making noodles, deskilling labor

When I was young, I heard Johnny Cash singing about John Henry–the American version of man versus machine. However, an informercial about the Shandong style noodle-bot (below) reminds us that we’re talking about the social organization and reproduction of skilled labor. 

The structure of the informercial is an advertisement within a report. According to the claymation advertisement, restaurants have difficulty finding skilled noodle makers. What’s more, if the noodle maker leaves, noodle restaurants can’t actually do business. “Fortunately,” the infomercial part of the report reminds those same store owners. “the cost of an Ultraman noodle-bot is quickly recovered” because one robot can do the work of two noodle makers.

Eek.

At stake in the production of noodle robots is the de-skilling labor among populations that earn value-added for their artisanal skills. In the first section of the informercial, the apprentice noodle maker admits that he’s “leaving the work to the professional”. His job is simply to prep the robot. So it’s not the case that restaurant owners don’t need two noodle workers, but rather that the noodle robot makes it economically viable to de-skill the human worker (and thus lower the cost of their labor).

Now, it may be that Ultraman helps mom and pop noodle shops get by. They are also fun to watch, providing entertainment. Nevertheless, at the moment it is unclear if the noodle-bots are a gimmick or a sign of the increasing automation of the Chinese food industry, which is very, very, very labor intensive.

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