Bureacracy in deep space

If you want to understand the state of the art in space-age capitalism you must visit the HR department

A view along a dimly-lit corridor from the film Alien
HR is at the end of the corridor on the right

Everyone knows that it’s in Human Resources that you’ll find the perfect expression of the polished lie of the benign 21st Century workplace. The grim neoliberal orthodoxy of human potential in service of capital lives here: it’s HQ for lean-in corporate orthodoxy. The smiling, dead-eyed culture of compliance-disguised-as-fulfilment that anyone who works for a big firm will recognise. A disciplinary function that thinks it’s a wellbeing project.

There’s a space-faring future HR department at the centre of Olga Ravn’s ‘The Employees’, a 2020 novel subtitled ‘a workplace novel of the 22nd century’. It’s literary science fiction, from hip publisher of translated works Lolli Editions, written during the pandemic (published in November 2020). The bleak, suffocating setting is sketched rather than described – it’s a spaceship, very far from earth, in orbit around a colonised planet that’s been named ‘New Discovery’, and it conjures up the lockdown as vividly as it does all those other spaceships of the collective memory.

The book’s thesis is neat: a spaceship – no matter how advanced its technology, no matter how far into the future or distant from earth it is, no matter how difficult and unsettling its mission – is still a place of work, right? And, when things go wrong, when a discovery on the planet’s surface causes a kind of collective nervous breakdown in the crew and the hierarchy of human and humanoid on board collapses and things start to get nasty, there’ll still need to be some kind of formal investigation, right? Management will need to get involved, send a team, kick off some kind of process?

So the book is a sequence of reports, memos from crew members, gathered by a team sent from earth. And they start kind of bland, empty of tension, cleverly suggesting the complicated economic and social context the crew occupies without describing it (this is not a Kim Stanley Robinson novel). The memos hint at the drama to come and – without spoilers – the tension does build and things do get bad.

The book’s full of subtly-delivered ideas, it has an unexpected emotional charge that builds and there’s real beauty and strangeness in the places we visit, especially in the tantalising glimpse of the surface of New Discovery that we’re offered and in the ‘objects’ encountered there. The language is authentically that of a workplace in crisis and the bloodless, rules-bound culture of human resources and people management described is chilling.

The story is told only by the workers, by the actors in the workplace drama. It’s a one-sided interrogation. We don’t hear the voices of the HR team sent to investigate, the managers who decide how to resolve things (there are evidently no union reps present). The language of the staff interviewed betrays the strangled effort to comply with rules you only vaguely comprehend. And the outcome, the resolution to the problems on-board, is chilling, authentically bureaucratic, brutal – and there’s no right of appeal.

  • I review the books I read on Goodreads – mainly so I don’t forget I’ve read them.

Games that disappear


You can’t play Godfinger any more. It’s gone. ngmoco, the developer, removed the game (plus a couple of others) from app stores during February – and it’ll stop working all together at the end of this month. The raw economics of mobile gaming. But what happens to games that are packaged as apps when they’re discontinued? Looks like they disappear completely, as Jared Nelson points out on TouchArcade. No shoebox of carts under the bed, no stack of dusty DVDs, no folder of neglected binaries. Gone. Absent from the record.

The closed nature of mobile platforms means you can’t capture a binary for the archives and, unless the Library of Congress has an archiving scheme I don’t know about, this piece of intellectual labour will be removed from the record for good come April, leaving a tiny but perceptible hole in the timeline. This isn’t even a DRM story. It’s just about the mechanics of distributing entertainment in the app era. Is it important? Should we just accept it: the ruthless logic of 21st Century digital creation? Or are we going to be freaking out in fifty years when we realise we’ve built a one-way conveyor-belt to oblivion for digital work and we’re all going “what were they actually DOING back in the early twenty-first Century? They seem to have left no trace.”