Rebecca Lemov writes: The protagonist of William Gibson’s 2014 science-fiction novel The Peripheral, Flynne Fisher, works remotely in a way that lends a new and fuller sense to that phrase. The novel features a double future: One set of characters inhabits the near future, ten to fifteen years from the present, while another lives seventy years on, after a breakdown of the climate and multiple other systems that has apocalyptically altered human and technological conditions around the world.
In that “further future,” only 20 percent of the Earth’s human population has survived. Each of these fortunate few is well off and able to live a life transformed by healing nanobots, somaticized e-mail (which delivers messages and calls to the roof of the user’s mouth), quantum computing, and clean energy. For their amusement and profit, certain “hobbyists” in this future have the Borgesian option of cultivating an alternative path in history — it’s called “opening up a stub” — and mining it for information as well as labor.
Flynne, the remote worker, lives on one of those paths. A young woman from the American Southeast, possibly Appalachia or the Ozarks, she favors cutoff jeans and resides in a trailer, eking out a living as a for-hire sub playing video games for wealthy aficionados. Recruited by a mysterious entity that is beta-testing drones that are doing “security” in a murky skyscraper in an unnamed city, she thinks at first that she has been taken on to play a kind of video game in simulated reality. As it turns out, she has been employed to work in the future as an “information flow” — low-wage work, though the pay translates to a very high level of remuneration in the place and time in which she lives.
What is of particular interest is the fate of Flynne’s body. Before she goes to work she must tend to its basic needs (nutrition and elimination), because during her shift it will effectively be “vacant.” Lying on a bed with a special data-transmitting helmet attached to her head, she will be elsewhere, inhabiting an ambulatory robot carapace — a “peripheral” — built out of bio-flesh that can receive her consciousness.
Bodies in this data-driven economic backwater of a future world economy are abandoned for long stretches of time — disposable, cheapened, eerily vacant in the temporary absence of “someone at the helm.” Meanwhile, fleets of built bodies, grown from human DNA, await habitation.
Alex Rivera explores similar territory in his Mexican sci-fi film The Sleep Dealer (2008), set in a future world after a wall erected on the US–Mexican border has successfully blocked migrants from entering the United States. Digital networks allow people to connect to strangers all over the world, fostering fantasies of physical and emotional connection. At the same time, low-income would-be migrant workers in Tijuana and elsewhere can opt to do remote work by controlling robots building a skyscraper in a faraway city, locking their bodies into devices that transmit their labor to the site. In tank-like warehouses, lined up in rows of stalls, they “jack in” by connecting data-transmitting cables to nodes implanted in their arms and backs. Their bodies are in Mexico, but their work is in New York or San Francisco, and while they are plugged in and wearing their remote-viewing spectacles, their limbs move like the appendages of ghostly underwater creatures. Their life force drained by the taxing labor, these “sleep dealers” end up as human discards.
What is surprising about these sci-fi conceits, from “transitioning” in The Peripheral to “jacking in” in The Sleep Dealer, is how familiar they seem, or at least how closely they reflect certain aspects of contemporary reality. Almost daily, we encounter people who are there but not there, flickering in and out of what we think of as presence. A growing body of research explores the question of how users interact with their gadgets and media outlets, and how in turn these interactions transform social relationships. The defining feature of this heavily mediated reality is our presence “elsewhere,” a removal of at least part of our conscious awareness from wherever our bodies happen to be. [Continue reading…]