Labor Day 2012: Surrogates

Surrogates is the five-issue 2005-2006 graphic novel by Robert Venditti (author of The Homeland Directive, which we discussed about this time last year). It was made into a 2009 Bruce Willis movie. The basic premise is that sometime in the next ten-odd years, a company called Virtual Self, Inc., perfected the technology to permit people to operate what amount to robotic avatars. So instead of physically going to work, an operator can “link” to their “surrogate” body and drive their surrogate as if they were physically present.

This obviously has enormous social, economic, and political implications, and Venditti knows it. There’s a lot to look at here, but today we’re going to focus solely on the labor issues. Specifically, Vinditti suggests that surrogates would revolutionize gender and race relations and touches on (without explaining in great detail) the role of organized labor in the widespread adoption of surrogates.

I. Gender and Race Relations

Surrogates was released in five issues, and at the end of each one is a sort of appendix containing a sort of “found document” from the Surrogates world. The one at the end of the first issue, “Field Test,” purports to be an article by “William Laslo, Ph.D.” in the “Journal of Applied Cybernetics” entitled “Paradise Found: Possibility and Fulfillment in the Age of the Surrogate.” It discusses three issues related to surrogates: gender and race relations, law enforcement and crime, and individual and public health. There’s probably enough for a solid post on each of those issues, but this being Labor Day, we’re going to limit ourselves to the first.

Venditti suggests that the introduction of surrogates radically reshaped the face of race and gender relations in society, both socially and in the employment context. The “unit/operator paradigm,” as the surrogate phenomenon is labeled, is supposed to have led to a change in the way gender and race discrimination works, because one never knows if the person operating any particular unit is of the same race, gender, or age of the surrogate itself. Operators of “gender-other” units may or may not make that fact public, and the social etiquette seems to be to treat the surrogate as the gender it presents regardless of the gender of the operator. That’s all well and good, but there’s more to it than that. Venditti suggests that this has almost entirely eliminated gender discrimination in the workforce, because

Employers can use the demographic ambiguity offered by surrogates to uphold the staffing expectations of their customer base by allowing preconceptions to be formed not as a function of actual gender, but assumed gender.

The authors doubt that this would be sufficient to satisfy the EEOC. The “article” suggests that, for example, something like 98% of female airline pilots operate “gender-other” units, i.e., they show up for work as “men.” That, right there, suggests that there’s something discriminatory going on. Part of the problem here is that it isn’t made clear who owns the surrogates in question. It would be one thing for an employer to say “Look, we don’t care who you are or what you look like. When you come to work, you’re using the surrogates we provide. End of story.” That way, an employer could exert complete control over the appearance, both demographically and cosmetically, of its workforce. But the stories heavily imply that surrogates are owned by individuals, who get to choose what their surrogates look like. For non-work purposes this seems plausible, but if these are also the surrogates that will be operated during work hours, what we’ve got is an employer saying what amounts to “You have to operate an [“appropriate” gender] unit to do this job.” Unless they’re supplying the unit, which removes all choice from the equation, this would seem to be a restriction of gender-other operators’ rights. Imagine the repercussions if an employer told its female employees that they had to “dress like a man.” Telling them “you have to operate a male surrogate” would seem to be pretty much the same deal: discrimination on the basis of gender. But telling its employees “You have to use a company car, not your own car” or “You have to wear this uniform” is entirely acceptable, so saying “You have to use a company surrogate” probably would be too.

Then there’s the question of whether a person could be discriminated against for refusing to use a surrogate. A “surrogate only” workforce would be desirable for many reasons. For example, inventory control would be trivial if one had a first-person recording of every employee’s activities for their entire shift. But employers are generally not in the business of requiring employees to provide their own tools and/or equipment. Workers that do that tend to be considered independent contractors, and employers aren’t able to exert nearly the same level of control over independent contractors as employees. So an employer might say “You have to use the surrogate we provide during work hours.” On one hand, this would seem to be permissible. We let employers require the use of all sorts of technology as a matter of course. But the story makes it clear that there are people with religious objections to the use of surrogates. Requiring these people to use surrogates as a condition of employment might constitute discrimination on the basis of religion, which is also impermissible.

Indeed, the use of surrogates is so widespread that Congress might take action to prevent discrimination on the basis of one’s use of (or refusal to use) surrogates. The story doesn’t go into it, but one can easily imagine that being the sort of thing that might become a live political issue in such a society. The Fourteenth Amendment and the Commerce Clause would probably give Congress the power to pass such legislation, just as it has for the issues of race and gender in employment.

