The Inhumanity of Work: On Olga Ravn’s “The Employees”
By Lauren NelsonJune 4, 2022
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn
When Alan Turing first proposed his eponymous Turing test in 1950, he tried to reframe the question “Can computers think?” into a more unambiguous counterpart: “Can computers imitate human thinking?” He argued that imitation, rather than the nature of thought itself, could be more easily measured, which would in turn lead to a more scientific understanding of the nature of artificial intelligence. Yet, as the films above demonstrate, this question about whether computers can think — and, if so, how they might act on these thoughts — has been at the heart of many science-fictional imaginings of the future. As a result, many of these narratives rest on the central antagonism between human beings and nonhuman machines. The harder it becomes to tell machines apart from humans, the more threatening their imbrication in our lives becomes.
In her new novel, The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century, Olga Ravn stages a decidedly different dynamic. Although the characters in her novel are split along a human/computer divide, the “robot uprising” that Ravn depicts does not categorically target the human world. Unlike HAL’s attempted sabotage of the American space travel enterprise, and unlike the Terminator’s mission to effectively exterminate humanity, the humanoids in The Employees seek to overthrow the reign of work, rather than the reign of humans.
Set aboard the Six-Thousand Ship, The Employees (translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken) is relayed through a series of numbered statements, each dictated in turn to an unseen committee by anonymous employees of the Ship. The committee’s purpose, according to the preface at the beginning of the novel, is to “gain knowledge of local workflows and to investigate possible impacts of the objects, as well as the ways those impacts, or perhaps relationships, might give rise to permanent deviations in the individual employee.” The “objects” in question, which have been recently recovered from the planet New Discovery, have elicited a variety of strange reactions from the employees charged with their care. Reporting instances of uncontrollable attraction, repulsion, haunting dreams, and mounting disquiet, the human and humanoid employees begin to question their relationship to their work and their humanity (or lack thereof). While the workers express their interactions with these objects in startlingly evocative language, the bureaucratic mechanism seems only interested in “workflows” and “deviations” of “individual employees.” An affective divide emerges between employers and employees, not between human and machine.
At first, the statements are chiefly concerned with describing the new objects. Ravn’s imagery in these passages is both beautiful and intensely enigmatic. In many ways, these images drive the plot — the episodic nature of the novel means that much of the plot is relayed retrospectively, and often in abstract or opaque language. While this might feel disorienting at first, Ravn grounds us in rich descriptions of the strange objects and their effects on the workers. These descriptions often verge on the synesthetic, such as the following recollection:
The fragrance in the room has four hearts. None of these hearts is human, and that’s why I’m drawn toward them. At the base of this fragrance is soil and oakmoss, incense, and the smell of an insect captured in amber. A brown scent. Pungent and abiding. It can remain on the skin, in the nostrils, for up to a week.
The worker goes on, describing the numerous associations that this smell conjures before asking: “[D]id you plant this perception in me? Is it a part of the program? Or did the image come up from inside me, of its own accord?” The sharp contrast between passages like this one and the dry, mechanical language used by the board of directors demonstrates that, even as the workers are unable to differentiate “real” from “programmed” perceptions, the objects nonetheless prompt them to radically reconsider the nature of their perception and the world around them.
Even more significantly, many of the humanoid workers develop intense attachments to their human co-workers, or else to “human” feelings that the humanoids exhibit. As one worker states, “They tell me I can’t carry out my work correctly due to functional maladjustments with respect to certain feelings.” Rather than indicate a desire for self-correction, the worker asks: “Is this a human problem? If so, I’d like to keep it.” Over the course of the novel, some humanoids are removed from the company of their human counterparts — fearful of the proximity between these “born” and “made” persons, the Six-Thousand Ship’s board of directors is intent on policing (not blurring) the line between human and machine.
