we must admit that they are neither particularly good for ourselves, nor are the particularly defensible in terms of energy and waste.

But let’s assume that, on this particular day, we do need another hamburger and we find ourselves in an establishment which has invested in a MM device.  This leaves the place free to spend more money on the front of house and create a hip and minimalist experience miles apart from the bright midcentury plastic of old school fast food.  Modernity is a key selling point, so iPads will be standing in for order takers and perhaps vacuum robots will be tidying the floor, so, aside from a manager whose job is to ensure that the place at least seems to belong to someone and reboot when necessary, the only people there are the customers.

We peruse touch screen menus and choose our “infinite personalization,” and get precision-built burgers delivered into our hands.  It is completely novel and up to the minute and let’s assume that the burgers are better than we’d expect.  But after the novelty has worn off, I have to wonder, what’s the point?

Perhaps the idea is that I will find “my burger,” the thing I’ve devised to perfectly match my taste, something with 35% pork ground in with the beef, and thin cut tomatoes and thick cut pickles and a blend of four different sauces.  But no matter how hard I work at customizing my burger, no matter how many “iterations” or refinements I make, in the end, all I will have isolated is an experience whose alpha and omega lies within my own skull.  The one thing that will never happen is that I will be surprised, or delighted, or infuriated, or even bewildered by another person. There’s no one else there, just me and my robotic customizer, tirelessly working to deliver the expected with complete quality control.

I once heard an architect define truly sustainable as needing a single factor: lovability.  What he meant by this is that we install our creations into a world of constant change.  From plate tectonics to rust or to the style of the season, the world moves on but our creations do not.  So for them to endure, people other than their makers must choose to become their caretakers.   Artifacts must have living friends to survive the churn of time.  This makes it easier to understand why, say Chartres Cathedral, or the Book of Kells, or even the boat that carried Ernest Shackleton to South Georgia Island have survived.

But it’s a bit more mysterious when you look at entities such as fast food empires that have outlived their founders.  What sort of love could exist there?  What sort of love does  Momentum Machines hopes to render obsolete with their own object of desire?

What, indeed.