So the story suggests that the introduction of surrogates basically makes gender and race relations go away, but the reality is likely to be far more complex than that. Indeed, simply requiring someone to use a gender-other unit might constitute discrimination in and of itself.

II. Surrogates and Organized Labor

At the end of issue three, “Revelations,” there is an expert from the August 28, 2039 issue of an electronic newspaper. On the third page, there’s an article which discusses the Central Georgia Metropolis’s (presumably mid-21st century Atlanta grown beyond all reasonable bounds) move to an all-surrogate police force. The article suggests that while a lot of police officers think it would make their jobs safer–for obvious reasons–the police union argued, at least for a while, that such a force would be in violation of various labor laws. The story doesn’t exactly say why, and we tend to avoid assuming changes to the law where they haven’t been spelled out. One would think that the police union would be in favor of anything that makes officers less likely to get shot. So why would they oppose the move, and what labor laws might they be violating?

Well, for one thing, as mentioned in the first section, if an employer is going to require the use of a certain thing as a condition of employment, the employer is generally required to provide said thing. There’s an interesting question as to whether a surrogate would be considered a “uniform” or “tools”/”equipment,” but it would probably be the latter. Employers are sometimes allowed to require their employees to provide or pay for their own tools, but the Department of Labor (1) prohibits such arrangements where employees aren’t getting paid at least twice the minimum wage, (2) only permits it where such arrangements are customary (e.g., some construction contractors, etc.), and (3) tends to interpret such requirements as reducing the employee’s actual wage. The latter takes a bit of explaining but makes sense. First of all, the DOL is concerned that an employer might say they’re paying someone $20 an hour but then “deduct” $15 an hour for “equipment expenses” the employee is required to furnish. The DOL says that that person is only making $5 an hour. Labor unions would want to interpret things the same way, so requiring police officers to use surrogates–which seem to cost about as much as cars do now–which they pay for themselves without actually providing some kind of stipend would violate both labor laws about employees paying for tools and the collective bargaining agreement which establishes police compensation.

But the expense of surrogates is also probably why most employers will not want to pay for them. Providing what amounts to a car for each and every employee would be an immense expense. Granted, it’s not like the employer would be just giving them away. Employees would presumably leave the surrogates at the office and just link in when it was time for work, and they’d leave their surrogates with the employer upon disassociation. So rather than buying a surrogate for everyone, all they’d really need to do is buy enough to fully replace their workforce at its busiest moment, plus a healthy stable of backups, and keep them running. That’s not as big an expense as it might be, but we’re still talking a pretty huge outlay. So one can see how employers might want to use surrogates, but might not want to pay for them. Unions–and employees and probably the legislature–would likely oppose this.

But there is another reason more particular to unions, and one which is perhaps not quite as admirable. Becoming a police officer is pretty tough, in that it’s a physically demanding job. If the force started the wide-spread use of surrogates, suddenly anyone with the inclination could potentially become an officer. Unions tend to be opposed to things which make their members less valuable, and one can imagine union opposition to this sort of thing.

III. Conclusion

Of course, all of this misses what might be the most revolutionary phenomenon of a society which uses surrogates: no more commutes! If your “surry” stays at the office, ready to be used tomorrow–or by the next guy on shift–there’s no more need to travel between home and work. Americans would suddenly cut their transportation needs to a tiny fraction of what they are now. What’s left of the US automotive industry might well collapse overnight, as the use of cars would plummet. Anyway. Hopefully the reader can get an idea of just how much there is to talk about in this story. Here we’ve touched on some of the labor issues, but we haven’t even begun to discuss the implications of the surrogate on crime and law enforcement. Stay tuned!

18 responses to “Labor Day 2012: Surrogates

  1. What about data security/privacy issues?

    If my employer owns the surrogate,  I assume they could legally monitor what the surrogate is doing continuously.  But if I own the surrogate, can my employer demand all the surrogate’s recordings (even when I’m off shift)?

    And what if the surrogate is stolen or hacked? Can an employer demand the installation of a software program that will wipe the surrogate’s recordings to prevent the theft of confidential data?

  2. Couldn’t requiring employees to use a gender specific surrogate, even one provided by the company, be considered gender discrimination? As with the airline pilot example, it’s true that the airline isn’t requiring the person operating the surrogate to be a man. But it is requiring that the operator use a male-presenting surrogate. What happens if an otherwise qualified female pilot doesn’t want to operate a male-presenting surrogate? Will she not be hired simply for that reason? Would it make a difference if her reasoning is that she has a moral objection to the interface (which I suppose could also be religious discrimination, if the basis of her moral objection is rooted in her religion) rather than that she simply doesn’t like the experience of using a male presenter rather than a female presenter?

