Walls, Drones, and Dreams – Sleep Dealer

Recent events, involving our government’s horrific treatment of families seeking asylum from terror and death in Central America and the placement of children in privately run detention facilities, have made it difficult to do anything but post angry faces on social media, donate to folks willing to help, protest,  and circulate articles about how our borders have become a proxy for the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Running right against this reality was the unreality of the E3 conference, and the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. When I saw that, my first thought was “Wow. This was the corporate run cyberpunk dystopia we were promised when I was growing up.” The retro-ness of the game had an appeal. I can understand, though, why folk didn’t like it. It’s the way we thought things would be.

Here’s the thing: we are nostalgic for a more obvious, flashy, and stylistic world like that of Night City 2077 because it’s easier for us to get a grip on than the current cyberpunk dystopia we live in. Today, we can’t blame our lack of empathy on too many mods. It’s a constant drumbeat from the administration and their corporate backers, talking about the folks who lived south of the boarder as if they are parasites coming to infest America. As if they are not human.

What happens if it advances, though? If we do get the ‘Murica so many want?

Well, director and writer Alex Rivera crafted a vision of that future back in 2008. A while back, I wrote that we need the punk in cyberpunk now more than ever. We need the questioning of authority. We need cyberpunk’s storytelling to show how this path we’ve chosen can lead us down a very dark road.

Rivera showed the way in his story about life on the other side of a fortified, militarized US-Mexico border. Not only does it ask questions about technology – how it can liberate and enslave us – but also about how we’ve created an illusion about what goes into making America great again, and who does the actual building.

It’s a film called Sleep Dealer.

Memo Cruz lives on a family subsistence farm in Santa Ana Del Rio. During the day, he and his family try and keep the crops growing. He walks with his father to the fortified dam blocking the river water from flowing from the US to Mexico, where they have to pay for every drop they get for their farm. Cash goes into a scanner slot. Water comes out. Everything is commoditized.

When not working, Memo dreams of reaching out to the wider world. He taps into communications systems and listens in from far off places, including the land where dreams come true: The US. Unfortunately, his attempts at outreach get mistaken for hijacking attempts by ecoterrorists. When he, his brother, and his mother are out shopping they see a live edition of “DRONES” – a US program where ‘node pilots’ jack into drones and “blow the Hell out of the bad guys.”

In this case, the drone pilot destroys memo’s house, and kills his father.

Now lacking their dad’s income, Memo heads to Tijuana for work. There he meets Luz, who’s using her cybernetic implants (nodes) to try to sell stories and experiences on the web. She acts as a guide to the node worker community, gets Memo his first set of jacks, and tells him about the sleep dealers.

Sleep dealers are node work factories. There, hundreds of workers jack in and pilot remote construction drones in the US. The node workers provide cheap labor, building the American dream while being forever blockaded from it. In the US, all everyone sees are machines building new skyscrapers or laying new roads. But behind those machines working night and day, there’s a node worker in a Tijuana factory, pumping his nervous system dry.

They work until they collapse. That’s why the factories are called Sleep Dealers.

Meanwhile, in the US, someone is looking into the person whose father was killed by the drone strike – buying his stories via Luz…

I don’t want to give more away. I want folks to experience this film. It’s available on DVD and BluRay. You can also rent it on iTunes and Amazon. Then, tell two other people about the movie, and encourage them to get it as well. It does what good cyberpunk should do – question the status quo. It forces us to think about the people we ask to build our American dream, but refuse to give a part of it. It makes us think about the promises of the US, and who gets to redeem those promises, and at what cost.

And it’s not glossy. There are no pink mohawks. No combat cabs. No Blade Runner cityscapes. It’s all on the ground, and very close to home. If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we were promised, and fondly remember, watch the CP 2077 trailer again.

If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we’re getting, watch Sleep Dealer.

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