New Frontiers for the Labourer-Cyborg

An exploration of ‘limit’ at the intersections of cyberpunk, labour and the future of work

“We live in a contradiction, a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian – where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal…Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism.”
– Baidou, On Evil, 2001-02[i]

Capitalism is unjust. Life is unfair. And all we can do is “try not to think about it”.[ii]

In Mark Fisher’s casual deconstruction of Cuaron’s 2006 film, Children of Men, it becomes apparent that the society plagued by a catastrophe that causes mass sterility perfectly mirrors the kind of detachment we experience when ‘we’ve seen all that there is to see’.[iii] We stop experiencing those continuous, ongoing tragedies fully. This perpetuity of tragedy(ies), combined with frivolous reportage that rarely attempts to deconstruct any event, is a heady concoction that numbs us; deadens us and makes it so that most of us simply question our involvement in the entire tragedy to begin with. Why must we act? For whom? For what?

We try not to think about it.

Situating Labour

A few months back we witnessed an entire exodus of migrant labourers who had taken to the streets, the same streets that they’d built with their own hands, in a bid to reach the homes that they had long since abandoned for the Indian dream.

The sudden, turbulent, catastrophic appearance of those who predominantly occupied the deep recesses of the concealed, mechanical, factory environs succeeded in temporarily shattering the veil that led us to believe that industry and development were just being driven by an invisible hand.

A group of migrants pose for a picture while walking from Delhi in March 2020. Photo: Biplov Bhuyan/HT photo

It is the logic of this ‘process-based’ visibility that makes artistic processes like the creation of a landmark painting, the moment before the perfect photograph or even the transformation of a person into a dancer backstage all perfectly desirable to also observe because the result momentarily delights us. However, we wish to never ‘see’ the exploitative processes that underlie the work that is menial, or labour-intensive and so we remain immune.

In this context, what does the future of work look like? Does labour and the unease surrounding labour morph suitably toward a positive direction? Or does it simply propagate the same biases through different modalities, enabling a stasis, a deadening of a different order?

Disenchanted Disruption

The term ‘technological disruption’ is thrown around with carelessness nowadays even as Silicon Valley stalwarts keep inventing newer phrases that mix aggressive zest with philanthropic innocence. Racism can be ‘hacked’, creativity generated through ‘sprints’ and some swear that scrum may well be akin to an ideology or for the particularly interpolated ones, even a cult. ‘Disruption’, in this context, is supposed to somehow excite our innermost desires that we didn’t even know existed right up until there was some kind of tech to help us fulfil them.

These tech-evangelists would also have us believe that if we approach every development with the spirit of moderation, a utopia awaits. Even those who warn us tell us to be ‘cautious’ but provide no clear instruction as to whether we should simply embrace each innovation with open arms, or behave like Luddites instead.

If we situate manual labour, or rather, the factory-worker within this context, we observe a degree of technological infusion. The Industrial Age has long since been presenting images and accounts of those who have become one with the machine through art and literature alike. The worker becomes this entity that exists only for a specific purpose – which is that of production.

“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” 
– Haraway, 1985[iv]

Haraway’s seminal text never seems to fall out of relevance, because its assertions do ring true. The boundaries that are dissolved between the human and the machine also cement our distinctiveness from other animals when it comes to the utilisation of external tools – some extant, some purely derived.

Noted cognitive philosopher Andy Clark goes one step further to assert that “human beings have always been “natural born cyborgs,” or “human-technology symbionts” in his 2002 work, Natural-Born Cyborgs. We often tend to forget that inventions like the printing press, or the pen, or even the wheel, for that matter – were all contextually futuristic, all technological in their scope. As time surges forward, we find ourselves almost naturalising technologies and looking at other boundary dissolving options to be the new normal.

These philosophies of techno-optimism take on different forms in critical theory, where, to go back to Haraway: “The cyborg is a kind of dissembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self-feminists must code” (ibid.). For codifying the self and redesigning the body, bio- and communication technologies become the essential tools.”[v]

Humani Victus Instrumenta: Ars Coquinaria, 1569. Source: Wikimedia commons

Literature and other forms of media present a compelling string of narratives in this vein. While the word ‘prediction’ is often bandied about when we deconstruct such mediums, we must also accept the fact that most pieces of dystopian/utopian fiction emerge simultaneously as observations and criticisms of the present – and depictions of who does the labour in these narratives are no exception to this rule. 

