Alien: Covenant (2017) is certainly a film not worth watching. I warded off boredom by thinking about work. When a scriptwriter writes the script for a film, they concentrate on themes essential to the story and fill out the rest with everyday stuff. In a science fiction film you thus might think about monsters and robots, and take workers and their tasks from everyday life, the way they are.
The first film in the series, Alien (1979) was made thirty-eight years ago. The author at the time took workers as they were then, today’s author took today’s. Watching both films together shows most clearly how attitudes to work have changed over the decades.
Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go
In the first film there are only seven people employed on the spaceship and everyone has a clear role and thus a job to do. They are clearly experts in their respective fields and Wikipedia also lists their occupations along with their names (source). So this was an era when the future of space travel was imagined much like life on earth – people started their working lives as apprentices and worked their way to become masters. Then they jump into a rocked and blast off into space.
In this year’s film there are two thousand people on board the spaceship as well as a thousand or so embryos. Their actual function is more sensed than seen, but we are clearly dealing with volunteers, amateurs who are doing it all for joy. Their only function is to multiply, something anyone can do as long as they can tell the difference between the navel and the vagina. It is painful to watch them as they go about their professional matters; they run out onto a strange planet without any protective gear, they stick their heads into pods where monsters rest, etc., etc. Basically, the typical precarious workers of today. Thousands of them. All amateurs, no masters, exchangeable and unmemorable, ‘cannon fodder’ as they would once have been called.
They are happy to hold a job, even if it is in fact their job that holds them – devouring them and spitting them out, worthless and useless.
This Is How Work Has Changed
This is how work has changed over the decades; Ford’s invention of simplifying the work process continues. Every element is becoming so simple that anyone can do it. As Richard Sennet puts is, there are, for example, no more master bakers, just an bread roll icon on the oven which an uneducated worker brought in from some other part of the world can press, and that’s it.
It is no wonder then, that on the spaceship, a third of the crew are embryos which can be moulded into anything, though certainly not something particularly demanding. It is also not strange that there is not a single representative of the corporation on board, as space travel is dangerous business.
The only professional member of the crew is an android, so a robot.
And Who Is Working Now?
Alien: Covenant is a good example of the current situation in the labour market. With the basic elements of work being so simple, the battle is now being fought between two ways of how to carry them out in the cheapest way possible:
An example of the former, we can take Amazon – they have recently announced that they will soon be able to delver by drones, so robots. The news caused great enthusiasm on social media and without doubt some of those who cheered are also the future unemployed – especially considering how many people work in jobs related to delivery. Only UPS has 434,000 employees (source).
Amazon is of course trying to outdo Wal-Mart, which is a more old-fashioned and less technological company. Wal-Mart hit back in the only possible way: it has a million and a half employees in the US and before they leave work, they get bags and packets to deliver on their way home – this way they will cover 90% of the American population (source). They did not give any details about how they would pay the workers extra for these deliveries. After all, employees need to somehow show their loyalty to the company and work for nothing on top of a badly paid job, don’t they?
And Who Will Work?
So, in the long term, we are faced with two possibilities, robotization or working for free. Neither case brings a wage to employees. And without a wage they won’t be able to consume. Capitalism is thus approaching an interesting decision.
But before it will arrive at this decision, workers will experience much further humiliation. A job, even if unpaid, has become a status symbol and employers can come up with anything. Not just delivering packages, but even beauty contests as a criterion for being offered a job: the Czech nuclear power plant Temelin chose its interns by hosting a bikini contest for the candidates and the one chosen as the favourite on social media was given a temporary unpaid internship. If beauty is a criterion for getting to work in nuclear energy, it means simply that this is yet another of those occupations which has fallen to a level amateur enough for it to be preformed even by a machine.
The only occupation which is excluded from this scheme is creative work – and it is interesting how in many countries, especially transitional ones which feel most cheated in terms of the promised consumerism, a hatred towards creativity is rising. The main reason is, of course, envy.
Returning to the film Alien: Covenant – so people are unimportant but what is interesting is how unimportant the monsters are too. Both belong to nature, so something already demoded. The main and final battle in the film is between an older and newer version of robots.
If we stretch the idea of robotozation to extremes, it is little else but a hatred of nature, of the living, something Erich Fromm noted and described as the phenomenon of a necrophile person.
If, on the other hand, we take through the idea of free unpaid amateur work, this is nothing but narcissistic sadism of the one offering the work, relishing in shaming, humiliating and feeling contempt for anyone who might need it and is left to their whims and mercy. It builds in them a sense of superiority.