Shifting from nineteenth-century England to late twenty-first-century Mexico, sci-fi filmmaker Alex Rivera wrestles with a similar predicament of a near future in which workers are not simply displaced but inhabited by technology. Sleep Dealer is set in a dystopian world of corporate-controlled water, militarized drones, “aqua-terrorists” (or water liberators, depending on your sympathies), and a walled-off border between Mexico and the United States. The main protagonist, Memo Cruz, and his co-workers plug networked cables into nodes implanted in their bodies. This enables them to operate robots on the other side of the border, giving the United States what it always wanted: “all the work without the workers.”75
Such fictional accounts find their real-life counterpart in “electronic sweatshops,” where companies such as Apple, HP, and Dell treat humans like automata, reportedly requiring Chinese workers to complete tasks every three seconds over a 12-hour period, without speaking or using the bathroom.76 Indeed, as I write, over 1,000 workers at Amazon in Spain have initiated a strike over wages and rights, following similar protests in Italy and Germany in 2017. If we probe exploitative labor practices, the stated intention would likely elicit buzzwords such as “lower costs” and “greater efficiency,” signaling a fundamental tension and paradox – the indispensable disposability of those whose labor enables innovation. The language of intentionality only makes one side of this equation visible, namely the desire to produce goods faster and cheaper, while giving people “the opportunity to work.” This fails to account for the social costs of a technology in which global forms of racism, caste, class, sex, and gender exploitation are the nuts and bolts of development.