When Automation Meets a Draconian Border Regime

As tech companies tighten their grip on power, sci-fi visions of the future are proliferating. In Alex Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer, automation meets the hyper-militarization of borders, only increasing exploitation. It’s a techno-dystopia alarmingly imaginable today.

Alex Rivera's 2008 movie Sleep Dealer. (Maya Entertainment)

Tech companies do not have our best interests at heart. They seek contracts with the Pentagon, make tools for militarized police forces, and develop solutions for the neofascist border police to rain terror on migrants. Surveillance is repackaged as convenience, while gig companies have spent the past decade using the excuse of technology to further erode workers’ rights to their benefit.

The future these companies are building toward, in partnership with governments that want to control their populations, is, to say the least, not one that puts human flourishing at the top of its agenda. Rather, in service of the power and profit of a small few, we’re all being made worse off. It can be difficult to imagine the outcome of this trajectory, but Alex Rivera’s 2008 science fiction film Sleep Dealer gives us a glimpse into a possible future, with a specific focus on the outcomes for people in the Global South.

The film depicts a future Mexico where the border is closed and society is further militarized in service of increasingly powerful corporations, often headquartered in the United States. They build large infrastructure projects that harm local communities while funneling the labor force into factories where they’re hooked into a computer system via metal nodes implanted in their bodies to control robots north of the border. Migrant labor may be a thing of the past, but Western society still requires cheap labor to sustain itself.

The future that Sleep Dealer depicts is, for all its science fiction elements, not entirely unfamiliar to our present reality, with its militarized and exploitative technologies. In many ways, we’re already headed toward a future similar to what Rivera depicts, and we need to act now to chart a different course — for technology and for ourselves.

Technology To Oppress

For Memo Cruz, the film’s protagonist, technology is both a fascination and a form of oppression. In his spare time, he tinkers with computer parts, while drones and cameras help protect a massive dam that his father says not only closed off the river that once watered their crops, but their future along with it.

This system of control is turned into entertainment through a television show called DRONES, which features pilots who remotely control drones through nodes of their own as they protect infrastructure projects and “kill the bad guys.” After Memo accidentally taps into one of their communications channels while tinkering one night, his home becomes a target on the next episode, killing his father and leaving them without their meager income.

The film reminds us that many of our consumer technologies begin with military applications. The internet, for example, is the product of the Department of Defense’s development of the ARPANET, while GPS was used for military purposes before being commercialized.

This is a point that Sleep Dealer emphasizes; the virtual labor that forms the core of the film could be seen as an extension of the remote piloting of drones, which rapidly escalated during the United States’ “War on Terror,” not only to target “insurgents,” but to terrorize civilian populations across the Middle East and parts of Africa. The film imagines the use of those attack drones being extended to commercial applications.

The film’s depiction of massive infrastructure projects that destroy surrounding environments and community livelihoods are similarly nothing new, be they in the Global South or on indigenous lands in the North. Campaigns against pipelines, dams, and mines have received more attention in recent years, especially when protesters are attacked by militarized police protecting the infrastructure. It’s not hard to imagine attack drones becoming part of their arsenal, especially outside the borders of the United States.

But often the harm that results from the use of these military technologies and efforts to suppress dissent that challenges the profits of Western resource companies operating in the Global South are effectively hidden from the public eye. Sleep Dealer suggests a future where technologies are used to further hide the abuses that make Western life possible.

Technology To Make Invisible

With his father dead, Memo sets out for Tijuana to find work in a node factory, known as a “sleep dealer” because people often work such long hours there that they collapse. Hooked into machines that make them look like marionettes, workers control robots picking fruit, building skyscrapers, staffing slaughterhouses, looking after children, and more. Once Memo has his nodes installed, he declares, “finally I could connect my nervous system to another system: the global economy.”

In Sleep Dealer’s vision of a future, the exploitation of migrant laborers is replaced with an exploitation of a different kind. Instead of crossing borders, Mexican laborers control robots for all manner of work abroad. Teleoperation is already being positioned as an important step in making autonomous vehicles possible, if not delivery drones as well. Japanese convenience stores are trialing teleoperated shelf-stocking robots, while MIT is developing a system to “game-ify” manufacturing positions by letting people control robots through VR. In the same way that call centers were outsourced, teleoperation could easily be, too.

