I was complaining about the representation of care robots earlier on Twitter, which reminded me of essay I wrote in 2005 about the ideology of “customer service.” After all, customer service is the best example of strategic deployment of “skill-ified” emotional labor, of emotionality reduced to manipulation for profit. When I think of care robots, I tend to recontextualize the discussion in a retail scenario, where customers are “cared for” in a way that is meant to alienate them by way of wearing down their resistance.   

Back then I wrote that customer service is deployed to promote a spirit of “heroic consumption” and accustoms us to the “notion that we deserve social recognition only when we buy something, as well as make us accept the idea that unless we have money to spend, we are invisible in the public sphere.“ 

I argued that customer service “is typically a way of making shoppers feel more important than they really are for an activity that should in no way be thought to dignify them.” 

Taking this to the logical extreme, I claimed that bad customer service is actually a form of kindness:

A clerk’s rudeness is really a gift that knocks you out of the complacent, compliant role of customer and thrusts you back into the more fundamental, sentient role of responding to what’s really around you; it disrupts the narcotic haze of a shopper lost in their private fantasies of acquisition and self-aggrandizement. It undermines the self-centeredness of consumerism; it affirms that, in contemporary capitalism, the customer is always wrong, always reifying the good things in life, always content to purchase rather than experience pleasure. The anger that many feel at bad customer service is a displaced anger; they are angry at themselves and how what they expect from life has been reduced to such squalid, petty demands as a smile on the face of the person who pours their coffee … When you are given the suck-up service with a smile, you are immediately made to feel like you belong, but you have to wonder what you belong to, and if that’s a club you really want to be in.

In 2005, I thought that commodified emotion made people skeptical of spontaneous friendliness outside of commercial encounters. Today, I think more that commercial pseudo-friendliness sets up the backdrop against which a “real” friendliness can be defined and experienced. Care robots may well function in a similar way, further refining the perception of what “real” emotional connection should be. 

But it may work also to authorize treating the humans who provide robot-like care (under compulsion from employers) as though they had no feelings —with contempt and abuse. The problem is not so much how robots treat us, but how we feel permitted to treat robots.

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