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The American Robot

A Cultural History

Although they entered the world as pure science fiction, robots are now very much a fact of everyday life. Whether a space-age cyborg, a chess-playing automaton, or simply the smartphone in our pocket, robots have long been a symbol of the fraught and fearful relationship between ourselves and our creations. Though we tend to think of them as products of twentieth-century technology—the word “robot” itself dates to only 1921—as a concept, they have colored US society and culture for far longer, as Dustin A. Abnet shows to dazzling effect in The American Robot.

In tracing the history of the idea of robots in US culture, Abnet draws on intellectual history, religion, literature, film, and television. He explores how robots and their many kin have not only conceptually connected but literally embodied some of the most critical questions in modern culture. He also investigates how the discourse around robots has reinforced social and economic inequalities, as well as fantasies of mass domination—chilling thoughts that the recent increase in job automation has done little to quell. The American Robot argues that the deep history of robots has abetted both the literal replacement of humans by machines and the figurative transformation of humans into machines, connecting advances in technology and capitalism to individual and societal change. Look beneath the fears that fracture our society, Abnet tells us, and you’re likely to find a robot lurking there.

360 pages | 26 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Culture Studies

History: American History, History of Technology

Reviews

“Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, The American Robot contextualizes centuries of discussions of artificial intelligence and cyborgs. With a dual focus on who was imagined to be machine-like and what machines were depicted as being almost human, Abnet demonstrates that robot identities have always been unstable and multifaceted.”

David Nye, author of American Technological Sublime

“As The American Robot convincingly demonstrates, we are not the first generation to worry about the power, role, and meaning of robots. Abnet’s fascinating and engaging book traces American discussions of mechanized men, automata, and robots from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. His book makes a compelling case that debates about robots are really ways of thinking about freedom, power, and what it means to be human.”

Susan J. Matt, coauthor of Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid

“Gracefully written and creatively researched, The American Robot not only tracks representations of robots from Frankenstein to Westworld, it also helps us to understand the manifold ways that ideas about difference, slavery, republicanism, mechanization, post-industrialism (and more) have regularly been inflected through these not quite human approximations of ourselves. An important and timely book.”

James W. Cook, University of Michigan

“An intriguing examination of the American robot, the subject of millennial and apocalyptic sentiments.”

Choice

“Purposefully interdisciplinary, written in extremely accessible, lively prose, and fundamentally interesting. . . [Abnet is] particularly good at capturing how robots consolidated capitalism as a politico-economic order, in practice and ideologically, particularly
capitalist production and consumption."

Cultural Sociology

"Abnet brings a fresh understanding of the complex interactions between economics, politics, and culture."

Backstory

"[The] topic of his book—robots in the American culture—is increasingly becoming part of the national discussion in this pandemic era, especially as it relates to the safety of health care and other workers."

The Orange County Register

Table of Contents

Introduction: An Intimate and Distant Machine

Part 1: God and Demon, 1790–1910

Chapter 1: The Republican Automaton
Chapter 2: Humanizing the Industrial Machine
Chapter 3: Mechanizing Men

Part 2: Masters and Slaves? 1910–1945

Chapter 4: Symbolizing the Machine Age
Chapter 5: Building the Slaves of Tomorrow
Chapter 6: Conditioning the Robot’s Brain
Chapter 7: A War against the Machine Age

Part 3: Playfellow and Protector, 1945–2019

Chapter 8: Preserving American Innocence
Chapter 9: The Postindustrial Gift
Chapter 10: Cheerful Robots

Epilogue: The American Robot
 
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

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