Challenge the Status Quo

Lapsis is a science fiction film about a world where human beings compete with robots directly for gigs. Not in an abstract oh-will-the-robots-take-our-jobs sort of way, but in a world where robots come up behind you as you work and steel your spot.

The film intends to make a point about gig work and about how technology can be used by capitalists to exploit labor. The story centers on cablers, workers who carry cables through the woods and plug them into metal boxes in the middle of the forest. That doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to; that’s not what the story is about.

The company the cablers work for as independent contractors have hexapedal robots that follow the cablers through the woods. If they get ahead of the human workers, the robots can steal the routes that have been assigned to them. This is intended to keep the cablers working at peak capacity.

Cablers take up sabotage.

Real-life similarities

If at this point you are thinking about how automation sometimes sets the pace for human workers, to their detriment, you’re on the right track. Think about some IRL cases of negative effects of automation:

  • Amazon has been accused of setting the paces for its warehouse workers with robots, leading to unnecessary injuries.
  • Amazon has also been fined in France for measuring workers with an “excessively intrusive” form of surveillance which tracks worker movements down to the second. Employee monitoring may raise eyebrows in France, but in the United States it is very common, in spite of evidence that it increases worker stress and unhappiness.
  • Pitt University researchers found that people who work alongside robots have more mental health issues and more substance abuse problems than other workers.
  • The hospitality industry is stepping up their reliance on robots in response to a shortage of human workers. Some observers claim that’s because they are not willing to improve wages and working conditions. Robots give them the option to refuse to provide better working conditions to compete for staff.
  • A larger-scale issue that has been widely discussed is the increasing inequality when the benefits of automation go to the owners of the machines and not to the workers.

The cablers band together to work against the robots in an attempt to “force them to listen” — “them” being the corporations bankrolling the cabling.

While many reviewers express disappointment with there rending of the film, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t suggest a victory for the downtrodden masses — ummm…cablers.

The robot

Kod*Lab’s robot, RHex, plays the robots in the film. Director Noah Hutton worked with the researchers at Penn State to figure out how to make the part convincing.

In fact, students worked on the set, providing practical support for the robots but also philosophical input. The researchers were concerned about having their robot be the villain of the piece.

“Humans are often forced to scapegoat the image of technology that they see in front of them, such as the automatic cablers,” Hutton told Penn Engineering Today. “We criticize the end result when really, the problem is further upstream than that. It’s the corporate structures that put the robots into the field while also not providing, for example, health care or basic protections for independent contractors. With Lapsis, I want to imagine a possible future, or should I say, a possible alternative present, where a person doesn’t need to feel like they are powerless because they don’t have access to elite technology.”

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