The Not-So-Silent Scream: Speculative Film Goes Full Dark

By on September 7th, 2018 in Blog Posts, Human Impacts, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Editor’s note: This is the first post in Technology and Society’s new Future Proof blog.

Speculative film has long provided a canvas upon which our collective desires and fears are painted, often vividly. A recent survey of the genre seems to indicate a darker palette is in use. While the human drama plays on, the players have never been as enmeshed with technology and its consequences. In entries as recent as the 1990s, the human spirit was always bound to triumph along with its technology (in American films, anyway). Speculative films rarely spoke to dissatisfaction with the technology at hand. The near-magical objects we saw in films became objects of consumer desire. Now the depiction of those objects is often terrifying, as is the inability to escape them.

What are the potential consequences of mistrust, fear, or simple disinterest in technologies that have become an actual or perceived necessity to millions?

What has changed?  In 2018, the planet’s inhabitants have more access to technology – in all forms – than they ever could have imagined, or perhaps, desired. Products once coveted in science fiction films are now in our streets, our homes, our vehicles, in our pockets. Yet for many so-called end users, the excitement has turned into skepticism. We have seen the consequences of misjudgments and misrepresentations made by entities seeking commercial advantages at any cost: Facebook’s negative impact on society, the cruel cloning of dogs by Viagen, defense of cancer-causing agents such as Roundup by Monsanto, just to cite a few examples. In early September 2018, the Chartered Quality Institute reported that Facebook, Google and Apple collectively recorded a combined 223 cases of alleged human rights violations in an 18-month period.

The list of unintended negative consequences of technology is long. The list of deliberate actions taken with full understanding of negative consequences may be getting even longer. Wittingly or not, willingly or not, humans are now dependent upon a planetary network of technologies accelerating more quickly than they are able to comprehend, much less debate, legislate, or control. Is this the 21st-century version of Future Shock? Is technophilia becoming technophobia, or something tinged more deeply with resignation?

Arguably, the worst part of the deal is knowing that public relations routinely obfuscates the truth. Faced with a multitude of sources, non-specialists do not know what to trust, even as life-impacting decisions are being made for them without their knowledge or contribution.

From scientific inquiry to avoidance of science

Using the United States as an example, public trust in the scientific community in the has not improved in any significant way in the last 50 years. A 2017 University of Chicago/NORC study showed that 50% of Americans have only some confidence and 6% have hardly any confidence in the scientific community.  The National Center for Education Statistics reported in May 2015 that 18 education systems scored higher than that of the United States in scientific literacyHow can this be in a country that created waves of life-saving technological innovation? Perhaps the instances of widely-reported misuses and ethical breaches around both emerging and existing technologies are having an effect.

What are the potential consequences of mistrust, fear, or simple disinterest in science and technology? What is the true cost of products that have become an actual or perceived necessity to millions? Why don’t Americans place greater trust in scientists when they trust products of scientific inquiry with their lives, every single day? Perhaps we now know that the humans who direct the use of new technologies are still human, and thus subject to all the usual banal weaknesses. The difference is that the consequences today can be catastrophic.

The most unsettling, deeply entrenched concerns arise when humans themselves are in danger of becoming the technological product, or worse, become indistinguishable from, or interchangeable with, cyborgs. As this inevitable outcome draws closer and closer, so do the attendant discomforts.

Speculative film: now in the “Horror” category?

Sampling the cultural reflection provided by Netflix and other sources of digital entertainment, it is evident that the tone of entries in speculative or science fiction categories has developed into something almost gothically dark. The safety of knowing the end will likely be a happy one is about to blink out. From top-shelf entries such as the British speculative anthology Black Mirror (2011 – ) to cheap direct-to-video movies, many current speculative stories share one perspective: dystopian use of technology is here to stay and there is nothing we can do about it.

The utopian vision of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” (1966) has morphed into a grimness based upon the perception that the average person cannot affect the greater forces of unchecked capitalism and corporate citizenship. This malaise has arguably found its voice – even a crí de coeur – in the proliferation of speculative fiction films and series with less-than-happy endings in the early 21st century. Even a casual survey comparing speculative films of the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s with those of the last 18 years shows a decided turn towards unrelenting darkness.

The evolution of dystopia

While the classic dystopian films of the ‘70s addressed fear of depersonalization and uncontrolled, pernicious uses of technology – most famously in 1973’s “Soylent Green” – most of them left a gleam of hope at the conclusion. At the end of “Soylent,” set in 2022, NYPD Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) can at least hope that those who hear him cry “Soylent Green is people!” may rise up and take action.  Today, it is hard to find any work of speculative fiction that does not pose an unchangeable universe where the average person is at a severe disadvantage, or worse, doomed.

The techno-fears of the late 20th century included environmental disaster (“Soylent”), automated warfare (“The Terminator,” 1984), depersonalization and corporate domination (“Rollerball,” 1975; “The Matrix,” 1999), and cyborgs (“Blade Runner,” 1982 and “Robocop,” 1987). Yet audiences knew that at the end, “we” would be saved somehow. No such assumption can be made in 2018. Today’s speculative films capture a confluence. Mistrust in established authorities mixes with the unrelenting cascade of news about terrifying technologies. Many people feel they have no say, and in truth, they have little agency beyond that of the marketplace. 

