Not Much Between Us And Dystopia
Published in Online Spin, June 7th, 2019
"The Yes Men” is one of my favorite documentaries—and one of my favorite movies—of all time. It came out in 2004, and featured the adventures of Michael Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum (aliases) as they attempt to disrupt the capitalist order.
Bonanno & Bichlbaum got their start when they ended up with the domain name gatt.org. They decided to create a parody website that looked like it belonged to the World Trade Organization, which is the successor organization to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
While it seemed to B&B that the parody was obvious, apparently it wasn’t so obvious to people who stumbled across the website looking for the real WTO. The duo started to get invitations to conferences from people who thought they were inviting bigwigs from the financial world—invites B&B decided to accept.
The first speaking gig they agreed to was at a conference for the Center for International Legal Studies, a group whose purpose is “to promote and disseminate knowledge among members of the international legal community.”
Ostensibly representing the WTO, “Andreas” Bichlbauer gave a presentation in which he suggested that our current system for allowing corporations to buy votes—by paying PR agencies to develop campaigns to convince people to vote certain ways—was wildly inefficient.
Bichlbauer proposed an alternate system: VoteAuction.com, where voters could simply sell their vote directly to the highest bidder, eliminating the middleman. Everybody would be happy.
B&B expected to get thrown out of the conference at a minimum, possibly sent to jail. Instead, they were warmly applauded.
What could they do to make people realize how ridiculous the capitalist world order is? They decided to up the ante at a conference on “textiles of the future” in Finland.
Bichlbauer showed up as “Hank Hardy Unruh,” a WTO representative, lamenting the modern-day management conundrum: It’s much cheaper to use “remote workers” (read: slaves) in, say, Gabon, but much harder to control them.
His solution was the “management leisure suit”: a gold lamé, skin-tight unitard, featuring a giant inflatable phallus with a screen on the end of it—the “employee visualization appendage.” The EVA allowed the manager and the “remote worker” to exchange information directly via chips implanted in each.
No words are adequate to describe the ridiculousness of this prank. You cannot believe how outrageous it was, unless you watch it—even then it is difficult to believe.
What B&B try to do is expose the preposterousness of capitalism taken to its extreme. And what they struggle with, time and time again, is how willing people are to accept the extreme. How crazy do they have to get, they wonder, for people to push back?
Whether it’s parody or truth, we still don’t know the answer to that question.
Last month, a Harvard Business Review article called "When Algorithms Make Managers Worse” reported, “Amazon… has received two patents for a wristband designed to guide warehouse workers’ movements with the use of vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient. IBM has also applied for a patent for a system that monitors its workforce with sensors that can track pupil dilation and facial expressions and then use data on an employee’s sleep quality and meeting schedule to deploy drones to deliver a jolt of caffeinated liquid so its employees’ workdays are undisturbed by a coffee break.”
Someone sat in a meeting and pitched that wristband, and everyone else at that meeting took that person seriously. Someone wrote up a proposal on caffeine-delivery drones, and it got sign-off.
How crazy do things have to get for people to push back?