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‘Once more, with feeling,’ said the robot: AI, the end of work and the rise of emotional economies

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This article calls for a new research agenda into ‘emotional economies’, or economies increasingly characterised by the creation, extraction and exploitation of emotional products and labour, enabled by and embedded in rapid advances in technological and digital-media systems. We base this concept and call on a literature review linking technological automation, the future of work and emotions. Our review finds that: (1) many existing studies – whether predicting dystopian end-of-work mass unemployment, or utopian complementarities between humans, machines and digital platforms – are technologically determinist in nature, and do not account for the roles of culture, society, government, business and education in the machine–human–emotion interface; (2) despite this, there is evidence that technology will replace many existing forms of human labour, leaving only technologically irreplaceable emotion-based soft-skill service work (and emotional labour) for humans to perform; (3) there is an outside chance (in some literature) that technology and AIs will replace even emotional labour, though we argue this is unlikely for many years; (4) the increasing centrality of emotional industries, emotional data and emotional labour to work, digital platforms and media-imagery will likely lead to emotions becoming vital commodities, central to the economies of the future. The article concludes with an urgent call for a new research agenda on emotional economies to elaborate on private/public intersections between work, economy and emotions that soberly engage with the future while challenging technologically determinist assumptions that underpin populist depictions of the end of work.
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Keywords: artificial intelligence (AI); automation; emotion; emotion management; emotional labour; future of work; gig work; technological change; work

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Wollongong, Australia

Publication date: May 1, 2020

This article was made available online on January 29, 2020 as a Fast Track article with title: "‘Once more, with feeling,’ said the robot: AI, the end of work and the rise of emotional economies".

More about this publication?
  • Emotions and Society aims to publish high-quality, original peer-reviewed articles which advance theoretical and empirical understanding of emotions in social life. It is associated with the European Sociological Association's (ESA) Research Network on Sociology of Emotions (RN11), but seeks submissions from a wide range of international authors writing in this area. The sociology of emotions has developed unique perspectives on emotions that attend to their social construction and the ways in which they are embedded in social structures and inhere in social processes. The Journal seeks to expand the largely unexhausted potential for developing innovative approaches not only to emotions per se, but through it to the social generally. All methodological approaches to studying emotions are welcome, but they should demonstrate rigour and be framed in ways that will be of interest to sociologically inclined scholars.

    A key feature of the Journal will be to develop both a uniquely sociological perspective on emotions, while also engaging in interdisciplinary exchanges. This interdisciplinarity will emerge not only from the character of present scholarly debates on emotions, but from the diversity of disciplines represented in the ESA Research Network. We welcome submissions from neighbouring fields, especially cultural studies, history, philosophy and social psychology. Psychology of emotions is quite well represented in existing journals and papers will be considered only insofar as their focus is interactional rather than biological. The Journal seeks to publish articles based on original research into the social aspects of emotions and emotional life. This may include contributions to theoretical debates in the area. Substantial review articles may also be considered. Principally we are looking for theoretical or theoretically informed empirical papers that engage with key concepts and debates of interest to sociologists of emotion, even if they do so from outside the discipline.

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