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Summer 2023 articles

“Check Your Network Connection”: Cyberpunk Visions of Disembodied Labor in Sleep Dealer

Michael Pitts


The economic and social dimensions of the Mexico-U.S. border make up a topic frequently discussed within the field of North American Studies. Such studies typically concern the exploitative labor and immigration policies of the United States, which negatively shape the experiences of Mexican laborers crossing the border in search of better wages and work opportunities. Such research, however, often overlooks the power of cultural products such as film to comment upon these topics. As the following analysis of the Mexican film Sleep Dealer (2008) illustrates, film and, more specifically, cyberpunk cinema act as important vehicles through which complex commentaries on the socioeconomic conditions of the Mexico-U.S. border may be developed and presented.

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1Perhaps the most salient feature of 21st-century U.S. society is its bifurcation along political and cultural lines. The so-called “culture war” currently plaguing the United States, which can be traced to as far back as the 1980s, has many fronts. Each one may be identified by the wedge issue upon which the conflict hinges—LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, religious freedom, multiculturism, and diverse representations in media, for example. Scholars such as sociologist James Davison Hunter identify the central conflict of this ongoing battle to be one between contrasting ethical frameworks. Culture wars, Hunter argues, may be defined as the conflict between an ethical perspective that, in the case of conservatism, is static and universal, and a contrasting, progressive perspective that views ethics as evolving and contextual (107). The ongoing cultures wars hinge, therefore, upon divergent moral perspectives concerning the ideal nation and the policies most likely to lead to the improved polity.

2Among the many divisive issues upon which this conflict centers are perennial disagreements over the moral dimensions of migrant labor policies. Often wielded rhetorically as specters of fear or sympathy by politicians, migrant workers are consistently exploited politically. Such exploitation of course takes on salient economic dimensions as well, with migrant workers from neighboring countries such as Mexico being uniquely disadvantaged in matters of health care, job security, and safety. The moral implications of this culture war are illuminated by the fact that U.S. consumption practices shape “particular labor needs in terms of low-wage and marginalized conditions where Mexican immigrant workers are increasingly recruited to work” (Mize and Swords xiii). As scholars underscore, “if one seeks to understand the immigration patterns of the postwar period,” a careful analysis of consumption and production practices, which “are inextricably linked” together, is vital (Mize and Swords xiii).

3As this article illuminates, a relatively recent subgenre of speculative fiction and cinema is particularly well-suited for extrapolating current U.S. consumption and production practices into the future: cyberpunk. Possessing a genetic imprint shared by earlier speculative works, including Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968), and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973), cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s as a subversive subgenre of science fiction. Uniting narratives under the cyberpunk banner is their marrying of “the cyber- of cybernetics with the countercultural punk attitude of the 1970s” (Murphy 519). More specifically, cyberpunk narratives focus upon the interface of human and cybernetic technologies within dystopian landscapes largely tied to the consolidated socioeconomic and political power of corporations. This interest in the extrapolated influences of technology and private industry upon the conditions of the working class makes cyberpunk fertile ground for narratives commenting upon the U.S. consumption of Mexican labor in the future.

4Central to cyberpunk’s suitability for discussing the exploitation of Mexican labor by U.S. corporations is the subgenre’s ethical dimension. Cyberpunk rejects earlier, simplistic attributes of Golden Age science fiction, foremost of which are its conservative moral positions. In his predictions about the 1985 Nebula Awards, Lewis Shiner notably identified this radical, progressive dimension of cyberpunk when he called for a new generation to subvert what he viewed as the orthodox, status-quo works of earlier speculative writers: “Once again the armed might of conservatism faces the radical vision of a new generation, this time across the distance of a ballot. The voices of repression range from the senile babblings of Robert Heinlein to the California vapidity of Larry Niven…. The SF revolution is crying out for literacy, imagination, and humanity.” Cyberpunk is a progressive rejection of orthodoxy; it therefore provides an exceptionally suitable narrative framework for analyzing U.S.-Mexico labor relations.

