For some, the very idea that someone might purchase an object for the purpose of sex represents a diminishing of what is human. Equally shocking is the thought that, at some point, objects such as robots could be available that would stand in place of other human beings in intimate human relationships, sexual or otherwise. As they have been presented so far, the arguments for these positions are unconvincing.

Through the Marxist concept of commodity fetish [1], a line of argument will be presented here that both explains how the emerging world of intimate technology could be understood as morally risky in some respects. It will turn out that these risks are nothing new, and are played out daily.

Commodity Fetish

Failing to recognise goods and services as the products of complex social relationships, mediated in money and power at least, results in the thought that those goods and services are imagined to float free of social forces, somehow self-sufficient and pure in being. This quasi-religious attitude to commodities fetishises them and results in a relatively irrational approach to the marketplace.

Once an item has come into being, through being produced by people laboring in whatever conditions they find themselves in, a kind of amnesia sets in. Rather than appreciating the item for the labour that has produced it; the toil or the effort behind it; the craft that has gone into it; it is instead seen as complete and of itself. Its value is taken to be its market value – its price. This price, moreover, is comparable to any other marketed item. ‘Everything £40 and under’ becomes a category of items, despite the variety and likely incommensurability of the labour and social relations that have led to the multiplicity of things now grouped together. The result is a kind of transcendent realm of miscellaneous things, valuable and valued according to the abstract quality of price. What went into the creation of these items is forgotten, or repressed.

Marx’ concept of commodity fetish might be said to be observable particularly in the world of technology where in the pursuit of the must-have item, consumers will suspend their disbelief about workers in inhuman conditions; military connections between their phone manufacturer and states with human rights issues; slavery in obtaining components [3]. It is probably the case that, even moreso than for some staple items, the geneology of the parts and materials required for technologically complicated goods couldn’t even be imagined by most consumers – the metals for the casings and components; the chemicals and processes for the plastics and polymers; the demands of assembly. Especially for technology (and perhaps fashion) the item itself is seen as an end in itself – a device, a tool, and a symbol of taste. Without the amnesia of commodity fetish, the spell would surely be broken:

My goods, in order to be mine and to be enjoyed as such, must be separated from the bodies which have created them. I must not imagine those strange hands which once touched my precious possessions, including those which now lie next to my skin. My sense of possession would be diminished-as well as my good consuming self-if I took seriously those dark, busy fingers, working in conditions far removed from the life-world of my playful self. (Billig, M., 1999, Commodity Fetishism and Repression Reflections on Marx, Freud and the Psychology of Consumer Capitalism, Theory and Psychology, 9:3 313-329 (319))

This discussion shows considerable potential for being a point of moral risk. Where consumers, shoppers, citizens, begin to fetishise commodities in the way Marx anticipates, there exists room for degradation in the conditions of workers and so in the conditions for swathes of people. Poor working conditions lead to human risks. Poor working practices also endanger, for example, the environment. Commodity fetish permits this through bracketing these evils from the act of purchasing, and from the desires of consumers. While there are limits to the effective power any one consumer has to influence these matters [4], nevertheless the scheme ought to be one that troubles consumers in general. The apparently simple act of purchasing something can represent a complex, global-scale, moral hazard.

This is not the kind of moral risk that those who worry about sex or companion robots [5]. Instead, the risks alerted are alleged to revolve around notions of human dignity in various forms; a flight from intimacy; a supplanting of interpersonal relationships; the prolonging of misogyny. These are broad themes, and are pursued broadly. The pursuit is aimed at the stopping of production, perhaps even research, into sex and/or companion robots.

Just as we should avoid importing existing gender and sexual biases into future technology, and should oppose them and other such biases in the present, so we should also be cautious not to import established prudishness. Lack of openness about sex and sexual identities has been a source of great mental and social anguish for many people, even entire societies, for centuries. The politics behind this lack of candour is very damaging.

If a campaign seeks to avoid the sexualisation of robots, but at the cost of politicising them in a narrow way, is this anything more than a moral panic land-grab? If the politics aren’t up-front and explicit, this is a real danger. If robots oughtn’t to have artificial sexuality, why should they have a narrow and unreflective morality, predicated on an implicit politics? It’s one thing to have a conversation and conclude something about the development of technology; it’s another to demand silence before anyone has had the chance to speak. Such quietism would ground commodity fetish in a quite serious way, necessitating as it would thinking of some technology as commodity complete in and of itself.

More worrying than robococks is the pursuit of a parochial moral debate that obscures intense, global-scale human abuse centred on technology production.


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