  3. I suspect that, unless there are a lot of changes in how deliveries are made, the car isn’t going anywhere. People still need reliable transportation for shopping, for recreation, and for generally getting from one place to another. Now gas, on the other hand, would likely become less valuable as it becomes less necessary.

    • Yes and no. Those are generally short-range travel needs, which makes alternatives to the personal car viable. Think of New York City, where you may never *need* to own a car. (Parts of Europe offer similar alternatives.)

    • Scott makes good points, but to add on cars would much easier to share within a family and even between families and would last longer without daily commutes.

      If I only needed it for social purposes and the occasional personal errand, I could easily share with my wife instead of us each having a car as we do now, and sharing with our neightbors would suddenly be feasible.

  4. There’s another possibility you haven’t really addressed: maybe employers aren’t explicitly enforcing the use of male-presenting surrogates at all. It’s possible that, because of double standards held over from before the use of surrogates became common, female employees find that they get more respect or are less subject to harassment if they use a male-presenting surrogate at work, and therefore do so by choice. Could an employee file a lawsuit on the grounds that she was treated differently when using a female-presenting surrogate rather than a male-presenting one?

    • It is a fact that tall, good-looking, white male individuals achieve more career success than those who are missing one or more of these attributes. Use of surrogates means that everyone can appear to be a tall, good-looking, white male individual, if they choose to do so, meaning that the differential career opportunities boil down to merit, connections and luck. That’s better than things are now.

      On the other hand, in one of the few cases where gender and racial discrimination is still proper will be eliminated: actors will be able to take on any role, and not just the one(s) whose physical attributes they happen to match. On the flip side, there won’t be any more child actors; those parts will go to adults manipulating child-sized surrogates.

  5. I didn’t read the series: I saw the movie. I don’t know how much was changed. Nevertheless, it appeared as though the surries that police officers got to use were different from those of ordinary people: we saw police officers in the movie jumping over cars in traffic. It was implied that the police surries were tougher than ordinary surries: the “new models” were said to have “night vision capability”. So even though it might have been expensive, it seems as though the surries were being provided by the police force. Otherwise, my God, people would have been spending a lot of money upgrading their surries and I don’t think a cop’s salary would have made this possible, not unless the mass production of surries made them ridiculously cheap which would explain how people “all over the world” were able to afford them. Maybe instead of the cost of a car the price of a surry was more like the cost of a cell phone. That’s probably the right analogy: employers today can expect people to buy their own cell phones; I don’t think a cell phone is considered so expensive nowadays that employers would be expected to provide them.

    There’s another problem that came up in the movie: twice in the movie characters were able to take over another character’s surry and use it to impersonate that character. Now supposedly most surrogate operators could not do this: if they could then you would never know who you were dealing with. I imagine then that the police would be required to not have multiple people use the same surry: in particular if an officer were guilty of misconduct it would be necessary for both the police force and the general public to be able to know at a glance who the operator was.

    Another scene in the movie dealt with the issue of vacations. Bruce Willis’ character suggested that he and his wife “go to Hawaii” and she thought this was a good idea because she could go water skiing and cliff diving, things that she supposedly couldn’t do without her surry and he said that he wanted them to actually GO to Hawaii and she seemed to think this was absurd. Now, mind you, if it were possible to operate a surry in Hawaii from the comfort of your own home then the obvious question would be why they would even have to send their surries to Hawaii at all: they could just operate a surry that is already in Hawaii. The only drawback, I suppose would be that people would not feel comfortable looking in a mirror and not seeing their own face. I could imagine though a company telling an employee that he needs to get to Los Angeles “right away” and to just connect to surry already there rather than paying for airfare and a hotel.

    Again, I don’t know if this was the same in the original books but in the movie the idea of surrogates was originally thought up as a way for disabled people to function normally. In the movie a disabled person was able to operate five different surries and was able to freely transfer from one to the other without ever having to physically move.

    • Actually, it’s fairly common in the IT world for employers to provide a cell-phone, sometimes more than one (one that the employee carries routinely, and one that is passed amongst the staff on a rotating basis… whoever has the phone is the first responder for emergencies (usually during what would ordinarily be off-hours).)

      Believe it or not, there are some of us who don’t carry a phone. I’m not a Luddite, but people tend to assume if they have your cell-phone number that they have some kind of right to immediate responsiveness; if my employer wants that, they’ll get it… but on their dime.