5A careful analysis of Alexander Rivera’s 2008 cyberpunk film Sleep Dealer illustrates the power of this subgenre to speculate upon the future of ongoing injustices related to migration and labor in the United States. The film, to begin, centers on a pivotal component of cyberpunk narratives, the interface of human bodies and cybernetic technologies, in its critique of ongoing and possible future methods by which U.S. corporations may exploit Mexican labor. In the film’s futuristic reimagining of Mexico, its northern border, and el norte, the exploitation of migrant workers is conducted without the necessity of crossing national boundaries. Instead, workers are connected to a network via their nervous systems and virtually conduct American jobs while never leaving Mexico. This cybernetic network extinguishes the need for Mexican bodies to cross into the United States, thereby ensuring that wages are kept low and these workers are denied access to the benefits of the locations in which they work from a distance, including healthcare, access to education, and the social safety net. In this way, the film imagines how future technologies may likely be utilized to intensify the exploitation of migrant laborers in the United States.

6The cyberpunk message of the film is enriched substantially by its grounding in reality and, more specifically, late 20th-century U.S. neoliberal policies concerning immigration and labor. Early in the film, the main character, Memo, and the audience alongside him are reminded by Memo’s father of the very real, historical foundations upon which its premise is predicated: “We had a future. You are standing on it… it might not look like much, but it is ours. Do you want it to dry up and disappear?” Memo’s father’s declaration that “the future belongs to the past” hints at the possibility that the future presented in the film belongs to its past—the present, post-NAFTA economic climate in which the film was produced. The film, through Memo’s father, urges the viewer to consider the real-world foundations upon which the speculative film imagines a dystopian future. These characters live in a future Mexico ravaged by U.S. corporations that exploit its labor force as well as the nation’s natural resources. Through this film, Rivera presents a possible future in the post-NAFTA world, one that belongs to a past and present tainted by neoliberal economic systems and fortified through the use of drone weaponry and cyber space.

7The historical foundations of Sleep Dealer are similarly fortified by its incorporation of elements common to the border film subgenre. This cinematic tradition, by focusing upon the U.S.-Mexico border, is particularly germane to dystopian topics of globalization and its impact on local economies as it “presents itself as locally anchored, employing regional imagery, focusing on local conditions of injustice, or concentrating on cultural encounters with different forms of otherness” (Heide 93). The border film is a product of political histories including the U.S. annexation of northern Mexico, the advent of industrialization along the border and the resulting maquiladoras, and the formation of the fronterizo working class (L. Rivera 293). The film succeeds in its attempt to present an alternate portrait of the borderlands in order to highlight the historical and current inequitable distributions of financial and economic power between the bordering nations. The cyberpunk genre is similarly suitable for the task of imagining a future U.S.-Mexican border entrenched in technology and neoliberal principles—both of which are either active or developing socioeconomic influences in the region currently.

8Of the myriad products of U.S. exploitation the film presents, perhaps the most salient is the devastating effects neoliberal policy has upon local communities and the relationships between their citizens. While ideal for large, American corporations, the central labor arrangement of the film—the use of cybernetics to transfer labor and not bodies across the U.S. border—damages the social, physical, and mental stabilities of its laborers. This connection, for example, allows Memo and others to become a part of the global economy but disconnects them from their fellow nationals and family. In this dystopian future, the atomization of labor, enabled largely by this cutting-edge technology, leads to the breakdown of local communities as “the operative mechanisms of the global economy are translated into a profound isolation” (Villazana 223). As a careful reading of the film illuminates, Sleep Dealer, basing its speculation upon current U.S. policy, imagines a future in which technological advancements married to neoliberal ideals produce separation and isolation within the population of Mexican laborers they exploit.

1. The Effects of Disembodied Labor Policy: Isolation among Workers

9Technological advancements serve in the film as manipulators of national and cultural boundaries and isolate Mexican workers while stripping them of power on both sides of the border. These laborers are labeled cybraceros, Rivera’s neologism that, originating in his earlier film Why Cybraceros?, is a portmanteau of cyber and braceros, which translates into English as laborer. This cyber border crossing involves the implantation of nodes in the body of each worker that, when connected via cables to the online network, allows the cybracero to conduct various labor tasks via the use of a robotic avatar at the physical location. It is this node that Sarah Ann Wells identifies as the embodiment of “the increasingly dispersed global capitalism” (69). It and the resulting scar make up the interface of the postmodern invasion of technological advancements and the modern scars of capitalistic inequity in the Global South (Wells 80). Combined, this tool and the historical scar it exploits serve to isolate workers from their compatriots by altering borders and diminishing the protection of those who cross them virtually.

