Incorporated drops all pretense in the earliest moments of “Cost Containment”. While I don’t expect anything to be as great as Inazagi’s Officer Bucky vid for the company kids, the charity ad pleading for ¥100 to feed Johnny says that the U.S. isn’t far from a third world country no matter the state of climate change.
Ben, like Case, Johnny Mnemonic, Hiro Protagonist, and dozens of other cyberpunk heroes take up criminality to survive. It’s a play on the hacker trope, making the character more adept at exploiting people and technology to meet their objectives. Ben’s duplicity comes off as a bit much since most of his time is spent deceiving Laura, who’s more often than not well-meaning and searching for a conscience from her position of affluence. And while his hunt for Elena may come off as noble it’s not what makes his criminal side authentic; Ben’s duplicity is justified by playing a game that’s always been rigged against him, against most people.
Perhaps Ben’s conniving nature allows for some discerning insight that escapes others, and that’s helped him socially engineer his way into Spiga. Back in his red-zone days, learned of Elena’s nootropic dosing in a bid to get a scholarship and flee her impoverished surroundings, he rightly guessed her dreams of college were a scam. That’s not far from current use and abuse of Adderall to achieve collegiate success, and how many students feel college is increasingly a waste of time in attaining their careers of choice. The solution both these issues, today and in 2074, is to get your hands on money, the equalizer between red and green zones. Ben knows this, and by being alive Elena should as well. However, the illusory powers of the poverty trap makes the traditional path to wealth increase attractive regardless of the year.
As Ben (Aaron) showed a young Theo the fundamentals of rate-exchange exploitation (one of Incorporated’s best hacks so far), he uses his understanding of the scarcity of wealth and the need for the poor to adhere to rules that are designed to keep them in the red zone. We see it primarily in Theo, who’s afraid of the authorities at the rate exchange counter, apprehensive to approach the moneyman break the rules. But Ben’s hack is more a bend of the rules than breaking the law; the hack has more in common with high-frequency trading than outright theft.
When Theo finally agrees to make the physical exchange of euros for dollars, however, we see the other side of Ben. By applying a cost containment of his own, risking Theo’s freedom for cash to hand over to Elena, Ben maintains his profitability with little risk while also retaining the ability to use this exploit again in the future. Ben ultimately does the right thing and makes the market go crazy, allowing him and Theo to escape, but understanding risk and the scarce opportunities to access money is a real calculation made by millions in the world’s richest countries.
Again, Theo’s thread does a better job of exploring this aspect of 2074. Thinking that he’s on his way up in Spider’s world after winning a match, and becoming a local celebrity, Theo’s knocked back down to reality when his boss orders him to take on a side job. A local basketball star is the key to winning season of an opposing team, breaking his legs would help Spider’s gambling racket by killing the kid’s scholarship dreams. For Theo this is a zero-sum game. He’s been, and still is, the poor kid from the red zone with a small glimmer of hope to escape beyond the wall and have a better life. Stopping the young athlete from getting his scholarship helps no one but Spider, the 1% of the red zone.
With a few years and experience under his belt, Theo hangs out with the kid, who sees him as a star fighter, boozes him up, gets him in a good mood, and tries to buy out of his guilt with cash. Both Spider and the basketball star monologue from different scenes about the same thing–Theo’s commitment to doing things that serve to provide capital for others while he remains in the poverty trap. Knowing that he, like his replacement, could be taken over by another fighter and his chance to escape the red zone gone forever, and the authority Spider has over him to provide the financial means to survive in the now, puts Theo in a fixed position to meet high expectations while making ineffective gains toward his own goal. Effectively, Capitalism in Incorporated is a game with rules that benefit none by the top tier players.Those in the green zone have it easier.
While the poverty trap seems to be unknown to Roger Caplan, he is beholden to expectations that surpass his ability. Gunning for Ben and looking into Elena’s past places Roger on the wrong side of the narrative divide, but knows the expectation of toxic parents and the expectation to succeed, regardless of how that takes shape.
Roger’s brother, Mitchell, got a neural implant in order to meet those expectations. The downside of experimental technology is neural degradation, which left Mitchell in a fictionalized state of autistic genius. This makes him of little use to the family’s business ambitions, which makes Roger the perfect pawn. If he wants his father’s help in isolating Elena, and learning of Ben’s true plans, he has to convince his brother to voluntarily hand himself over to a long-term-care facility.
The curious part about Roger’s scheme is his willingness to use the ruthless tactics taught to him at home to move up in Spiga and punish his father through corporate warfare. That bit of anti-hero planning alone is more interesting than his ladder race against Ben, but it’s also illuminating how that feeling of scarcity and drive to always have more plays out on the other side of the wall. While Theo literally fights for survival and escape, Roger’s fight for control and revenge is a luxury afforded by his position, standing on the backs of the poor and never checking to see what’s stuck to the sole of his shoe.
Ben’s treatment of Laura gets difficult to stomach at times. Especially when she willingly goes along with his decisions. This may be helping to shed her lingering affluence, coming closer to understanding the limitations of red-zone life and forsaking luxury technology like baby designing. It helps that it spites Elizabeth along the way, but it still paints Ben in a bad light. But when we take into account that his background as a climate refugee and career criminal, conditions forced on him, that have literally stained his DNA, Ben emerges as the sympathetic hero against a network of social expectations and economic realities that wanted to keep him in his place. Now we wait to see if things remain that way.