      • Interesting. When I was working in Korea, I had a coworker who refused to give his cell phone number to his boss. “If he wants to contact me any time anywhere,” he said, “then he should pay for my phone.” Our boss was already providing us with an apartment and a phone. When I moved out of the apartment to get my own place I noticed that the new place did not have a phone even though the contract said a phone would be provided. When I asked about them getting a phone they said “It would be cheaper for you to get a cell phone” so I successfully got them to pay for a cell phone for me, seeing as how they had promised me a phone in my contract.

        My next two jobs in Korea also involved contracts that stated that I would be provided with a phone but it was very difficult to get employers to live up to their contracts: they just expected people to buy cell phones. It was very annoying. I imagine in the U.S. employers will follow their contracts without the employees having to complain but, to be fair, if you need a phone and the boss won’t provide one then getting a cell phone yourself is cheaper than hiring a lawyer.

  6. Oh and here’s a thought: what would the law have to say about out sourcing in this case? You could have somebody working from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm and then a guy in the Philippines takes over the surry and operates it from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. Of course it would be weird because the surry would be a completely different person. It would be awkward if you were doing something and had to stop because it was time for the other operator to take over.

  7. I know you say an employer generally can’t require that employees use equipment unless the employer provides the equipment. But would that really apply when the equipment is commonplace in society? For instance, can’t the employer require that someone show up for work wearing a suit and tie (or just normal clothes), even if they don’t pay for the suit and tie (or for the normal clothes)? Compare using a surrogate to wearing clothes and using a surrogate demanded by an employer to wearing a suit and tie.

    • An employer can require its employees to wear clothes, and the employee is responsible to pay for them. It can even specify broad details, e.g., Target employees have to wear a red top. But much beyond that and you’re getting into “uniform” territory, and employers are responsible for providing uniforms.

      Further, surrogates aren’t clothes. The stories make it out as if they cost about as much as a car does. There are dealerships. Surrogates are generally financed, not bought with cash. People have more than one outfit, but they may not have more than one surrogate, so requiring that an employee change their surrogate to meet company policy is a non-trivial requirement.

      • A suit and tie IS a uniform. If you don’t believe me, show up for court without. “office attire” can be a significant expense (particularly for women, I understand, because whereas a man can get away with five suits, replacing parts as needed, the ladies require more variety.)

        I believe the point was, if use of surrogates were particularly common in ordinary business, then perhaps the cost of obtaining and maintaining them would be treated similarly to the cost of obtaining and maintaining a professional wardrobe.

        On the subject of uniforms, I recall during my military service (during the Reagan administration) being issued both work and dress uniforms, but having to purchase and affix my own rank insignia (plus supplementing the issued items with additional items purchased at my expense.

  8. “Unions tend to be opposed to things which make their members less valuable, and one can imagine union opposition to this sort of thing.”

    Except – surrogates do nothing of the sort when it comes to police officers or practically any other job with any sort of skill requirement. Especially it doesn’t reduce the number of bodies required, the usual method of making employees “less valuable”. Nor does it make it possible for “anyone with an inclination” to become an officer, because there’s much more to the job than just physical fitness – there’s a great deal of academic and on-the-job training required as well.

    • Anyone with a sufficient amount of experience working with or for police forces can tell you that, although physical fitness is an important element of the qualifications for entry to the profession, the actual requirements decline with time in service as the nature of the work changes. Note that Jerry Orbach played a policeman on TV right up to the year he passed away.

      However, it is fairly obvious that surrogates would remove the physical fitness requirement entirely (well, I suppose that if the officer’s own natural body were in danger of imminent stroke or heart failure, that might be disqualifying even if the surrogate is top-of-the-line.) However, surrogates would also allow people who would otherwise not consider the field out of concern for their own safety (Officers never know which bad guy is going to shoot at them (or stab them, or thow rocks, or whatever)… it’s rare, but it’s always a possibility. I don’t know how many possible police recruits pursue other avenues of employment for this reason, but I note that the number of people sitting on their couches playing first-person-shooter games is isignificantly higher than the number of people carrying arms in combat zones, serving in the armed forces or even as private contractors.

  9. If any company were providing surrogates for a large number of workers, then it would make sense to purchase them in bulk. I would think that customizing a surrogate to a particular user would have some costs. This could be the reason to have one gender of surrogate.

    In the case of airlines, it would make sense to finance the crew’s surrogates with the plane. You could then “assign” that crew to that plane and the operators could remote in from anywhere. It saves storage costs.

    Though I’d feel uneasy about this. A communication loss for the pilot would be catastrophic. Especially if you were travelling in person. Though I’d suspect they would only have a few of those. The majority of passengers would be surrogates, and they could be stacked in like cargo unless the operator really wanted the experience of flying.

  10. Pingback: The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone | Law and the Multiverse

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