10Importantly, the process of connection to the “global economy” in the film involves the relocation of each worker’s senses to a transnational location. The system then works to dislocate the worker from both sides of the border by dividing their sensory experiences from their body since “…the nodes are a technology of passage analogous to today’s passports and work-permit documents, but the difference is that in this speculative future, the workers’ bodies are left behind while their minds and nervous systems are tapped with the use of prosthetic technologies” (Jeffries 24). In this way, the body of each cyber worker is divided daily across international borders and, as a result, does not actively participate in either culture. In his article, Matthew Goodwin compares Memo to a “frontier migrant worker” or “someone who has a border crossing card, crosses the border to work in the United States, and then returns to Mexico at night” (174). While this observation drives closer at the nature of Memo’s predicament, it fails to account for the lack of daily connections to fellow workers he is able to make and which a “frontier migrant worker” would experience. He is denied the comfort of a transnational community because the nature of his employment disconnects him from both those he virtually and actually works beside. Commenting on the effects of migration in an interview, Rivera states, “At home, you get the signal you are needed here, but when you get here you are also not wanted. Where is their power? Some leverage? With any gesture to express power, to organize, or to make noise, you have the threat of deportation looming over you” (Decena 134). In Sleep Dealer, Rivera imagines a future in which, due to the shifting of borders via technology as an extension of neoliberal principles, workers are isolated from power and denied leverage even within their home nations.

11Central to understanding how this isolation operates in the film is its related presentation of transnationalism. In this future, “the boundaries between the transnational and the national are blurred; geographies and territories seem to merge but are sharply separated at the same time” (Villazana 224). According to Villazana’s reading of the film, there are three types of transnationalism at work: the migration of Memo to Tijuana, the connection of Memo to the ‘global economy,’ and the national-transnational migration of his brother and mother via communication and financial transfer (225). In Tijuana, these virtual workers are distanced from both the culture in which they virtually work and the one in which they live. While Memo is virtually working in the United States, his experience is disjointed, culminating in a scene in which he sees his reflection across cyberspace, a reflection of a robot lacking any human characteristics. “What we find in this scene is a fractured subjectivity, a human confronted with his own reflection cast as machine” (Orihuela, Hageman 177). Stripped of humanity, his avatar reflects the productive value by which he is judged in the global economy. He is not fully present in the US or Mexico. The “combination of perceptions, along with the real-time telepresence, gives a sense of reality to the new environment, thus creating an experience of migration” (Goodwin 173). Yet, this transnational experience lacks the connections typically made between migrant workers and their compatriots who have also migrated. In this way, Memo is not fully connected to his place of employment or the city in which he lives. Through his work, “only energy and data are traveling through geographic space into the United States. Memo confesses that he feels that his energy or labor power is flowing north, reducing migration to labor” (Goodwin 173). This reduction of migration to mere labor strips Memo of meaningful connections to fellow workers and community. He is denied human connection as a cyber worker in the United States; a denial that he soon finds extends to his experiences in Tijuana.

12This distortion of boundaries and distances by technology and the resulting social disconnections are demonstrated in the scene in which Memo, safely established with employment in Tijuana, contacts his family via a video messaging system. Memo entertains feelings of isolation: “I work in a place I’ll never see. I can see my family but I can’t touch them.” In this way, he is isolated both from the place in which he virtually works and from those near him within his home country. These thoughts “reiterate the increasing distance between Memo and his family and the difficulty for him to go back to them” (Villazana 224). Even the expenses incurred to transfer money to his mother and brother echo the experiences of a transnational, not of a person residing in his or her own country.

