You look up “outsourcing” on Wikipedia with a knowing smile. The crowd/out-sourced oracle says it dates “at least to 1981.” Even if this part isn’t true, I want it to be. Why? Because Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Because the era we have come to believe is ours all started with Maggie and Ronnie’s love affair with delirious deregulation? Because history loves coincidences.
You get into bed and say how good my hair looks. I tell you I dyed it with the new “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” this morning, just after you went to work, and while I logged onto MTurk, Fiverr and Taskrabbit.
I remember back to when we first met, and you would read out loud to me. Now we have “audiobooks.” So, I ask you to read to me tonight.
You oblige: “Outsourcing is one of the central tricks of profit engineering. Keep production in an agitated state of perpetual displacement, shifting it to the next cheapest location.”
I demand a better bedtime story.
E.T.A. Hoffman wrote one called “The Sandman” in 1816. The protagonist, Nathaneal, develops strong amorous feelings towards Olimpia, whom he spies through a telescope. She plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. But Olympia turns out to be an automaton, and Nathaneal is driven mad by the sight of its disembodied eyes lying horrifically on the floor. Three years later, Sigmund Freud built his theory of “das Unheimliche” (“the Uncanny”) around that queasy feeling of not knowing if Olimpia is human or nonhuman, and the even queasier feeling Nathaneal had when he realised he was sexually aroused by a machine.
“Are we outsourcing more and more of ourselves to machines?”
“Baby, the more we outsource our memories to the Cloud, the more our memory can remember less.”
Does it matter where the Cloud is? Does it matter if the server farm is prize-winning architecture? Do the cleaners get a decent break? And are they unionized? Does the Cloud storage facility use rainwater to cool the temperature inside, or am I adding to climate change if I outsource my memory to it?
“Chill. The basic unit of outsourcing is distance,” you say, proudly.
“What kind of distance?”
“A distance that moves production not only from your physical view but also your conceptual view. This distance creates remove. Remove creates distanciation. Distanciation allows us to suspend certain judgments that proximity simply would not.”
I caress your glistening skin. I stare hopelessly into your eyes. I pray, after all these years, you do not turn out to be an automaton.
You tell me about a happy dream, where we have two robot dogs – called “Blindspot” and “Blacksite” – and a real cat – called “Blowback.” You hope I have the same dream soon.
“Would it be useful for robots to cry?” I ask.
“Well it depends what they’d be used for,” you reply, uncommitted.
“If you could, would you outsource your crying to a machine?”
“No,” you reply, committed. “Totally no.”
“Crying is emotionally cleansing. I don’t want to give that up.”
I decide not to share my idea of an app that crowdsources the public to cry on the user’s behalf, in case you find the idea emotionally devastating.
“So,” I process, “outsourcing is a chain of remove?”
“In exchange for something that makes us feel better, smell better, earn better. Like your luscious, gorgeous hair, which always turns me…”
You run your rugged hand through my locks – and shriek. Your palm is a blackened mess. It must be the “Anish Kapoor Ultra Black” dye. It hasn’t dried yet, still in a state of precarious entropy. I feel cheated. It was a good deal on Amazon, and only took three days to be delivered from China. I read all the user reviews. Now it’s all over our bed-sheets, which, fortunately, happen to also be black, but, just plain black, not absolute “light-absorbing black.” And not black like my skin either, which is yet another hue of meaningful noir.
All this pillow talk has reminded me that my ancestors were employed as human machines in a story of outsourcing called “Empire.” It makes me sad, not sexy. Sorrowful, the way our peace is made possible by outsourcing war elsewhere.
We turn our bedside lights off at the same time. Is there a name for the distance we see each other, arrange each other, love?
Published in Spike Art Quarterly, #51, Spring 2017