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.
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!