13Likewise, the virtual importation of international workers lends a feeling of transnationalism to sections of the United States of the film, a country that rejects the bodies of migrant workers but imports their senses for the purpose of manual labor. In this way, a false transnationalism is present in the dystopian United States Rivera presents in the film. “Moreover, the film attempts to locate transnationality within national boundaries and vice versa” (Villazana 219). For example, when crossing the border into Mexico, Rudy is prompted by a machine that asks him “to provide identification and reason for crossing the border” in a voice “clearly coded as that of a South Asian woman” (Orihuela, Hageman 172). The film’s use of this voice “indicates the paradoxical complexity of the Global South as a structure of geographical borders whose expansion that virtually encompasses South Asian people in the form of labor outsourcing also makes it an even smaller world after all” (Orihuela, Hageman 172). This world of capitalistic exploitation is made smaller in the film through the use of technology. “Against this phantasmic backdrop emerges a radically paradoxical version of today’s social web, amplified to such a degree that it is almost unrecognizable, and defined by an intractable tension between emancipatory promise and exploitative violence” (Jeffries 25). This depiction of globalization and the use by its proponents of technological advancements to exploit the working class of foreign nations demonstrate the dislocation and isolation of the global working class made possible in this dystopian conjuring of a neoliberal future.

2. The Effects of Disembodied Labor Policy: Isolation from the Land

14A pivotal warning Sleep Dealer provides is that the relationship between U.S. consumption and Mexican labor will, if not checked, lead to a future in which Mexican citizens are increasingly isolated from the very land of their nation. In the film, a range of technologies including cybernetic systems and drones serves to isolate characters from natural resources in a future, neocolonial Mexico. When initially introduced, Memo lives in mild disconnection from his father, who desires to be connected more closely to the local environment. While Memo wishes to connect himself to the global economy, his father wishes to rekindle the agrarian traditions of his milpa, which was depleted of water via the construction of a dam by an American corporation. This passage of the film underscores the themes of tradition and modernity, agrarianism and industry. Regardless of this new potential to connect globally, as Rivera demonstrates, “the future does not idealistically erase national boundaries, but it is seen to continue systematic reinforcement of disparate access to resources” (Orihuela and Hageman 170). In the film, natural resources act as a symbol of the collective cultural identity threatened by the far-reaching imperial hand of American capitalism. In this extrapolated, neo-liberal future, the exploited Mexican class experience a profound disconnection from their local, natural environment.

15This connection between the commons and identity is presented most clearly in the parallels the film draws between the depletion of local natural resources and of Mexican citizens’ very bodies. When Memo begins to experience the debilitating effects of his work at the node factory, he, for example, notes such parallels. Understanding too late the significance of water as the lifeblood of his country, Memo laments, “me estaban drenando la energía y mandándola lejos. Lo que le pasó al río me estaba pasando a mi/ My energy was being drained. What happened to the river, was happening to me” (Rivera). This appropriation of water resources cuts Memo and his compatriots from their land, devastating the future his father and others worked to realize. Rejecting optimistic views about the future of technology and adopting instead a subversive, cyberpunk perspective, the film demonstrates how technology “and cognitive labor may actually reproduce forms of colonial exploitation and oppression” (Martin-Cabrera 590). These forms of colonization are not limited to natural resources but extend themselves to the hegemonic field of media.

3. Neoliberal Cyberpunk Futures: Media and Isolation

16The film imagines media outlets as central tools by which the United States isolates the Mexican working class in the dystopian future. In the impoverished area of Memo’s upbringing, the citizenry are constantly inundated with American cultural imperialism via mass media. In such a marginalized and isolated community, “the only way the rural population is connected with the outside world is through transnationally operating media” that promotes ideas based upon Wilsonian exceptionalism, which serve to further isolate Memo from his own culture (Heide 104). All television programs are presented in English and spread propaganda. It is this “wall of relentless media propaganda” that Altha Cravey et al. identify, alongside the impenetrable militarized border running between the U.S. and Mexico, as the two major images of violence in the film (8). The political perspectives of the programs aired to the Mexican public and their use of American English reveal that, in this future, television programming is produced in the United States and is void of local influences since Mexican media cannot compete with American television companies (Heide 104). This form of media imperialism demonstrates what is implicitly central to neoliberalism: “While goods and capital are encouraged to travel across national borders, people and politics are encouraged to remain on respective sides” (Orihuela, Hageman 172). As Sleep Dealer emphasizes, such a hostile takeover of Mexican media by American corporations isolates the population from localized artistic expression and programming and, therefore, from each other.