When we step into the realm of sci-fi and cyberpunk, the human is even replaced by automatons or augmented through the process of cyborgisation. In Shirow Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell (1989-90)[vi], we see a disembodied protagonist in the form of Motoko Kusanagi, who is a ‘full-body’ cyborg. Through several plot twists and turns, we are shown that she merely exists as a cyberbrain and, more importantly, as a ‘ghost’ on the internet – allowing her a liminality hitherto unseen in protagonists, let alone female protagonists. For her, the body is immaterial; a mere sleeve to be discarded at will when she has successfully reassembled the self. While dystopian in its overtones, there is a sense of hope embedded within this depiction of tech. It may become a grand equaliser for those willing to take the leap of faith and embrace the machine, even.

Another instance where we see this is in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002)[vii]; where the body has become a literal sleeve and humankind has succeeded in achieving conditional immortality. A ‘stack’ becomes the crucible of consciousness which can be slotted into a newer body via re-sleeving and the protagonist is an ‘Envoy’ – referring to those who are trained to adapt to newer bodies for a variety of purposes that are mostly militaristic in nature.

Not all of it comes within the ambit of grim optimism, though. The beauty of cyberpunk narratives lies within its capability to explore possibilities enabled by tech; but at the same time, also attach ethical-moral frameworks to those possibilities. Much of it is inevitably linked to capitalistic modes of exploitation, where we return to Baidou’s ominous remarks and in tandem, pessimism among philosophers.

Technology makes the very act of oppression all-encompassing, deadly and efficient even as efficiency becomes the defining feature of what governs most businesses today. Take Asian Paints, a company whose cheery motto implies the creation of a warm home, full of organic life being nurtured: Har ghar kuch kehta hai (Every home has a story).

But Asian Paints also happens to be one of the most mechanised enterprises where they combine sensors, automation tech, social media analytics and a high-powered AI that’s running on over 30 years of data input to create the most efficient supply chains in their sector, where they deliver paint 2.5 to 3 Lakh (yes, that’s right) times a day. To contextualise, the second largest company in India averages a mere 40,000 deliveries.[viii] Production managers follow AI generated production schedules and the entire process is automated from raw material sourcing to delivery. But ask experts as to whether they produce the best paint? The answer is a resounding ‘no’.

Inside an Asian Paints factory. Courtesy: Asian Paints website

Jean-Francois Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition (1984), argues that through the endless infusion of new technologies, capitalism is a “vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanising it in order to rehumanise it at a different level of normative capacity.”[ix]

His technocrats resemble the so-called ‘mavericks’ and tech-moguls whose focus on ethical implications does often take a backseat as compared to the force and passion with which they argue for technology as an inevitable harbinger of evolution. Francis Fukuyama conservatively addresses advances in biotechnology by saying that they invariably “will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history. This is important [. . .] because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experiences as a species.”

Whether to be pessimistic or optimistic becomes an intricate decision based on priorities, possibilities and ideological moralities – what is central to us is examining the future of labour through the lens of technological infusion. This leads us to a few questions.

First, how does the cyborg and other related new-frontier tech fit into the paradigm of industrial, factory-oriented labour? Will there be Haraway’s survival and freedom through a re-written identity? Or will Fisher’s deadening realism pervade it all through capitalism’s spectre as it reinforces its agenda through other modalities? Or neither?  

Drudgery, Hierarchy and Tech

Most books on the future revolve around making calculated decisions based on current trends, or deriving a model based on civilisational trends – i.e. an approach that relies on historical, anthropological, archaeological, and sociological frameworks. As deviating from this treatment completely is virtually impossible, we opt for an approach which deconstructs art and representational media – which gives us ample opportunities to compare, and even predict, the way in which the future of labour shall be shaped. These analyses are not without merit. For instance, Gibson defined cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination” in his incredibly important work, Neuromancer in 1984. This isn’t really far from what the internet is – an intangible space that is increasingly becoming more and more accessible and more importantly, habitable.

