The American Robot: A Cultural History

Dustin A Abnet (Author)


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.

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publish Date
March 27, 2020
6.1 X 1.1 X 9.1 inches | 1.45 pounds
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About the Author

Dustin A. Abnet is assistant professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton.


"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"