The daily experience of working and living right now is exhausting on a cellular level. I’m not even referring to the specific context of the ongoing global pandemic, which has only amplified problems that have been humming in the background of our lives & work over the past couple decades. Everything is fake now. Meaningful, tangible experiences have been distorted and “disrupted” beyond recognition by the most power-hungry dipshits among us – tech bro vampires who mistake their inherited wealth for personal genius. Most jobs aren’t really jobs anymore; they’re one-off assigned tasks performed by “independent contractors” for mega-corporations with incredible talent for innovating new ways to avoid taking care of their own. Most personal interactions have lost their intimacy; they’re abstracted and commodified for social media broadcast, creating a constant pressure to be “on” all the time that makes even our idle hobbies feel like a secondary mode of labor – paid out in likes. The modern world is uniquely empty and cruel in a way that’s becoming increasingly difficult to satirize. There’s no artistic parody that could truly match the exponential inanity of the real thing, at least not in a way that won’t be topped the very next week by some other cosmic Internet Age blunder.
Lapsis gets close. A high-concept, low-budget satire about our near-future gig economy dystopia, it’s a bleak comedy but not a hopeless one. The wonderfully-named Dean Imperial stars as an old-fashioned working class brute who struggles to adapt to the artificial gig work of the Internet Age. Our befuddled, belly-scratching hero takes on a new job running cables in the woods as infrastructure for a new, so-called “Quantum” internet service. His daily work is assigned through an app that gamifies grueling, daily hikes with a point system and a competitive social media component with fellow contract “employees”. He struggles to comprehend the basic functions of the app, requiring constant assistance from younger hikers who find smartphone tech more familiar & intuitive. Yet, he ignores their attempts to unionize, focusing instead on sending all his hard-earned digital money back to a younger brother suffering from a vaguely defined type of medical exhaustion with the world called “omnia”. The app heavily regulates hikers’ rest, like Chaplin being chided for taking an extended bathroom break in Modern Times. They compete for tasks with automated delivery robots that trek on in the hours when their human bodies need sleep. Their wages are taxed into oblivion by small, daily expenses that should be funded by the mega-corporation that “employs” them. It’s all eerily familiar to the inane, artificial world we occupy now, with just enough exaggeration to qualify as science fiction.
The only other modern labor-exploitation satire I can recall in the same league as Lapsis is 2018’s Sorry to Bother You. Lapsis doesn’t aim for the laugh-a-minute absurdism of Boots Riley’s instant-cult comedy, but it’s maybe even more successful in pinpointing exactly how empty and draining it feels to live & work right now. Visually, it makes the most out of its budget in its art instillation set pieces that juxtapose its hiking-in-the-woods nature setting with impossible tangles of internet cables and the imposing cube-shaped modems they link to. Satirically, it’s most impressive for walking a tightrope between observational humor and moralistic allegory. Despite all of the tangible, recognizable parodies of modern gig-work tech it lays out in its early stretch, the film is most commendable for its more abstract, big-picture metaphors about inherited wealth, capitalist exploitation, and soul-deep exhaustion with modern living – all of which play out within the absurdist specificity of its near-future premise. I was especially delighted that it strives towards a hopeful solution for our fake-as-fuck hellscape instead of just dwelling on its compounding problems. It dares to sketch out a hopeful vision for labor solidarity between young, very-online Leftists and more traditional working-class Joe Schmoes, where it could just as easily point out the specific ways things are fucked right now without bothering to offer an exit strategy. We need that kind of hopeful vision right now, even while we acknowledge exactly what’s wrong with the world as-is.