To address the representations of “labour”, many narratives within the cyberpunk and sci-fi genres are illustrative. As Adam Rakunas (author, Windswept) wryly notes, “We’ve dreamed about replacements for our drudgery ever since drudgery was invented. That drudgery got a shot in the arm during the Industrial Revolution, which freed people from back-breaking labour by making others engage in mind-numbing labour…”[x]

“Drudgery”, or the menial nature of work enables the same ennui of mindlessness and stasis that is tied to the depictions of capitalistic sweat-shops en masse. Time and again, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)[xi] is invoked, and rightly so: the image of giant machine maintaining a dead, numbed sense of order which eventually results in anarchic action from the workers.

Czech writer Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R/Rossum Universal Robots (1921)[xii] takes us to a reality where “roboti” are manufactured from protoplasmic matter, all set to work for humans; but ultimately rebel, too, in a classic anarchic moment.

Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R/Rossum Universal Robots. Image: BBC

While the environs of the Asian Paints example certainly don’t resemble Lang’s or Čapek’s landscapes, the point to note is that such environments are rather commonplace, even though their dystopian overtones have been replaced by a zeal for technological optimisation. 

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982)[xiii] takes us to Philip K Dick’s world, where “Replicants” become the ones to take on dangerous and menial jobs alike before slowly acquiring a consciousness and furthermore, we can later even arrive at The Matrix (1999)[xiv] which inverts the binary where the humans’ sole function is to be convenient sources of energy for the world machine.

How are the humans kept in check? A false reality is formulated for these dreaming arrays of cells: the reality of everyday, mundane life. And it seems to suffice! 

Then why do these technological creations (albeit fictional) eventually experience deep conflict as concerns their nature, their purpose and more importantly their identity? Pop-culture is replete with understandings about AI that are polarised – it either elevates the human race via techno-centric apotheosis, or results in them being subjected to a grand, humiliating fall after which an uneasy peace is engineered between creator and creation. The answer seems to situate itself simply: they are, after all, being subjected to drudgery. And drudgery leaves ample room in one’s mind, one’s circuits, one’s mainframes to try and locate a sense of purpose – because this is giving them none.

But we did not create labourers in the conventional sense. We simply decided, via a multiplicity of social orders and hierarchies and civilisational paradigms that if drudgery could never be escaped, we’d have someone to do it for us – eerily like fiction.

This is especially true for countries with an unorganised labour surplus like India, where skilled labour has some curiously skewed definitions that simply dehumanise the unskilled labourer. And dehumanisation is the grand spice in the recipe of exploitation, especially when we situate it within the narratives of cyberpunk fiction: our creations are simply pale imitations, designed for tasks that we’d rather not even frisk around. Is the condition of our labour not the same? The difference seems to be that within the margins of these pages, perpetuity can be broken through revolt. Can the same be said for our capitalistic paradigm? Perhaps not.


Most authors don’t seem to agree with Clark’s definition of humans being cyborgs from the get-go. Their cyborgs are often found on the fringes of society, navigating the line between human and machine, resulting in hybridised modes of thought and subsequent action. Their integration with the mechanical, the synthetic, is also their tryst with the process of dehumanisation but something within them still remains human, anchoring them to the margins and keeping the ghost of their identity eternally flickering there. Within this contradiction lies their ability to do work, which would typically be an issue of moral flexibility.

But there’s a snag. Curiously, as compared to human creations (AI, automatons and so on) the cyborg in fiction is more prominently seen doing highly specialised work. While there’s an unsavoury trend when it comes to the work they do – mercenaries, assassins, fixers, hackers – you name the underbelly motif and you’ll find it. More often than not, cyborgs here become harbingers of a new world order where human sensibilities have changed irreparably to accommodate their work as commonplace.

