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A THX 1138 Future?

June 3, 2010

Many science fiction stories are dystopian; that is, they take place in a dystopia, the antithesis of a utopia. Most scientists are familiar with the etymology of the word, dystopia, although they may not realize it. It's derived from two Greek stems, δυσ-, meaning bad (think Dyslexia); and τοπος, meaning place (think Topology).

There are so many dystopian movies that it's hard to select a favorite, but mine is THX 1138 (1971, George Lucas, Director). Lucas co-wrote the screenplay for this, and it was first produced as a short film, Electronic_Labyrinth:_THX_1138_4EB, when he was a film student at the University of Southern California. The film won first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival [1-2].

The citizens of the THX 1138 dystopia work long hours in factories to support their society. The main character's work involves creating the android police who aid in suppression of the citizens. There are many fatal accidents in the factories, since the work is hazardous and humans are expendable. Worker stress is mollified by mandatory drugs and observance of a state religion that preaches conformance and obedient servitude. The citizens are monitored by ubiquitous cameras that record their every move, both in public places and in their own apartments.


Android image by Geoff Stearns.

Are we approaching a THX 1138 Future? In a previous article (Forensic Nanoparticles, June 6, 2007), I wrote that England has more than four million surveillance cameras, one for every fourteen people; and that it's estimated that people there are seen on camera about 300 times each day [3]. Well, that's the mild side of our dystopia, as revealed in a series of worker suicides at a Chinese electronics factory.

Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned electronics company with a major presence mainland China, has had ten worker suicides at its Shenzhen factory already this year, half of these in May [4-7]. Foxconn reportedly manufacturers electronic devices on a contract basis for Dell, Sony, Nokia, Apple and Hewlett-Packard [5]. Foxconn employs an estimated 800,000 workers, 300,000 of whom are at the Shenzhen factory that covers more than a square mile of area [4, 7]. Some say these suicides are a worker reaction to working conditions in the factories, where assembly lines reportedly move very fast and the workers are forced to do considerable overtime. One employee was quoted as saying [7], "Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It's very tough around here." Huawei, another Shenzhen contract manufacturer, has had many worker suicides, also.

Nearly all the workers are younger than twenty-five, and they live in company-supplied dormitories with up to ten employees in a room [8]. Nearly all assembly line workers do their work standing up, usually twelve hours a day, six days a week [7]. Pun Ngai, a professor of applied social sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says that the problem is that the Chinese business model relies on a low-wage workforce imported from the rural regions of China [7]. Foxconn, because of its huge size, is more emotionally detached from its workers. In response to this problem, Foxconn said it would raise salaries thirty percent to about $170/month [6], although money is often not a real solution. Foxconn has hired Buddhist monks for employee counseling.


  1. THX 1138 on Wikipedia.                                   
  2. THX 1138 on the Internet Movie Database.                                   
  3. George Orwell, Big Brother is watching your house (thisislondon.co.uk, March 31, 2007).
  4. Tania Branigan, "Latest Foxconn suicide raises concern over factory life in China," Guardian (UK) Online (May 17, 2010).
  5. William Foreman, "Latest Foxconn suicide comes after visit by boss," Boston Globe Online (May 27, 2010).
  6. Foxconn Raises Worker Pay 30%, Bloomberg News (June 1, 2010).
  7. Stephanie Wong, et al., "Foxconn Workers Say 'Meaningless' Life Spurs Suicides," Business Week On line (June 02, 2010).

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