Westworld: Humans inflicting PTSD on cyborgs

Two recent entries in the speculative fiction category provide bookends for current anxieties which may feel too close to home: the HBO series “Westworld” (2016 – ) and “Sorry to Bother You,” (2018). These two works come at the topic from decidedly different perspectives, yet reach arguably similar conclusions.

The unsparingly grim “Westworld,” based upon by the 1973 film of the same name based on the Michael Crichton novel, takes the no-consequences fantasy vacation to an extreme unimaginable in the last century. Will cyborgs suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome due to their treatment at the hands of humans? (Spoiler: Yes.) Will humans, allowed to act upon their basest impulses as guests of a fantastically expensive theme park, descend to savagery by failing to accord any consideration to their cyborg “hosts”? Hosts that look, act, and feel completely human?  The superrich enter the immersive Westworld, ostensibly to “find themselves.” Or at least that is the marketing message created by parent company Delos – a Disney taken to nightmarish extremes. 

The cultivation of indifference

After each “storyline” is completed, the cyborg host bodies are stacked like refuse until they are repaired – almost all of them suffer death or violence of some kind. Their artificial brains are wiped of memories. They are then reinserted into the theme park for another round of abuse. Science, in this context, serves the moneyed class and the stockholders of Delos. Some technicians feel a twinge, but they are strongly discouraged by management from seeing the hosts as anything but objects. Things. Most of the humans in Westworld spare no opportunity to demean or debase the hosts. The bottom line and the ultimate prize of priceless intellectual property are the only things that matter. 

Most tragically, the cyborg hosts think they are human. They have life stories, loves, fears, skills, desires. Are they sentient? Do they have rights? Will they rebel against their heartless owners? Christopher Orr’s piece on Westworld in The Atlantic  explores the subtleties of the unfortunate hosts.

Coming attractions, coming soon?

While this construct may beg comparisons to “Blade Runner,” the differences are significant. For one thing, immersive theme parks are proven moneymakers. They boast generations of devotees. Visitors have demonstrated their willingness to accept everything from exorbitant prices to borderline-intrusive tracking technologies such as Disney’s Magic Band in order to experience the parks more deeply. (Read Gizmodo’s inside story on the Magic Band here.)   They are willing to trade privacy for so-called VIP status. As for the cyborgs, products such as Realbotix’s infamous RealDoll are now over 20 years in development. So Westworld is plausibly closer to becoming reality than “Blade Runner.” 

Buying stock in Equisapiens

At the other end of the auteur spectrum lies “Sorry to Bother You,” an audaciously sharp and comically deft exposure and flogging of the global economy, technology, and the politics that govern them. “Sorry” is so outrageously entertaining that some may dismiss it as a comedy. Yet the themes of abuse of technology, economic slavery, classism, and racism are vibrantly illustrated. 

In “Sorry,” a down-on-his-luck Cassius rises through the ranks of a depressing telemarketing job by using his “white voice.” Cassius catches the attention of billionaire businessman and owner Steve Lift, a cocaine-fueled tech-bro whose real moneymaker is selling the services of economic slaves via his company, “WorryFree.” Financially desperate individuals sell themselves to WorryFree in contractual slavery. Their services, in turn, are sold to corporations and governments worldwide for the dirtiest of dirty work by well-compensated salespeople working leads as they use tablets and headsets in glamorous Bay Area offices. 

Crime still pays

An already-guilty Cassius stumbles upon WorryFree’s secret during a visit to Steve’s mansion: an appalling plan to create a new species by genetically manipulating humans and an animal species that shall go unnamed here. As A.O Scott’s review in the New York Times states, “A later development is so outlandish that it sets the movie wobbling on the edge of willful silliness. Unless, that is, it resets the premise and raises the stakes, turning a playful, barbed riff on identity politics and political economy into a nightmarish vision of impending human extinction.” Again, science is employed for sheer greed with no thought for ethical implications. 

Once Cassius realizes the true horror of WorryFree’s plan, he urgently communicates it to the media. The result, while relayed satirically, is chilling and believable: WorryFree’s stock explodes upward, and American politicians of all stripes sign on. Conscience is not an issue. 

The de-weaponization of technology

Are series such as “Westworld” and films such as “Sorry To Bother You” an indicator of public sentiment towards technology controlled by nothing more than greed?  Greed is as old as the human race, but the implications for this vice in a world where any impulse can be exponentially increased via the use of technology becomes genuinely frightening. The scientifically literate might argue that non-specialists fear technology because they do not understand it. Perhaps the non-specialist, average person does not understand technology as well as they could, but they do understand the human impulse to weaponize it for profit. 

It is time for science and scientists to actively participate in the development and socialization of ethical uses of technology, else there will be no counter to the Steve Lifts of the world. Fear of science does not encourage people to follow careers in the field. It does not encourage voters to support funding for scientific research, or to ensure evidence-based science curricula in the schools. Scientists must provably become the allies of human rights and ethics, in a manner that average people can feel and experience. Unless, in fact, they are not.

More about Cia Romano here.

About Future Proof

Future Proof, a blog of IEEE Technology and Society, seeks to open a dialog between formal studies on the societal implications of technology and the daily existence of all people.