Identity crisis in the age of remote work: Baudrillard, A Scanner Darkly

At work, a fully remote version of ourselves is seen not to quite cut it. Why?

A Scanner Darkly, 2006

There’s a really pleasing article to read from 1995: Mark Nunes’s Jean Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Post Modernity. It notes the jump in computers connected to the internet from 1 million to 3.2 in the first 6 months of 1994, and speculates the metaphysical implications of governing online identities. Nunes considers society in 1995 on the brink of a jump from the real to the hyperreal, representation steadily giving way to simulation, and makes the link between the cyber-spacial world and it’s impact on man “who is now the satellite”. Crucially, the concept of communication as a connection of two or more distinct people over distance collapses, communication transcends and becomes “hypertelic”, when we no longer ask in Internet forums “so where are you in real life?”.

Fast-forward to 2021, and with the advance of social media and online gaming, increasingly (e.g. Reddit, almost all on-line games) knowledge of the physical presence in the world of the person I am interacting with becomes superficial to the content. I can think of Twitter users who produce reliable material I have an emotional investment in without knowing or particularly caring who produces the content. Recently, sharing YouTube videos by a favoured content creator with a friend, I suddenly realised – I have no idea where the person who produces these are located, whether they are aged 15 or 50, whether they are one person or a collective.

Against this backdrop, organisational workplaces stand out as being a sphere which is able to negotiate the virtual on a practical level, but have not yet worked through the metaphysical implications of becoming fully virtual. This can be seen expressed most overtly in recent discussions around “full-time” remote work: despite differences in argument and emphasis – from the perspective of the employee or employer – there seems to be an aversion to the idea of complete dependance on virtual workplaces. While managers and corporations want workers back in the office at least to some degree, a recent survey suggests that as little as 11% of UK employees would want to work fully remotely given the choice. Physical presence in the workplace still matters.

I recently turned to A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006) for answers. I’m not the first person to note the link between the uneasy worlds of Philip K. Dick and Baudrillard (Baudrillard himself was fond of citing and mis-citing Dick) nor the first to link the estrangement found in Dick to modern organisational theory – needless to say it is a fruitful space to explore.

Linklater/Dick certainly play about with the erosion of the ontological concept of the self within the workplace; and the divide between professional and personal lives gets as muddled and muddied as everything else in the film. The uneasy takeover of Arctor, living his all-encompassing professional life in a suit of scrambled identities and constantly questioning and being undermined by the identities of others, contains echoes of employee concerns around negotiating remote work. Work-life balance (Arctor doesn’t know anymore where the line between personal and professional are – and the old nuclear family set-up he remembers is bitter and hollow); inability to switch off; psychological burnout – familiar themes that crop up in both A Scanner Darkly and the many employee surveys exploring struggles of remote work.

Scrambled suits, scrambled identifies

One of the most interesting sequences in the film reveals the core existential threat: Barris declares that as an investigative measure to discover who “has it in” for Arctor, he has left Arctor’s door unlocked with a note on the door inviting any passer-by to come in. He also simultaneously denies that action – he says he has done nothing of the sort – leaving Arctor and Luckman in a state of Schrödinger-esque limbo – has he or hasn’t he? They are not able rely on trust (trust Barris?) so, as Barris states plainly, they must wait until their return, and rely on physical experience. It then transpires that they cannot even rely on that, as experience is thwarted (the door is locked – but then it does appear to have been an intruder – then it transpires to be Donna so is not an intruder – or is she?).

And that’s what is at stake when we move further into the hyperreal – physical experience is devalued (in fact subsumed), and stops being a useful tool. This does not matter if we are willing to surrender ourselves completely to a simulacra, but it does when it comes to the workplace, where managers default into new, restrictive forms of measurement in lieu of the old modes of perception.

This all reads grimly with regards to the case for remote working – especially considering the ultimate consequences for Arctor’s psychological wellbeing. But rather than using A Scanner Darkly as a prophetic warning against our professional descent into the hyperreal, it could alternatively be seen as an exploration of our own ambiguities around the dilemmas of remote working practices. It may help uncover why fully remote work may remain an uneasy concept for us to comprehend. New realities – simulacra – feel inherently dangerous to us, they destabilise our ontology. Returning to Baudrillard in Cyberspace, Nunes acknowledges the bleak picture painted through his reading of Baudrillard, but suggests that rather than total emersion, the internet may instead present a more positive, less all-consuming, space for play: a space to lose oneself and then return.

References and related texts:

https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210618-the-workers-pushing-back-on-the-return-to-the-office

https://hbr.org/2021/07/why-you-may-actually-want-to-go-back-to-the-office

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/how-to-deal-boss-micromanages-work-from-home_l_5e9f2a18c5b6b2e5b838f606

Only 15% of UK workers want to return back to the office full-time

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/survey-65-of-remote-workers-do-not-want-to-return-to-the-office/

De Cock, Christian, “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organizing (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society”. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=650686 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.650686

Nunes, Mark. “Jean Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Postmodernity.” Style 29 (1995): 314-327.

Rosa, JM. “A misreading gone too far? Baudrillard meets Philip K. Dick”, Science-Fiction Studies (2008), vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 60-71

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