Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Human Capital

Wikipedia defines “human capital” as the “stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value.” It is also described as “the attributes gained by a worker through education and experience.” Our readings this week, however, allow us to imagine how technology, particularly in the sphere of bio-genetic engineering, can revolutionize and re-conceptualize labor. In Moon, the need for human capital is reduced considerably by automation; all Lunar Industries needs is one person to oversee its helium-3 harvesters. Unfortunately, it costs quite a lot of money to house and compensate someone for the lonely mission, so Lunar Industries figures out a way to cut the latter cost. That is, they create a system that replaces clones every 3 years so that they would never have to pay for the minimal amount of human capital required to run their operation.

Moon challenges the way we think about labor by putting a price on the creation of life—and, of course, the playing of God. Lunar Industries is presumably driven by the value of its bottom line; by effectively reducing labor costs to zero, they no doubt maximize their profits in a big way. At the same time, they provide an important and rare source of clean energy. Perhaps the astronomical costs of attaining this energy simply make paying someone the amount of money necessary to compensate a 3-year sentence to the moon impossible from a business standpoint. If this were the case, how does one begin to balance the price of individual human lives (albeit artificially created ones with implanted memories) against the desperation of humanity's energy crisis?

Sleep Dealer, meanwhile, imagines the future of labor as robotic drones controlled by third world workers across great distances. Here, the value of human capital remains essentially unchanged; it is the demand for actual humans that has declined. This conceptualization of high-tech labor highlights the dichotomy of man and machine, equating them in a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. At the same time, however, the source of this productivity stem directly from the human element. The machine element only enhances the application.

Notably, I thought that this week's texts really epitomized Margaret Atwood's assertion that science fiction allows us to explore the consequences of our deepest, darkest desires. Both of the films treat manpower (as Josh might put it) as a valuable commodity and thus something that could be exploited with technology. Moon's juxtaposition of cloning, labor, and business emphasize not only the greed of capitalism, but also the ingenuity and innovation that spawns from such greed. Sleep Dealer also explores the power of dissociation between thought and action: the long-distance drone control technology is also used in the military, and to great effect. Such dissociation challenges traditional notions of accountability while expanding the potential of human capital. How might one apply himself when it is not his body he is applying? How might he work or fight if he need not worry about physical danger or potential trauma? Most importantly, how will mankind's propensity for vice interact with his advancement in technology?


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