The Duck of Minerva

Robots and Prejudice

25 January 2012

At ThinkProgress Alyssa Rosenberg shares a lovely new short film about robots and prejudice:

No Robots from YungHan Chang on Vimeo.

Rosenberg draws a distinction between the representations of robots in this film and the scarier representations in much popular culture:

Often, when we see robots in popular culture, they’re actually more powerful than we are. If the Cylons were a metaphor for, say, Irish immigrants to the United States, they’d be telling a story about workers rising up from the slums and engulfing us all in whiskey and potatoes. These metaphors tend to legitimate the fears of privileged class rather than debunking them. But a movie like No Robots has a different power differential. The shopkeeper is angry at a robot who is physically smaller than he is, who is annoying rather than intimidating. He commits an act of terrible violence against that much more vulnerable actor. And then he discovers that things he’s conditioned to want to protect and find adorable—kittens—are emotionally dependent on the robot, who has been stealing milk to feed them. It’s a narrative that questions the shopkeeper’s prejudices and assumptions, rather than suggesting he’s right to be angry and afraid of a new element in his environment.

I think she may overstate the case: there are an awful lot of pop culture archetypes of robots as a vulnerable, altruistic underclass even in the West (remember AI? Wall-E?) and in Japanese culture the Terminator/Cylon archetype is far less prevalent than a view of robots as cute, cuddly and benign. But still, on this blog at least we’ve certainly focused more on war-bots, and this film is a healthy reminder of the many ways robots can be used as metaphors for complex social relations and hierarchies. Kudos to the producers.