Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Energy and Alienation

Several times throughout Nova, characters use “Ashton Clark” as part of “good luck” phrases, and it is only towards the end of the novel that Mouse asks Katin why. Ashton Clark was a 23rd century philosopher-psychologist whose theories found a solution in neural plugs. He believed that the separation between a person’s work/production and their everyday life was “psychologically damaging” to humanity, and that unless people exerted their own energy in their work, they’d feel that their lives were futile (218). So Souquet invents neural plugs and sockets, and all major industrial work becomes broken down from factories that could be operated by one man at the push of a button into “jobs that could be machined ‘directly’ by man” (219). This philosophy “returned humanity to the working man,” eliminating many feelings of alienation and rendering war impossible.

I’m not very familiar with Marxist theory (feel free to correct me if any of this is off), but one of Marx’s general ideas is that the Industrial Revolution (with mass production and assembly lines) caused an increasing alienation between workers and the products they put together - at best, they would produce one small aspect of a product, and then they would have no direct connection to that product other than the money they received for it. The wages they received, abstract representations of their connection to their products, were too small to allow them economic access to many of the materials they were producing. As technology improves, and industrial labor becomes less specialized and more machine-based, the alienation between worker and the economy continues. So when Ashton Clark proposes bringing humanity closer to the intimate control of machines to remedy human alienation from production, he’s responding to Marxist theory (I found it interesting that Marx wasn’t mentioned at all in the novel, though). The tradeoff for this “return to humanity” is a sacrifice of distinct cultures and certain art forms (and the rise of sensory art forms like the sensory-syrynx). Individuals become tied to their machines, dependent on energy and victims of wealthy families’ energy wars, or they can be like Mouse, part of a Gypsy class that resists plugging in, still attached to cultural traditions.

Sleep Dealers, which has some uncannily similar technologies to Nova, shows an opposite effect of alienated labor. Memo comes from Oaxaca, a village in Mexico where people do not work through nodes (somewhat like Mouse before he gets sockets). He moves to escape his father’s death, gets nodes, works in one of the sleep-dealer factories, where he plugs into jobs thousands of miles away. This is part of “the American dream”: “work without the workers.” Americans can profit off of this cheap factory labor without being forced to recognize the laborers as “human,” and the workers are entirely alienated from the work sites. (Paradoxically, the neural networks are also supposed to bring people closer together.) Like the Gypsies in Nova, the people in Memo’s community live completely outside of this new kind of labor. Also like Nova, the people who do “plug in” become dependent on energy - the workers literally have the energy trained from their bodies. (Also, as a sidenote, writing turns into a sensory memory experience, just like novels and other art forms in Nova).
Moon shows an entirely different aspect of alienation from the labor force. The Sam Bell clones are replaced every three years. They work on the moon, harvesting energy and sending it back to power the Earth. To motivate the clones, they are charged with Sam Bell’s memories and video clips from his wife - the clones think that they are actually Alex, and after three years of solitary labor, they can return to their family. This, I think, is supposed to bridge the gap between total alienation from the product. If a clone is stuck by himself on the moon, expected to send energy back to a world that he will never be a part of, he will have no motivation or connection to that life. Or he might decide to rebel against his fate, as one of the Sams does. The Sam at the beginning of the film, however, blissfully unaware that he's a clone, also seems heavily alienated from society - he represents exactly the type of worker that Marx was cautioning people against — people whose entire existence drives towards harvesting energy that will drive further types of production that they will never directly benefit from.

Does Nova really offer a solution to labor alienation? Is it fair to tether people to their machines to the point where their identity becomes based on the work that they do rather than any other cultural identity? It seems slightly better than the alternatives offered in the two movies — sapping the working class of their energy from thousands of miles away so that wealthy Americans don’t have to look at them or implanting clones with human memories and emotions so that they can feel connected to a life they will never have — but I’m still unsure whether solving alienated labor is worth the sacrifice of cultures.


Post a Comment