I’m doing some cursory research into the Industrial Revolution as a whole for a steampunk/Victorian fantasy story and one detail of my setting that’s setting off alarm bells in my head is the use of magic to create animated automatons (kinda like golems). The presence of what are essentially magitek robots would imply that they either have or are in the process of replacing human labor, which aside from potentially ruining the whole “horrendous working conditions” aspect of the Victorian era begs a major question.

What kind of economic and societal impact is this going to have?

The Industrial Revolution is already infamous for dehumanization of the workforce, especially children, so what might happen if the technological development of the entire era was accelerated to the point where human workers are being displaced by robots? Would we see effects similar to the real world today, or would the rapid transition from farm-to-factory-to-robots cause an even greater societal upheaval than any of these things taken by themselves?

Basically, I wanna answer a question I’ve long had about steampunk as a whole. What really happens when you introduce robots and even more automation to mid-to-late Victorian era?

  • $\begingroup$ you could play it both ways, it's basically your choice as author if its a utopia or a dystopia. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Oct 19 '21 at 12:58
  • $\begingroup$ It heavily depends on who owns the means of prod... i mean the robots. For all intents, they had robots - machines that could accomplish what formerly many would be required to do. For what happened then, you will have to subscribe to one of many theories about what happened why - Regarding the robots themselves: Victorian machines were brutish and few. Steampunk robots are exquisitely complex and (often) ubiquitous - who builds them and tends to them? Steampunkiness would require them to be handwrought, but then you would need a whole swath of clocksmith-level specialists - wherefrom? $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Oct 19 '21 at 13:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Questions asking "What would be the effect of X on society" are considered too broad for this site. It seems like you're teasing at some more specific questions in the body of your post. If you edit so that it clearly asks a more specific question, paradoxically you're likely to get higher quality answers. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Oct 19 '21 at 13:46

Robots and automation as a whole today are still a continuance of a mindset formed during the industrial revolution - that is, streamlining the process of making things. Ever since things like Eli Whitney began making guns with interchangeable parts, people have been working towards how to make manufacturing and such more efficient.

A major reason why we had the industrial revolution, and even further back, the renaissance, is because of a shortage of labor, and a need for new ideas, machines, etc, to fill the gap.

In order for robots of some form or another to be adopted in your world, they need to be cheaper or more readily available than a human workforce. In our world, it was always so much easier to get desperate immigrants to do work, and in some cases, even a dismal pay would be accepted - which was awful, but it was the way it was.

So that's the conditions you would need, what would be the impact? Hard to say. We in the present aren't exactly sure what will happen. Some think that robots will replace all of us and we need universal basic income. Others think that the job market will simply change, and people will move to new jobs.

I have a hard time though imagining the US and Europe of the 19th century willing to do a welfare program like universal basic income. If your story takes place in an alternate version of our world, this will need to be a consideration. Things will be different though if this world is of your own imagining.

The likely event is like many of the strikes and labor movements of the gilded age. People would get furious about being displaced from their work. They would strike, riot, etc. Anti-automaton political movements would be formed.

Some jobs, like today, would be displaced and wouldn't be as missed. Very dangerous ones of the day, like blasting railroad tunnels, working on bridge foundations deep in the ground, etc. There are other jobs that would be simply assisted by robots.

New technologies would be pursued with the additional labor force, other tech would be pursued to combat the threat of robotics. Maybe powered mining equipment is invented, and while humans can handle it just fine, the robots are unable to lift it easily, etc.

There are many things you could do with this - I recommend looking up stuff about the gilded age, and current thoughts on addressing automation.


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