Ravn, however, deliberately blurs this line. While the statements are all numbered, none of their narrators are named. Indeed, while the authors of some statements explicitly address whether they are human or machine, many do not. Or, if the nature of the narrator’s status is eventually made clear, Ravn does so with a darkly humorous nod to the uncannily “robotic” nature of our contemporary rhetoric around work. In one statement, the unnamed narrator claims that they have “never not been employed,” going on to state:
I was made for work. I never had a childhood either, though I’ve tried to imagine one. My human coworker sometimes talks about not wanting to work, and then he’ll say something quite odd and rather silly. What is it he says, now? There’s more to a person than the work they do, or A person is more than just their work? Something like that. But what else could a person be? Where would your food come from? Who would keep you company? How would you get by without work and without your coworkers?
Before the narrator contrasts themselves with their “human coworker,” their claims ring oddly familiar; how many of our friends and acquaintances have boasted about having never not been employed, about how well they have been “built” or “trained” for their current occupation, or even indicated (with a hint of pride) that their early entrance into the workforce marked the end of their childhood? Even in the era of the “Great Resignation,” how many of us have difficulty embracing the notion that “a person is more than just their work”? Moreover, the humanoid’s questions about food, company, and what can only be described as a general sense of purpose indicate that it is the machine, not the human, who understands how deeply linked our identities are to our jobs. In other words, the humanoid’s placid observations easily pinpoint the stakes of our contemporary, all-absorbing culture of work, making the human seem naïve and trite in comparison.
N. Katherine Hayles has discussed how the android characters in Philip K. Dick’s novels are enfolded into a hyper-capitalist system, pointing out the ways in which representations of the android body are inseparable from the corporations that produce them. “Given this dynamic,” she writes, “it is no surprise that the struggle for freedom often expresses itself as an attempt to get ‘outside’ this corporate encapsulation.” Importantly, the “corporate encapsulation” that is the Six-Thousand Ship is oddly divorced from a wider capitalistic economy. As one character in The Employees recalls:
What I miss most from home is shopping. […] I understood impending events through shopping. I understood the circumstances through the items that characterized them. Shopping had a kind of numbing effect on me, and now that it’s no longer something I do, I’ve started having thoughts and feelings that turned out to be sad.
The employees live in a place of constant work, yet they are unable to use monetary exchange to make sense of their world. Here, identity, social relations, and the passage of time all occurs in the context of work, fantastically isolated from global (or intergalactic) capitalism.
As it turns out, the central conflict in The Employees occurs when a majority of the humanoid employees reject the premise that they were “made for work,” launching a kind of strike-turned-mutiny against the Six-Thousand Ship and its board of directors. While this campaign does not avoid inflicting harm on the humans on the Ship, it also does not target these coworkers. The casualties that occur are an unfortunate consequence in a war against work. Ultimately, the humanoids seek to destroy the workplace in its entirety — something that the humans must choose to either support or obstruct. Recognizing that the humans’ loyalty rests with, rather than against, the workplace, the humanoids are forced to “strike” without them.
Instead of asking us to imagine a world in which we can’t distinguish humans from convincing AI dupes, Ravn asks us to envision a future in which the machines, rather than the humans that create and maintain them, lead the workers’ revolution. By taking a closer look at the fundamental relationship between artificial intelligence and the corporatization of our world, we might understand that the true threat comes in the form of CEOs and boards of directors, rather than technologically advanced machinery. What’s more, Ravn covertly places artistic production at the core of this shifting paradigm: the strange objects that usher in the Six-Thousand Ship’s revolt are loosely based on the sculptural installations of Lea Guldditte Hestelund, a visual artist based in Copenhagen. The Employees, then, can be read as a kind of ekphrastic writing that hinges on the capacity for art to help us critically examine the world in which we live (and work). Hestelund has explained that her sculptures were made to appear “not really human, but still living.” Like Ravn’s characters, they dwell in the uncanny valley between human and nonhuman. As Ravn’s characters attempt to describe the nature of these objects in the world of the novel, they chip away at this distinction; at times, characters (both human and humanoid) are unsure of the extent to which they can even be considered “alive.” They seem to be asking: if my life is my work, am I even living?
Lauren Nelson is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Texas at Austin.
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