Automaton

Shady dealings.
Shady dealings.

I was a huge Shadowrun player back toward the end of high school and beyond. If you’re not familiar with Shadowrun, as a concept (since it’s now a computer as well as tabletop game), then a good quick summary is that it’s Dungeons and Dragons set in a corporate-dystopian cyberpunk future. While the thought of magic returning to the world in the future was intriguing, what really caught at my imagination was the projected future corporate culture: you’re either raised from birth within a corporate system which feeds, clothes, houses, educates and eventually employs you… or you’re scraping by on the fringes of society, often turning to employers who are on the wrong side of legality who may choose to pay you in bullets rather than cash. It’s a game with few pure spots of black and white, and quite a lot of grey.

It’s easy to see where the creators were coming from, back in the late ’80s. Reaganomics was becoming a buzzword as the former actor stepped out of office and made way for the corporate-minded H.W, the leashes on corporate self-governance had been loosened and the accompanying anti-union sentiments were sneaking closer, and the economy was easing towards the early-90s slump, layering over the top of a fading punk aesthetic a haze of despair that the value of a human life no longer lay in its individuality but in its conformity to the overarching system.

That light you see is just a sodium lamp
That light you see is just a sodium lamp

Shadowrun took that sense of caged hopelessness and dialled it up to 11 for the future world of 2050 (I’m going to pause here to add that the last edition I played was third, which had moved the timeline up to 2063; I’m not aware of the developments past that point). It was the sort of grim neo-noir prediction popularised by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Ray Bradbury; a neo-noir prediction liberally seasoned with the sort of punk rebelliousness only available in the fantasies of those who are already feeling trapped.

Do you feel trapped? I know a lot of people who do. We’re already living in a dystopian corporate hegemony.

I first encountered the wage-slave box in 2005. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and was unable to land even the simplest bar job due to my age (long story short: the UK has a minimum wage for people below the age of 21, which is what’s usually offered for jobs available on college-student time schedules; being 21 when I started uni, I didn’t have a chance of getting anything). I attempted to apply for a summer position at a clothing retailer, and their automated phone system asked me a bunch of personality questions, then determined that I was not an ideal worker and hung up on me.

Not an ideal worker.

Ideal worker.

Roll those words around in your head a bit. A computerised multiple-choice Sorting Hat put me into Slytherin and then told me how worthless I was to their corporate society, because I failed to tick all the boxes to indicate that I was not, in fact, willing to be mindlessly loyal to a company I only wanted to work for because they were hiring.

Modern corporate culture has a loyalty problem. It values its profits and its shareholders, and ascribes very little value to its workers whilst demanding everything they have and beyond. Sometimes they get it right, such as offering training or higher-education degrees to potential employees, with a promise of solid employment upon completion. You do good work for them, they’ll express their appreciation by treating you like the valued member of the team you are.

Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.
Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.

But human loyalty is expensive. It requires medical care, enough pay to afford housing, work-quality clothing, food, family support and transportation; if the company starts tossing workers around like chattel, the workers are more apt to leave… unless they’re trapped in a system where leaving puts them at risk of financial insecurity, where complaining about low pay, terrible hours, high stress and poor management put workers at risk of being “made redundant”, replaced by another cog who’s just grateful to BE a cog. You hear this a lot from politicians: “You should be grateful just to HAVE a job!” And a lot of corporations ascribe to the idea that their reputation is so amazing that people will put up with any indignity just to be able to tell others who their employer is.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: That isn’t loyalty. That’s an abusive relationship.

Corporations are reaching a tipping-point; Charles Stross wrote a very good article relating to this last year. A lot of them have trouble finding applicants with the precise skillset and temperament they’re looking for — rather like shopping for a workhorse instead of looking to build a relationship of trust and loyalty with a person; a self-destructive race for quantity over quality. It’s not a massive stretch to expand the old training/apprenticeship model into a system which provides a lifetime of education (and subsequent indoctrination) which is shown in the Shadowrun universe. The beginnings of such a system can already be seen in parts of the US and Europe, and it really is the best way to make employees who fit perfectly into the Human Resource box.

I filled out another job application a couple days ago. It included a 12-page personality test, and I didn’t receive a failure notification. I think I’m getting close to cracking their algorithm.

Welcome to the future, chummer.

All artwork used in the post is © myself. Please be polite if you borrow any of my work, thanks!

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2 thoughts on “Automaton

    1. Yeah, the predictions haven’t improved very much, either. Even the shiniest of futurepop has some serious rot lurking beneath the surface.

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