17One particular program frequently appearing in the film exemplifies these commitments by the media to U.S. neoliberal policy and their isolating effects upon the local population. The program—a reality television show—celebrates the exploits of corporate drone operators who utilize abject violence to protect the financial interests of their employers. In each episode of the program, drone strikes kill local rebels fighting to reclaim from these corporations the natural resources of their land. The rhetoric of the program, which lavishly praises the exploits of these drone operators and condemns the Mexican rebels as the “bad guys,” acts as an extension of U.S. neoliberal and corporate policies.

18The chief effect of this reality television program is the isolation of its Mexican viewers from their similarly exploited compatriots. While Memo shows no interest in the television program, his brother avidly watches each drone attack presented in live coverage. His disconnect from the violent deaths of those filmed demonstrates the distancing effects of the imagined American media. It is the promise of increased social connections by technological advancements and the failure of these tools to make such connections that Rivera labels a “false bill of goods.” In reality, he continues, “the more connected we become, the more we are divided” (Silverman). Sleep Dealer reinforces this assessment of technology and human interaction and specifically considers how such isolation may be utilized as a tool for future migrant labor policies.

19After showing the TV show, “Rivera counters the portrayal of a ‘dangerous’ rural Mexico with everyday scenes in the tiny rural municipality of Santa Ana del Rio, a filmic strategy that allows a simultaneous representation of life that is different than that portrayed in the news clip” (Cravey 4). While the program works to both convince the viewer that the actions of the drone operators are righteous and to strip that same viewer of any empathy for the compatriot subject to the attack, Rivera indicts such methods of propaganda and the distortions of reality necessary for their message to have its intended impact. Fiona Jeffries’s claim that “in this fraught, imaginable future, the social and technical infrastructure of digital capitalism disconnects workers not only from the products of their labor but from their own physical bodies as well” may be extended to the collective body of the people (26). It is only when a personal connection is made with the victim that the American hegemonic structure is threatened.

20After breaching the communication lines of drone operators working to protect the dam from “aquaterrorists,” Memo is witness to the televised drone attack upon his home that results in the murder of his father. This use of drones demonstrates another level of separation in the film. Commissioned by an American corporation, a product of the neoliberal system of global capitalism, the drones simultaneously separate the native people from the natural resources of the land and from each other. Rudy, the drone operator and a first generation Mexican-American, is isolated from the people his actions affect and the culture that is his ethnic background. In this way, the common optimistic predictions of technology in the future that “permeate much of the expansive popular and scholarly literature on digital media and democracy” fail to lead its users to emancipation (Jeffries 22). Instead, these technologies are wielded by the global capitalistic power structure to consolidate and maintain power. As evidenced by Rudy’s parents’ reaction to his regret in the killing of Memo’s father, the use of such brutal weaponry separates the Mexican citizenry both from those in power, the water corporations and US government, and those without power, such as ex-patriots and their compatriots.

21While the isolation Memo and his compatriots experience is facilitated via the use of technological tools such as drone weaponry and cyber networks, neoliberal principles and the resulting economic atrocities act as the ultimate creators of economic inequity in Rivera’s futuristic imagining of US-Mexico relations. The economy of Mexico in the film is enslaved to the US as a result of NAFTA, the 1994 trade agreement appropriately referred to by Lysa Rivera as “euphemistic shorthand for a new brand of colonialism and the economic exploitation of a vulnerable indigenous Mexican population” (297). In this depiction of the future, “the division is not between upper and lower worlds but across spaces whose interdependence is as pronounced as their inequalities” (Wells 74). This space, manipulated via “cyborg labor” networks, a term coined in a recent article by Cravey, et al., represents both the predatory relationship between global economic leaders and the countries they exploit for cheap labor and natural resources in the neoliberal era and the simultaneous interdependence of the economies of both countries. The inequalities of power across this space are further evidenced in that the corporation of the film is located in San Diego, California, and potential Mexican workers are forced to leave their bodies effectively behind when crossing the border virtually. Any analysis of the depicted isolation among workers in the film necessarily echoes Marx and his thoughts on the separation of worker from final product. The workers’ isolation begins with their separation from the products of their labor and those who employ them for their services. In this way, Sleep Dealer “depicts the lives and livelihoods of Mexicans as controlled by multinational corporations that remain off-screen, faceless” (Orihuela, Hageman 173).

