Kayfabe in manufacturing
How and why we use story building tactics from professional wrestling to oversell automation in manufacturing
Growing up, I was an indie follower of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Meaning, I became a fan of his when he only had 1 million fans instead of 100 million.
The Rock was the most exciting wrestler and no moment in sports was more electrifying than The People’s Elbow. If you have never seen the Rock’s signature finishing move, take the next 54 seconds to watch The Rock deliver 24 People’s Elbows. This is my gift to you.
The move was devastating to the opponent. No one got up from the People’s Elbow. Guaranteed win.
Retrospectively, the certainty of victory after this move is absurd. There is nothing about the People’s Elbow that should keep a 250-pound man on the ground for the next ten minutes.
But for my young mind, I had a hard time recognizing this was all fake. There were thousands of adoring fans in the crowd. They wouldn’t be there if it was fake!
When I found out the truth, all I wanted to know was how The Rock aka The People’s Champion could lie to me? I felt betrayed. He was no champion of mine. I questioned the nature of my reality…but I got over it and would occasionally stop back in and watch a match. Because the golden years of WWF  were entertaining.
That was the point. It was entertaining so I watched it.
If professional wrestling was real, I wouldn’t have ever given it the time of day. Wrestling is fake for the fans’ benefit.
Kayfabe: Storytelling in professional wrestling
Storytelling in professional wrestling was born out of a need to solve two problems with carnival (carny) wrestling:
- Carny wrestling was dangerous. Wrestlers were getting seriously injured and that wasn’t good for them or business.
- The audience was bored. Have you ever watched real wrestling? That shit sucks.
Professional wrestling introduced “kayfabe”  to solve these problems.
The idea is simple:
- Solving injury: All of the matches would be predetermined to minimize injury.
- Solving boredom: The wrestlers spice up the drama by pretending that the outcome of this match is not scripted, creating larger than life characters, and crafting insane storylines to keep the audience emotionally engaged.
This was a win-win for everyone involved. The audience loved it and the professional athletes lived to fake fight another day. This simple storytelling tactic built a billion-dollar industry.
All because humans love exciting fakery more than boring truth.
The storyline is what matters. Not the truth.
In fact, the number one rule of professional wrestling is that you do not break character or go against the storyline. Whether you are the villain or the good guy, you follow the script.
Fail to play your part in the story and you will be relegated to the forgotten. Forever slated to fight and lose to unknown wrestlers in fights that are not watched.
But here is the real magic of kayfabe: it extends beyond the wrestling ring.
In the words of Eric Weinstein, kayfabe is the way in which we “deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants.” 
Humans use kayfabe in areas where the subject matter is mundane and we want to inject excitement. We do this by only sharing highlights, making a bunch of insane claims we cannot back up, and pitting two camps against one another in a made-up fierce rivalry.
We make it safe for these two camps to duke it out. Follow the storyline and everything is cool. But if you deviate from the script, your career will be destroyed.
A clear case of this is in manufacturing automation.
Heavyweight Title Fight: Man vs. Machine
In manufacturing automation, we have crafted a narrative that engages the mass audience way more than the yawn-inducing reality. The age-old story of man vs. machine. The strength of the human soul vs. the calculating robot. The intractable conflict. Toe-to-toe in the ring. Who will win?
We bring out caricatures of people who say what we want to hear to stoke the flames.
CEOs of robotics companies overstate the automation in the world of manufacturing and how we should be afraid of a machine takeover.
Politicians want to know what we are going to do with all the soon to be unemployed with an unemployable skillset factory workers.
Simultaneously, we have insulated the participants in this storyline from the actual risk of humiliation or career derailment.
Does the CEO or politician lose anything from participating in this conversation? No. Quite the opposite. Saying outlandish statements about the state of robotics is table stakes for anyone who wants to work in the industry.
Strangely enough, the most dangerous statement someone in manufacturing could make for their career is the truth: the factory doesn’t build itself.
