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The Future According to Elysium

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Last weekend director Neill Blomkamp's Elysium came out in theatres.  The film serves as de facto sequel to Blomkamp's breakthrough District 9 which was nominated for a "best picture" Academy award in 2009.  This article is not meant as a review but rather an analysis of the futuristic setting of the film.  That having been said, let me just say that my opinion is similar to the bulk of reviewers.  The film is quite good, but somewhat disappointing given the brilliance of its predecessor.
Perhaps the best element of the movie is its well crafted vision of a worst-case scenario (let's hope) for the future of humanity.  Most critics are treating the setting as a heavy handed analogy for our current state, but if you look carefully at the various elements of Blomkamp's 2154, much of his vision is disturbingly within the realm of possibility.
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The central theme of Elysium is class.  The world features two distinct classes: the ultra wealthy citizens of Elysium, an orbiting paradise of green lawns, mansions, and high-tech regeneration beds that can reverse aging, reconstruct mangles limbs, cure disease, and even bring back the dead.  This medical technology may strike viewers as complete fantasy, but the reconstruction of complex tissues has already been accomplished in tests and is currently being developed (although it is a bit unrealistic to suggest such medical marvels will be possible without a doctor on hand and take less than a minute!). 
 
The citizens of Elysium are a ruling class.  They enjoy monopolistic control the political bodies, military, and police.  They are also the primary movers and shakers in the market place.  Nevertheless, their primary relationship to the non-citizens stuck on Earth is not based on exploitation, but avoidance.  Blomkamp's world is not based on a Marxist critique of capitalism where the owners exploit the workers. 2154 is even worse.  The majority of Earth dwellers simply aren't needed in the marketplace at all, and most Elysium citizens would prefer to be shielded from the sad ugliness far below them.
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Elysium was created so the elite could escape an overpopulated planet, stricken with underemployment and environmental collapse.  Blomkamp cleverly uses subtle imagery, such as an entirely brown African continent floating past the window of a spacecraft to tell the ecological story.  Blomkamp seems to understand that he doesn't need to explain the details, anyone who has read an article about climate change or even the descriptive placards at the zoo can easily fill in the gaps.
From http://www.flickr.com/photos/25569106@N00/9363592716/: One of Elysium's many robots.
One of Elysium's many robots.
(Image by PatLoika)
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One of Elysium's many robots. by PatLoika

One element of this motion picture that annoyed  me as I left the movie theatre was the main character's job.  Max gets paid a low wage to stand in one place, periodically pushing a button in a robot factory.  "Why in the world would a robot factory have unskilled laborers?" I thought.  "Wouldn't the first line of super robots coming off the line replace the workers?"  
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In his recent book "The Future," Al Gore introduces the term, "robosourcing."  Economists have been discussing the effects of automation on labor and class since the dawn of the industrial age.  The fear has always been that machines would dominate production to such a degree that there wouldn't be enough jobs for humans to fill.  Thankfully, in the industrial age this never happened, the technology always managed to create enough skilled jobs to offset the loss of low skilled roles.  Now in the information age there is "robosourcing."  As artificial intelligence and robotics advance, the proportion of jobs which machines can fill is growing exponentially.  In a modern factory, it simply doesn't take very many people to build a car because robots do most of the work.  Have you ever used a self checkout stand at a grocery store?  Do you hire an accountant every April, or let your computer do your taxes?  Right now in 2013, there are even computer programs writing news stories and composing symphonies!
The reason our hero Max works in a factory is because in the world of Elysium, the market for manual labor is so utterly bent in favor of the employers, that hiring Max is cheaper than building a robot to push buttons all day.  In Blomkamp's world, robots haven't replaced the working class, they've replaced the middle class.  They serve as soldiers, police officers, and parole officers.  On Elysium technology has even replaced doctors.  
Most interestingly is the role of AI in politics, law, and infrastructure.  In Elysium, machines haven't literally taken control, as is the case in the Matrix and Terminator series' but they are more than powerless tools; the computer network running the space station defines everyone's legal status, and by extension, destiny, in its database.  Hence, a  coup d'e'tat  can be achieved simply by telling Elysium's computer system to change the identity of the president, and society itself is rebooted when the network is rebooted.

Elysium is a violent, summer sci-fi flick; it is not a footnoted dissertation on present trends and probable outcomes.  Many of the Blomkamp's ideas are pure make-believe and extremely unlikely (single-person space ships the size of cars?).  But most of the defining characteristics of the film's world are realistic conjectures based on present trends.  This world, although a bit exaggerated perhaps (and certainly more action packed!), is possible.  Let's hope it's not the one we pick.

 

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Christopher Mandel is a writer, activist, musician, and Sunday school teacher in Denver, CO. He was a dedicated organizer in the Occupy movement and published his memoirs of that experience as MY OCCUPY: AN ACCOUNT OF ONE PERSON'S ADVENTURES IN THE (more...)
 

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