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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Why Do Robots Rebel? The Labor History of a Cultural Icon


This essay examines the reception and transformation of the robot, or artificial worker, from its first appearance in a play about workers’ revolution in the early 1920s into a symbol of technological unemployment by the 1930s. Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) told the story of hyper-efficient artificial workers that replace human workers in factories and armies across the world. When the Robots gain consciousness of their collective lot they organize a worldwide rebellion culminating in the practical extermination of humankind. A worldwide theater sensation in the early 1920s, and staple of amateur theater in the 1930s, the play spoke to widespread fears of (or hopes for) rebellion by industrial workers. Over the 1920sand 1930s, however, robot imagery became primarily mechanical following a growing concern that industrial automation was causing mass unemployment, rather than turning workers into mindless robots. This essay draws on reviews and commentary about R.U.R., as well as cartoons, photographs, and other visual artifacts from  mainstream, labor, and radical media.

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