Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Plugging in: Futuristic Labor Opportunities in "Nova" and “Sleep Dealer”

Both Nova and “Sleep Dealer” introduce a novel new system of labor: humans as part of the machines they work with. In both the book and the movie, workers are implanted with “nodes” or “sockets” that interact directly with their nervous systems, allowing them to control larger machines by literally plugging themselves in and engaging in what I understood to be a sort of virtual reality interface. What I found striking, however, was the difference in the way each work describes the societal impact of the two nearly identical technologies.

In Nova, Katin explains the introduction of neural plugs as a psychologically beneficial method of labor, developed by psychologist cum pseudo-deity Ashton Clark in an attempt to reverse the mental damage wrought by the labor practices we, the 21st century readers, consider modern. He explains,

There was no direct connection between where he worked and how he ate and lived the rest of the time…Ashton Clark pointed out how psychologically damaging this was to humanity. The entire sense of self-control and self-responsibility… was seriously threatened… He [Man] must exert energy in his work and see these changes occur with his own eyes. Otherwise he would feel his life was futile (195).

On the other hand, in “Sleep Dealer”, the “plug-in” system seems to act as the ultimate distancing agent. Not only are workers hired without knowing what job they’ll be doing, they don’t even need to reside in the same country as the machine that they’re controlling. The surreal nature of this sort of work takes a dangerous turn when it becomes military. Working from his distant controls to a soundtrack of canned applause and supportive commentary, Rudy is so removed from the death and destruction he is causing that it is not until coming into direct contact with Memo’s story that the video game-like illusion is broken and his actions begin to feel real.

While these two presentations oppose each other, I personally do not believe that the effects of the plugs are that black and white in Nova vs. “Sleep Dealer”. Despite Katin’s words, the neural plugs in Nova are not without negative consequence. Although the work seems more direct than in “Sleep Dealer” (the workers remain in the same location as the machine, and seem to choose their own work rather than being assigned a position), the ease with which workers can slip into and out of jobs seems to limit ambition, at least in the working class. Without the need to dedicate themselves to learning a chosen trade, the crew members that Lorq recruits have grown up to be somewhat listless, even apathetic. While they have their chosen individual pursuits (Katin’s novel, Mouse’s instrument, etc.), these pursuits never graduate from hobby to vocation. This state of mind leaves the crewmember ripe for the picking when Lorq recruits them, ready to be swept off, unquestioning, into the grayish power games of the wealthy and powerful. Ashton Clark may have intended to restore a “sense of self-control and self-responsibility” with his new method of labor, but the crewmembers’ willingness to drop everything to blindly follow Lorq suggests quite the opposite.


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