The Visual Culture of Critical Consciousness
Pennsylvania coal miner Edward Falkowski watched as his fellow workers stormed the factory office. Years of slave-like working conditions, monotonous food, and lives cut short by industrial accidents had stirred little action in the past, but now the workers were on the verge of crushing those who tormented them daily. Something had changed in the way they saw the world and one another. They sensed their collective power and would no longer waste their lives in toil for someone else’s profit. By force of numbers they overcame the last resistance and killed their former bosses, sparing only the one they considered a fellow worker. Standing over the lifeless bodies of the factory managers, flanked by his comrades, their leader addressed the victorious crowd from a high window in Marxian tones: “Robots of the world! The power of man has fallen! A new world has arisen: the rule of Robots!”
Falkowski was no murderer, of course. He and his comrades at Brookwood Labor College were merely acting out the climactic scene of Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), for a visiting group of educators. Performed hundreds of times on stages across the industrial world in the 1920s and 1930s, the play introduced the term “robot” and the narrative of robotic revolution now commonplace in science fiction.
Deprived of the good things in life by their low wages and long hours of labor, it was feared that working people were becoming little more than machines.
The Robots of R.U.R. introduced the world to the compelling story of robotic self-consciousness, later glossed as the “singularity.” Once set loose in the world, however, the story and its imagery were free to be attached to a confusing range of social ills, technological innovations, and political villains. What started as an analogy for workers’ revolution became a symbol of factory automation, recorded music replacing human musicians, and the acquiescence of conservative unionists to employer power, among other things. Uniting these and other social ills Americans associated with the robot was the perception that modernity denied working people the fullness of their humanity. The iconography of workers’ education imagined the reversal of this process in various ways. Images of workers reading or longing for knowledge evoked the reproductive subplot of R.U.R. In the play the Robots face the slow death of their kind because they are unable to reproduce without a formula that their human masters had destroyed before their own demise. Their fate was not unlike that of wageworkers, labor’s partisans argued. Deprived of the good things in life by their low wages and long hours of labor, it was feared that working people were becoming little more than machines.