On the road to Robotistan?

Authors: Jamie Peck*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Economic Geography
Keywords: labor, automation, outsourcing, offshoring
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Riverview I, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 41st Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Robota is an old Czech word for a regime of forced labor. Its more contemporary meaning—robot, an automated, nonhuman being—can be traced to a 1920s play by Karel Čapek and the genre-shaping science fiction of Isaac Asimov. In the course of the past century there have been periodic outbreaks of robotophobia among social and economic commentators, but there has been something quite distinctive about its recent return, not least in the world of outsourced business-process services. Here, the rapid commercialization and creeping diffusion of labor-displacing software robots, under the banner of “robotic process automation” (RPA), is being interpreted as an existential challenge to the dominant business model of labor arbitrage. The movement of jobs and activities “offshore” in recent decades, in tandem with the build-out of a global sourcing, supply-chain, and logistics infrastructure, is said to be paving the way to “Robotistan,” the farthest shore in the fast-changing world of digitally distanciated work. Successive waves of offshore outsourcing, work-process restructuring, and transnational corporate disintegration and reintegration (where routinization and deskilling have proceeded hand in hand with commodification, management by stress, and strict regimes of labor control) seem to have primed offshore (labor) markets for accelerated automation. Here, the robot threat may prove to be real. Perhaps Robotistan—or “no shore” as it is also known—will be the final destination for outsourced labor systems?

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