The State of Manufacturing in 2020
Imagine how the t-shirt you are wearing was made.
What do you picture?
Most people imagine a series of smart robots moving in unison carving up cotton, spooling it together, cutting it out into shirt shapes, and seamlessly sewing it together with minimal human involvement.
This is very, very wrong.
For example, as of 2020, even state of the art shirt manufacturers employ thousands of people whose sole job it is to hand sew shirts. 
This is not exclusive to the world of fabrics. Most factories use human labor EXTENSIVELY.
Every time you think “I bet they made this part using a really cool machine”, it would be much more accurate to instead assume 20 real, living, breathing people made that product/feature happen. These are the realities of how nearly all physical goods are made.
However, open any random article about the near-term future of manufacturing and you will read about how many manufacturing jobs we are losing/will continue to lose to automation.
Rather than focusing on what breakthrough will be needed to take manufacturing automation to the next level, the debate centers around when we will need to roll out Universal Basic Income. Because what are we going to do with these poor jobless souls now that our robot compatriots have overtaken them in terms of skill and efficiency?
Meanwhile, back in reality, world-class robotics teams are struggling to get robots to open doors. Doors! Keep in mind, this is a task that was easily mastered by velociraptors [Jurassic Park, 1993].
We are worried about robot overlords, but if they were to come for us today, we would be safe if we went inside and closed the door. We wouldn’t even have to lock it!
I hear the pro-future mob now.
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND EXPONENTIAL GROWTH. YOU ARE GOING TO BE SORRY WHEN ROBOTS OVERTAKE US IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS!
The visceral reaction of this crowd of hypothetical AI fans would give you the impression that I didn’t state the truth about the situation today.
I did not comment on where AI will be in the future. I am saying today.
Manufacturing Automation in 2020
Automation in manufacturing takes the form of aiding humans in doing a task faster than they used to do it rather than completely removing the human from the equation.
This looks like speeding up easier to repeat tasks such as cosmetically inspecting for known defects or making giant rolls of cotton fabric for shirts.
Whereas the harder to replicate tasks such as stitching the shirt together for every combination of fabric material condition or identifying never before seen defects are still handled by humans.
In theory, it is possible to automate these harder tasks. But it is difficult. The robot would need to collect a ton of data and nearly infinite combinations of conditions to make sure that it has every permutation covered. This is obviously a worthwhile venture. Rather than back off funding and support in this area, we should be investing heavily in it.
However, I have not seen this field worked on much at all in the last decade. Who is actually going to solve this problem?
In our efforts to give automation sex appeal, we have given the general public the idea that automating everything is a few years away. We reward the people who feed this narrative whilst ignoring the ones who do the drudgery of making it a reality. These storylines will lead to stalling progress.
The narrative has created a complacent environment. Everyone appears to be internalizing a “the future is secured, everyone sit back and take a nap” type of attitude.
I am all for the vision of a fully automated line. We should have a clear vision of what we are trying to create. But along the way, we should not be lying about the progress.
The future is not going to just happen. If we get complacent, we will not solve this problem.
The automation effort is going to be a long, boring slog. But in the end, we will marvel at how amazing it is when we actually make a fully automated factory instead of just talking about it.
 You young kids probably know this by the name WWE. At one time it was the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and it had to change its name after it lost a lawsuit initiated by the World Wildlife Fund over the WWF trademark. Amazing fun fact to tell at parties.
 Kayfabe is thought to have originated as carny slang for “protecting the secrets of the business.” The term “kayfabe” itself may ultimately originate from the Pig Latin form of “fake” (“ake-fay”) or the phrase “be fake.”
 Eric Weinstein’s article on kayfabe: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11783
 In the name of citing primary sources:
- Chinese fabrics factory (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5ouxAMS7A0)
- Fast forward to time 0:32
- US fabrics factory in the United States (BELLA + CANVAS) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaBffG1zLL8)
- Fast forward to time 10:15