(2021, director: Noah Hutton)

By Dan Nahum, Economist

The increasing precarity of economic life for many people is being reflected in a growing output of film and TV, including the work of Ken Loach (‘Sorry We Missed You’, ‘I, Daniel Blake’), Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s 2019 documentary ‘American Factory’, Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning ‘Parasite’ as well as his ‘Snowpiercer’ film and subsequent TV series, the interplanetary class divisions explored by the Syfy Channel’s ‘The Expanse’, and Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning ‘Nomadland’. Here we consider a new entry in this recent canon of art imitating life.

Writer-director Noah Hutton has shrewdly crafted a science-fiction world that closely resembles our own. This approach cleverly embraces the limitations of science fiction cinema produced on a budget, as well as being a nod to the classic science fiction premise (‘What if: our world but with one change?’). The premise of the film is that quantum computing has revolutionised the world’s financial markets, further exploding the dominance of the financial industry.

The shabby underbelly of this quantum computing revolution is the rise of ‘cabling’ — workers managed by an algorithm, via an app, dragging cables through the woods between one quantum computing node and another. Each time a new cable route is successfully established, this slightly redefines the rules of the financial market, and creates new opportunities for financial growth. (In practice, think of a telecom utilities company run by Uber.)

Enter our everyman, Ray (Dean Imperial) — perhaps a stand-in for the audience. He is a symbol of America’s forgotten working class — under-educated and out of his depth in this brave new world of quantum computing and algorithmic management — but he is no blank slate. While surly and resistant to change, he is likeable, with a strong sense of family: witness his care of his chronically ill younger brother, Jamie (Babe Howard). It is subtly suggested that the affliction plaguing young men such as Jamie — ‘omnia’ — is related to the quantum computing revolution.

Ray combines this with a politics that proposes that success is down to individual effort and initiative: it is this sense of personal and family responsibility in the context of his brother’s spiralling medical bills that wins out over his technophobia and resistance to change; this results in him acquiring a cabling token (license) via a dodgy second-hand market.

Ray’s beliefs are challenged not only by his experiences in the algorithmically-managed cabling workforce, but also by his conversations, while performing this work, with an experienced cabler who harbours a secret, Anna (Madeline Wise).

Anna could be considered the movie’s moral centre. The key question she asks Ray, and thereby the audience, to contemplate is: if cabling is a service that is essentially performed for and by a monopoly, enabling huge gains for financial markets: why should the workers, who make the whole edifice possible, be treated so badly?

Ultimately, it is quietly suggested that the winners are less the capitalists — facing new resistance in an emerging class war — than the rentiers (the AirBNB of this brave new age, perhaps). They benefit regardless of how the struggle for fair work progresses. Land, after all, remains finite, and everyone — monolithic tech company and atomised gig worker alike — needs it.

It is impressive that Hutton has wrung so much from so little. The performances and darkly satirical humour are superbly understated, with Dean Imperial as Ray a particular standout: a working man always somewhat off-balance as the world shifts beneath his feet.

Recommended and playing in selected cinemas now.

CFW, housed within the Australia Institute, conducts and publishes progressive economic research on work, employment, and labour markets. https://www.futurework

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