A recent collection, titled “Menial: Skilled Labour in Science Fiction”[xv] presents a curiously new trend in such narratives. One sees a more vibrant array of characters and sensibilities: the presence of central characters that belong to marginalised identities, for instance. However, an inconclusive drabness and perpetuity manages to seep into the frame where the worker is still relegated to the margins.

Take Leviathan (Jasmine Templet)[xvi], one of the more striking stories in this collection. This takes us to the world of a newly employed, despondent janitor whose task it is to literally wash a Leviathan in question; which horrifies him to no end. However, the end makes this drab reality only too well-established as he takes the job in his stride and meekly continues the same routine.

Alternatively, there is also Diamonds in the Rough (A.J. Fitzwater)[xvii] that depicts a genderless waste-disposal worker who works at the far edge of the galaxy. They develop a love interest, ultimately saving their said love interest through VR-based gladiatorial combat which is simple enough – but that is as much as they are entitled to when it comes to perpetuating a life of toil.

For the Indian context, Hari Kunzru’s Drone[xviii] brings to us a very refreshingly detailed, environment that retains all the trappings of an oppressive Hindutva-based society – in fact, it has just become more efficient. Drone depicts two extremes: one, the life of Parvati, who is the “perfect” daughter of the omnipotent “Seth”, a figure that embodies the quintessence of capitalistic power combined with good old conservative traditionalism; allowing for yet another highly efficient model of technological control that Lyotard fears. In a detailed play of paradoxes, Parvati, this model of perfection, the apple of the Seth’s eye, manages to take an interest in the world of miners whom she surveys with an array of drones at her command – and that is where we meet Jai, the labour-cyborg. 

His identity, or lack thereof is immediately established with “No one cares about his name. We will call him Jai.”[xix] Parvati’s drones buzz around him, which results in other miners looking at him with a mixture of envy and apprehension, while he himself remains blissfully unaware. But the story does not end with some sort of binary shattering reunion. In fact, his desire to become a cyborg so that he can be at the peak of his efficiency is what ultimately causes his demise – the mechanical arm that he purchases turns out to be glitchy, faulty and induces a nervous system failure. In the end, we are left with “absolute annihilation. Tomorrow, no one will even remember he was here.”[xx]

As newer and newer waves of speculation do the rounds, we see that the more recent works in this genre accept the dystopian nature of technological integration in an almost sober, nonchalant manner. From premonitory but ultimately upheaval-based narratives like Blade Runner and Metropolis, we’ve now arrived at simple exploration, combined with resignation. Is that a sign of the times where the effects of technological integration are becoming more and more observable, acute? We shall perhaps not know just yet. But the perpetuity that once only existed in real life seems to have seeped into fiction – and that may not be the most optimistic future for the labour cyborg either.


[i] Christoph Cox, Molly Whalen, and Alain Badiou. On Evil: An Interview with Alain Badiou, Cabinet, Issue 5, Winter 2001-2002 

[ii] Mark, Fisher.  Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero books, Winchester, UK  2009

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Donna J. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181.

[v] Ibid

[vi] Masamune Shirow, Ghost in the Shell, Weekly Young Magazine, Kodansha, 1997. Web.

[vii] Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006. Print.

[viii] Saha, The unheard Secrets behind the success of a Game Changing Indian Company: Asian Paints, 2020 quoting Mukherjea, Unusual Billionaires, Penguin-Random House, 2016

[ix] Lyotard, Jean-François, Geoffrey Bennington, and Brian Massumi. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1984. Print.

[x] Rakunas, Adam, Labor in Sci-Fi, or Make the Robots Do It, The B&N Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, 2016. Web.

[xi] Lang, Fritz. Metropolis. Paramount Pictures, 1927.

[xii] Capek, Karel. R.u.r. (rossum’s Universal Robots). La Vergne: Neeland Media LLC, 2019. Internet resource.

[xiii] Scott, Ridley & Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2012.

[xiv] Wachowski, Lilly, Lana Wachowski, The Matrix, Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, 2018.

[xv] Jennings, Kelly, and Shay Darrach. Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction. Somerville, MA: Crossed Genres Pub, 2013. Print.

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Various Authors. Granta: India: Another Way of Seeing. London: Granta, 2015. Print.

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

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