The Proper Gander Column from the August 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
Ever fancied having a robot around to do the household chores? Or, indeed, ever fancied a robot? Channel 4’s drama series Humans imagines if robotics had reached the point of developing lifelike walking, talking androids – or ‘synths’ – for us to use as servants and colleagues, or in ‘fight clubs’ and brothels. Some of the synths have acquired consciousness, and the story follows the people living with them and searching for them.
There’s little that’s original about the series. It’s a remake of the Swedish drama Real Humans, and most of its themes were explored decades ago by Karel Capek, Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick, among others. Where the show breaks with tradition is that it’s set in a ‘parallel present’ rather than the future. This approach may have been taken to avoid the cost of producing futuristic clothes, cars and sets, but it also reflects a lack of confidence in the viewer to be interested in how society would be changed by this technology. The series doesn’t dwell on how a ‘class’ of robots could impact on workplaces and the economy. Instead, the synths are plonked into our current way of life, and disappointingly used in a storyline borrowing tropes familiar from umpteen crime dramas. The show would have been more thought-provoking if it had been programmed with more emphasis on possible political and philosophical implications.
Despite this, Humans does consider what it might be like to have a robot as part of the family. Generally, most of the women characters become fixated on their synths, and most of the men end up being emasculated by them, while the damage done to relationships outweighs the benefits of not having to do the cooking and ironing. The script may also be saying that it’s easier to use someone if we lack empathy with them, or that when we use someone, we’re treating them as if they’re just an object. But it might be giving the drama too much credit to say that it’s a detailed analogy of how workers are used.
Humans doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but remains worth watching, especially for Gemma Chan’s eerily believable portrayal of synth Anita.