Árpád Schilling and Éva Zabezsinszkij
1 October 2022
The 21st century is coming to an end. Human resources have become precarious, and many jobs are increasingly being taken over by machines. Robotics has become more reliable and cheaper, so millions of people are getting redundant. There are few jobs that artificial intelligence cannot yet replace. Among these is the cleaning of the social web, aka content moderation.
Moderators work in small teams in a musty basement room. Under company policy, they must delete any content uploaded that might offend sensibilities. Tens of thousands of images and videos are checked every day: keep or delete. For hours on end moderators are seated in front of the machines, streaming all possible filth, and trying to get rid of it. Every day, they see a side of human nature they can’t even talk about outside their jobs. What they see in pictures and videos are eternally imprinted in their minds and grind them down without them even noticing. The world inside pulls them in like a vortex, unstoppably. They have to meet the daily minimum quota, regardless of their health condition or family circumstances. All in all, they consider themselves lucky to have a job.
People who have lost their jobs for various reasons are gathered here: a postman, an engineer, a female factory worker, a female lawyer, a sports referee, a female doctor, a sex worker, nurse carer for the elderly, a female farmer… The moderators don’t talk to each other, so they don’t know much about each other. They avoid bonding because people here don’t last long, new faces appear and disappear. The head of their community is a man who insists to be called the Boss. He controls decisions and is responsible for the daily quota, rewards and penalties. It’s not advisable to mess with him, it’s better to meet the numbers and please him.
When Miguel joins the team, his arrival upsets the status quo. Coming from the outskirts of the city, this feisty and hardy man immediately clashes with the Boss, whose solid empire is being torn apart by the young man’s resistance. Unable to fit into the system dictated by the Boss, Miguel soon polarizes everyone. For the first time, they come into real contact with each other, their life stories are uncovered, and unexpected relationships are forged. The young man is a breath of fresh air in the suffocating den, and deeply repressed anger of the dulled-to-the-sensitivity cleaners, traumatised by the horrors of everyday life, paves its way into the room.
For the first time in his life, Miguel understands the power of power and trust, and does not hesitate to use it. A side of his personality he had never known before is revealed to him, and he is almost reborn. The workers are excited by Miguel’s power, and he slowly realises the price he will have to pay for liberation.
Lately, I have been most interested in the nature of opportunism. Why and how do we give up on our principles? Why and how do we betray our former friends? Why and how do we become immoral?
The easiest answer is because we want to survive, and survival is the most sacred law of life. It is an instinct. Or a cleverly-conceived interest that we can gradually consolidate by a rational defensive rampart.
A situation better than loneliness, better than total helplessness, is just right.
Moreover, those who are not in a real position of choice have a life that is completely unpredictable. For a while it seemed that humanity had moved on beyond slavery, feudal hierarchy, caste system etc. Unfortunately, this proved to be wrong. In the age of global capitalism, information chaos and technological revolution, the vast majority of people ended up more vulnerable than ever.
When everything becomes relative, and societies are fragmented into particles by economic and political interests, what grip are we left with?
In this story, someone tries to help others, not because he is the Messiah, but because he still has little empathy left and because he has little to lose. He is trying to make at least a small difference to working conditions, to human relations.
Obviously, this is also a play where we lose something at the end, but we should actually be glad that we still have something to lose. This means we still have glimmer of hope that we have not turned into total zombies and have not been devoured by fear and cynicism.