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The Future of Telecommuting

March 24, 2009
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Every once in a while an unknown movie comes along that nearly makes me burst with curiosity and wonder. Last year that movie was Let the Right One In. But that was based on early, extremely positive reviews (and they were correct). All I’ve seen of Sleep Dealer is a mediocre trailer and a brief interview with the director in Wired magazine.

But I’m hooked.

View the trailer below (my new format cuts off the edges, so for the full view, click on the Archive page and see the first article). Analysis and discussion to follow.

The basic premise is that in the near future, much of the labor in America is done by robots. Okay, nothing new there, but here’s the twist: They aren’t autonomous robots. They’re controlled by “telemigrants” who plug into the robot controls from afar.

In fact, it looks like most of the movie is set in Mexico. Americans benefit from the cheap Mexican labor, but they don’t have to deal with the “problem” of having Mexican immigrants on their own soil. I think that’s the general idea.

What I love about this–beyond the obvious relevance to modern issues surrounding border control–is how the writer has twisted sci-fi and redefined it. The movie is about labor. It’s not about rich people plugging into virtual reality to escape the mundane and experience pleasure–it’s about impoverished people trying to make a living. [Note: James Cameron is going to present a similar twist on this genre next summer in Avatar, which involves humans controlling alien “avatars” from afar for the purpose of fighting a war on an inhospitable planet.]

The trailer for Sleep Dealer goes well out of its way to avoid showing that it’s a foreign language film; in doing that, it lacks momentum or pacing. But the idea is just so damn interesting that I’m hooked.

Even without the immigrant angle, it’s a topical idea. Millions of people work away from the office nowadays–we video chat, we work from home, we telecommute. In a way, aren’t we plugging into a grid and letting technology represent us elsewhere?

Let me ask you this: If you find your dream job in Alaska, but you know that your favorite place to live is St. Louis (toasted ravioli! The Arch! Stan Musial!), would you be willing to plug into a machine that allows you to communicate with a robot in Anchorage that does your job? Is that a price you’d pay to live in your ideal city?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    March 25, 2009 9:01 am

    Of course I’d do it if it meant having my dream job AND living in my dream city. The better question: what if you’re dream job was in Alaska and you actually want to move to there (baby seals! dog sled rides! directly north of New Zealand!). What if Alaska didn’t want you there, but they want you to work from a distance to help their state grow and flourish. Would you do it?

  2. March 25, 2009 9:30 am

    Of course you’d do it? Consider that this means that you’re plugged into a machine for 8 hours a day!

    I think Alaska actually really wants people to move there, but that aside, would I work from a distance if that’s what the company wanted? I don’t know. Because (a) you’d be plugged into a machine for 8 hours a day, and when you unplugged, you’d be in a city that you don’t want to be in.

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