Rather than a dispassionate term of engineering, automation is what scholars of STS (Science, Technology, and Society) call a “sociotechnical imaginary.” It offers a seductive and ready-to-hand teleological narrative about history, work, and technological change that obscures the politics behind seemingly incontestable and objective realities. Far from an accounting of the apolitical development of productive forces, the history of automation—as discourse, as process, and as technoscience—is inseparable from the development of the “technopolitics” of work, or the intersection between the built world and the contingency of political life. Technopolitics can help labor historians break out of these narrative traps, strip terms like automation of their explanatory authority, and reveal just how much of the labor process remains contingent and open to political negotiation. Frameworks provided by STS allow us to see how automation fails to explain changes to the workplace over the better part of the past century and how it, in fact, codified class domination in the American technopolitical regime of the postwar period.

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