MOOC Week One: Thinking about the Films

All of this week’s short films (linked alongside) could be seen as dystopian in some way and some are much more so than others. Like all dystopias they set the external threat alongside some kind of indomitable human, or at least biological, spirit as if the two are different and lead to either good or bad outcomes. You cannot portray the dystopia without some sort of counter to it.

In terms of the digital culture, most of these filmmakers are still stuck in the person and machine metaphors and the threat in these films is typically mechanical, automated, mass produced and inclined not to work too well. When you think about that it isn’t dystopian at all. Most people have this relationship with their IPod, their washing machine and lawnmower. Not going down that road is what makes New Media gets described as ‘disturbing’. Is a digital culture located in the social space between people and technologies?

There are some interesting issues around responsibility. Are we to assume that the icons in Bendito Machine III come from space? If they did they might work better! The closer link is to some kind of cargo cult. This stuff gets washed up and this society tries to make sense of it and, of course, it mostly gets it wrong. This is a very neat way of making sure that the encounter with technology is entirely innocent which helps with the moral values in a lot of dystopian science fiction. Aliens that come from outside are easier to deal with than ones we created. That is what makes Blade Runner a more complicated film than Star Wars. We like to pretend that we aren’t accountable for the creation of iTunes but I’m afraid it’s down to all of us that it is so irritating to use.

With the aliens from Mars in War of the Worlds there is is not a lot you can do except run but in the real world the main thing about dystopian technology is that it isn’t outside of us or even outside of our control. We are not controlled by the machines or new technologies except to the extent which we make use of them and then there is a sense in which we can become dependent on them but that dependency is entered into voluntarily. I have a car and I can’t do without it blah blah but if I didn’t have it I would do without it.

The next thing to say is that the relationship is not between you and me and the technology. The relationship is between us and in that sense I take the point that technology is neutral. Even a drone is neutral. It is simply how it is used and negotiated socially which gives it any additional property or value. I think perhaps that the ‘us’ is important here. The same goes for all technology. Facebook would be pretty crap if you were the only user! A lot of dystopias suggest the isolation of the individual in order to make the dystopia worse.

There is also a tendency to make a space for escape from the dystopia. In Thursday, everybody looks pretty stupid especially the woman which I tend not to think is an accident. I think that might be done to allow a sophisticated viewer to feel a bit smart in comparison. In this short it is other people who are the slaves of the technology and who live in the dystopia. There seems to be a kind of space, it might be called an additional textuality, for the viewer to live outside it and fly above it like the birds. The same is true of the couple in Inbox who apparently transcend the threat of the dystopian through true love – not exactly a 21st-century theme!

Presumably, therefore, these two films avoid technological determinism and the inevitability of consequences arising from technology. It is happening, but you don’t have to join in. I haven’t gone on to the reading as yet but it looks as if technological determinism is pretty much the same as any historical determinism. The spread of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 30s is akin to the spread of mobile phones in the 1990s at least in the way it is discussed. It is worth bearing in mind how disciplinary practices like education have a tendency to resurface and to do the same things in spite of historical change. Anyway, that’s the next bit.

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