22As pointed out by Matthew Goodwin in his survey of border fictions and virtual reality, Memo’s trials must be viewed as an allegory of migration (172). In this way, his story encompasses much of the history of Mexican migration from the Bracero program to the Post-NAFTA, current economic condition. In Rivera’s aforementioned earlier film Why Cybraceros? he satirizes the 1950s promotion film Why Braceros?. In Why Cybraceros?, Rivera works to “recount the history of the bracero program in the United States and to present a dystopic futuristic revamping of this program that imports the labor, but not the workers, from Mexico to the United States” (Decena 131). In Sleep Dealer, Rivera wishes to expand upon this idea of cyber workers and their connection to the neoliberal “global economy” that facilitates the continuing relationship of inequality signified by the U.S.-Mexico border. This film then, grounded in the historical roots of the past and present, asks the viewer to consider options made available to Memo and other such workers in this fight against neoliberal principles and the technology and media utilized to defend them.

23The despotic control of media and technology that separates compatriots and the roots of such control in neoliberalism can only be combatted through the uniting of people and the reclaiming of natural resources. In order to unite and make such reclamation, personal connections must be made and technology must be appropriated for this purpose. Such an achievement is demonstrated in the film when the protagonist’s memories, “transmitted by Luz, connect across the closed border” to Rudy, an action that reverses the distancing isolation of the drones, “and make the act of resistance possible” (Heide 105). It is this connection between two former enemies that makes the final act of appropriating the drone technology and destroying the dam possible (Villazana 225).

24This act of rebellion connects the appropriation of technology with anti-neoliberal principles as the film “provide”[s] a “self- reflexive” narrative “about the topic of resistance within the space of global capitalism and contribute[s] to the contemporary discourse of cosmopolitics” (Heide 89). By destroying the dam, Memo and his compatriots, Rudy and Luz, initiate a rebellion against economic standards of a post-NAFTA world. In including such a small, isolated instance of resistance with a temporary victory, Rivera also illustrates the overwhelming strength of post-NAFTA American capitalism and the struggle of the Mexican economy to strengthen its standing in the global economy. The film’s dystopian view of neoliberalism and technology in the future challenges the proposed strengths of the free market and open trade agreements.

25Ultimately, such efforts to re-appropriate technology in order to challenge the reigning power structure requires connections between compatriots founded upon a common ideal or purpose. An often-quoted passage from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza involves a comparison of the U.S.-Mexico border to a scab that forms a third country, what Anzaldúa calls the “border culture.” It “es una herida abierta” (is an open wound) “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (3). In Sleep Dealer, Rivera successfully creates a futuristic portrait of this same border culture that is relentlessly haunted by the same scars of unequal economic power; scars that are continuously reopened via the use of technology by neoliberal transnational corporations and the US government. While the opposition is dauntingly strong in size and power, Memo and the citizens of the Global South he represents must fight the isolating effects of such economic policies in order to strengthen the ties that bind them together.

4. Conclusion

26As this analysis of Sleep Dealer demonstrates, cyberpunk narratives make up an invaluable site for analyzing the cultures they reflect, including that of the United States. By emphasizing the interface of human and cybernetic technologies within dystopian landscapes largely tied to the consolidated socioeconomic and political power of corporations, these narratives prove capable of broadly critiquing 21st-century societies, especially those shaped by neoliberalism. Cyberpunk fiction is, therefore, particularly well-suited for extrapolating current U.S. consumption and production practices, especially as they relate to the Global South, into the future. Through their commentary on such exploitative labor practices and the broader issue of American immigration policies, these science fiction texts contribute significantly to discussions surrounding the aforementioned culture wars plaguing the United States.

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Electronic reference

Michael Pitts, “Check Your Network Connection”: Cyberpunk Visions of Disembodied Labor in Sleep DealerEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Michael Pitts

Michael Pitts is lecturer at the University of New York in Prague. His first monograph Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction: A New Man, was published by Lexington Books in 2021. His research interests are positioned at the intersection of gender theory, speculative fiction, and utopian studies.

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