Georgia Law Review
The blockbuster movie Avatar begins as humans circle the planet Pandora in search of an element, unobtainium, which will boost the profits of their employer, a mining corporation. Pandora, however, is already inhabited by the Na'vi, an alien species of tall, skinny, blue beings, who live in harmony with the natural environment. With the goal of learning more about the Na'vi and their world, a team of human scientists controls and inhabits vat-grown bodies, using these avatars to interact with the Na'vi. Jake, the protagonist, is a former soldier who has become a paraplegic. When Jake's identical twin, a scientist, dies, Jake is offered the opportunity to control the vat-grown avatar that is tied to his brother's DNA. Jake's official mission is scientific, but he also takes orders from a military commander. If Jake spies on Na'vi defenses, he will earn the costly surgery that will restore the use of his limbs. However, in a seeming-spin on the Pocahontas story, after Jake falls in love with the Na'vi warrior Neytiri, he realizes that he cannot aid in the destruction of Pandora.
While many aspects of Avatar are pure speculative fantasy—assuming alien life exists and that humans will be able to travel in deep space, and replicate and control alien bodies grown in a vat—one premise, the idea that humans might perform paid work with an avatar as a proxy, is not far-fetched at all. To the contrary, there are currently thousands of workers who spend the bulk of their days working in cyberspace in one form or another. These workers have sometimes been referred to as clickworkers, cyberworkers, or cloudworkers, although I use "virtual workers" as an umbrella term. While virtual workers have different skills and labor under different conditions, their commonality is that their "workplaces" exist only in the ether. As more work enters cyberspace and virtual worlds, this will have a profound impact on the nature of work itself, not to mention the legal doctrines of labor and employment law.