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

In Human Resources you’ll find the absolute apogee of the capture and incorporation of liberal orthodoxy by corporate capitalism. The grim, dead-eyed culture of compliance that anyone who works for a big firm will recognise. The smiling face of the neoliberal machine. A disciplinary function that thinks it’s a wellbeing project.

I’ve just finished Olga Ravn’s ‘The Employees’, a short 2020 novel subtitled ‘A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century’. It’s science fiction and it was written at the beginning of the pandemic (published in November 2020). The bleak, suffocating setting – a spaceship, very far from earth, in orbit around a planet that’s been named ‘New Discovery’ carefully conjures up the lockdown as vividly as it does all those other spaceships of your memory.

The book’s thesis is clever: 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 disccovery on the planet’s surface causes a kind of crisis of self-awareness in the crew and the hierarchy of human and humanoid on board collapses, 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 ideas, it has an unexpected emotional charge that builds and there’s real beauty in the places we visit, including a tantalising glimpse of the surface of New Discovery. It’s translated from Danish so I’m definitely not equipped to tell you if it’s been done well – but 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 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 read them.

The Singularity

Proper Science Fiction writer Vernor Vinge is preparing his speech for the day the singularity doesn’t happen. Although I should probably get on with preparing mine for the day after it does (but who’ll listen?), I keep wanting to dive in and point out that the important thing about singularities of all kinds is that they don’t happen. Scenario planners, millenarians and apocalypticians (and geeks) thrive on predicting extreme – usually final – events. The end of this. The overthrow of that. They make these predictions by extrapolating from the potential of various technologies, institutions and practices. This kind of extrapolation always ignores the critically important context within which all these events happen. Human beings provide this context and it’s all friction.

Singularists subtract out the friction provided by human context. They make predictions based solely on the theoretical potential for X to happen – whether X is good or bad (hence Bill Joy’s hysterical revelation). Despite the unarguable logic of the bomb, nuclear wars don’t happen. With no regard to the liberating power of the net, the new economy did not sweep away the old. Whatever you read in the Sunday Papers a human clone will not take your job. This is not a cynical argument or even a jaded one. It’s really an optimistic reading of human-kind’s ability to influence our environment, neutralise extreme cases and side-step the inevitable. Vinge will make his speech.