The Boundaries of Artificial Emotional Intelligence You Probably Forget

I’m told I should prepare for the day an artificial intelligence takes my job. This will leave me either destitute and rootless or overwhelmed by a plenitude of time and existential terror, depending on whom you ask. It’s apparently time to consider what kind of work only humans can do, and frantically reorient ourselves toward those roles — lest we be left standing helplessly, as if at the end of some game of robot musical chairs.

Emotional labor is a form of work less often considered in these automated future projections. Perhaps this is because it’s intangible, difficult to quantify and monetize. In no small part, efforts that involve giving care, carrying a burden, and taking responsibility for the function or well-being of others go unnoticed in the same way a lot of “women’s work” does—though in recent years talk of its hidden costs has gained momentum in the labor inequality conversation.

Thanks to the wonderful tools of digital society, we are theoretically able to give and receive more support than ever. Social media platforms let us learn more about one another and stay in constant touch, so we tend to assume this knowledge promotes empathy and connectedness. We feel more educated about structural inequality problems and global humanitarian issues. Yet who’s doing the actual work of teaching?

For many people, myself included, the modern technology and social media infrastructure has not actually made life easier. In fact, it’s facilitated demand for even more emotional labor without any extra money in our paychecks. And as is the case with almost all work, it ends up being the least privileged people who are doing the heavy lifting. On Twitter, it’s mostly women of color, risking harassment every time they speak up, who are the ones regularly offering lessons on race, intersectionality, or politics. If you’ve “gotten woke” as a result of spending time on social media, it was because of the thankless labor of volunteers serving this content, usually under stress (and for the profit of the platforms they use).

I try to do this work, too, where appropriate. But emotional labor can also be intimate, encompassing the energy women are disproportionately socialized to spend ameliorating interpersonal conflicts. In the Facebook age, the daily challenges of all my friends’ lives are always right in front of me. It gets hard to pretend like I haven’t seen a call for help or support, even several, in the middle of my real-work day—whose boundaries are starting to dissolve. I can somehow lose hours in supportive dialogue with someone who isn’t a particularly close friend, or in internet arguments standing up for my values against strangers I’ll never meet.

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