But the use of technology in this way makes it seem as though the robot is more powerful than it is and hides the human behind the curtain (or VR headset). In a critique of Sidewalk Labs’ smart neighborhood project in Toronto, Kevin Rogan describes how smart technologies ensure “non-tech workers, service workers, and maintainers will be pushed out of sight and […] out of mind,” while extending surveillance into more aspects of life and transferring power from public entities to private, monopolistic corporations. The worker, in this instance, becomes an extension of the machine: “If the maintenance work can’t be done by robots, [the company] will demand workers act like robots.”

Rogan argues the smart city creates two cities: the one experienced by the consumer, and the other that further subjugates the worker to the whims of capital through the use of new technologies. We might then say Sleep Dealer extends that beyond the city to illustrate how technology could further solidify and extend the extractive relationships between Global North and South, which goes far beyond the teleoperation of robots into many other aspects of life.

Technology To Exploit

When Memo heads to Tijuana, he meets a woman named Luz who gives him advice and later installs his nodes. Luz describes herself as a writer, but Memo doesn’t initially realize her motivation for getting to know him. Luz sells her memories on a platform called TRUNODE, where accurate recollections are withdrawn through the nodes.

Similar to platforms like Fiverr or even Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, there are far more people selling memories than there are buying. Luz is having a hard time and is behind on her student loan payments, so when a mysterious buyer offers to pay her to find out more about Memo after watching their initial meeting on the bus, she takes the gig.

Unsurprisingly, in a situation where there are far fewer jobs than there are laborers and corporations have an unprecedented level of control, the exploitation does not end with the memory market. The node factories are notoriously unsafe, causing hallucinations and even blindness if the equipment malfunctions. When this happens to a worker during one of Memo’s shifts, a manager simply drags him out the back door, and he’s never seen again.

People also have no recourse against the prices set by the technological systems they don’t control. Once Memo is in Tijuana, the video-calling service he uses to call his family charges by the second, and when he sends $270 back home, they only get $180 — the rest is taken in fees.

At best, this is an exaggeration for problems that already exist. There’s an ongoing debate about whether Apple should be able to use its monopoly on the App Store to demand a 30 percent cut of every transaction, but migrant workers will also know about the high fees that are often charged when they send money back to their families. The families of people in prison will also know the high cost of keeping in contact with their loved ones.

Privatized technological systems are easy for corporations to abuse to extract monopoly profits from every user, and the more power tilts in their direction, the more difficult it becomes to fight back. The question then becomes how to challenge their power.

Organizing for a Better World

Memo goes to a food market for dinner every Sunday because it reminds him of home. One evening, a man sits down in front of him and introduces himself as Rudy, a drone pilot for Del Rio Water.

The attack on Memo’s home was Rudy’s first mission, and afterward he had doubts. He found Luz’s clip on TRUNODE and used her follow-up memories to confirm it was Memo’s father who he’d killed. Originally from San Diego, he headed south to see if there was anything he could do to make it right. Once Memo composes himself, he realizes there is: Rudy can hijack a drone to blow a hole in the dam that caused so many problems for his family and his community.

Memo and Rudy are from opposite worlds. Memo comes from a small town in Mexico with almost nothing to his name, while Rudy lives in a major US city with all the amenities he could possibly imagine. But they also have something in common: they’re both node workers who, at the end of the day, are forced into an oppressive, transnational system that has neither of their best interests at heart.

In the same way that Memo and Rudy worked together to make a dent in that system, tech workers around the world have begun to organize not just for better wages and working conditions, but to demand their employers stop working with the police, the military, and some governments that abuse their citizens’ human rights. Certainly, this is just the beginning, but their organizing illustrates an important shift where more of these workers no longer see their interests aligning with those of their bosses.

Technology has been used to atomize workers, to oppress them, and to roll back their working rights. Sleep Dealer illustrates a future where these technologies and the corporate control that make them possible are taken to an extreme, but that also helps us to see the trajectory we may be on and why it must be opposed.

Most importantly, it looks beyond the borders of the United States and the West to see how this future would impact people in the Global South, showing an aspect of this dystopian future we don’t often see. In doing so, it not only emphasizes the importance of solidarity between workers, but that it must exist on an international scale to push back on the global activities of these corporations.

Better technology is possible, as part of societies that are oriented to serve human needs ahead of corporate profits and social control, but building such a future will first require fighting the forces driving us toward dystopia.