#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 2)

In addition to the two ad films depicting visions of technology in the future, last week’s E-learning and Digital Cultures content (I’m a bit behind!) included three further short films taking different stances on future technologies, possible uses and misuses of them, and how they might shape society.

Sight

I wasn’t surprised to see this film – presumably inspired by Google’s Project Glass and similar technology – on the list, as it had already come to mind earlier in the course. I’ve watched it several times over the past few months and each time it both engages me and gives me the creeps…

Like Inbox, this film seems to slip between utopian and dystopian suggestions – though perhaps in a less subtle manner. Initially the Sight Systems augmented reality contact lens technology appears intriguing. It provides novel entertainment, useful information (such as nutritional values of available food), and convenient assistance (during cooking, for instance). In this way, the future vision proposed here is not so different from the utopian picture being sold by Microsoft and Corning in their ads. Technology is always there, always on – in a good way.

The first hint of this being taken too far is when the guy re-starts chopping his vegetables in order to get the perfect score for this activity. We soon realise how all-encompassing the technology is, as the contents of his apartment are revealed to be entirely computer-generated. And then it starts getting really creepy when he goes on the date. What I missed the first time I watched this film is that the girl references a rumour that Sight Systems use their technology to manipulate people. It becomes apparent later that the rumour was true and that the technology has reached a point where it can be used to manipulate unknowing individuals.

Aside from the obvious malicious and dangerous implications, Sight differs from the two ads in a few key ways:

  • Both ads imply a future where the technology is available to all. Everyone will have these devices and there’s a level of equality. But this film disrupts that harmonious vision, exploring what the implications would be in the far more likely scenario that different aspects of the technology will be available to different groups of people – and the determining factor won’t necessarily be money. Who holds the power and what will they do with it?
  • Following from this, the nasty undercurrent that characterises this film is at least in part due to the ubiquity of game-based badging. If scores and badges are the primary measures of success in everything you do, how soon do other drivers and motivations start becoming irrelevant? Traditional checks on our behaviour – morality, ethics – risk being sidelined by the lure of increasing digital rewards.
  • There’s no learning here – it’s all about convenience, entertainment, gaming and social interactions. This isn’t in itself a bad thing – it’s just what this short film has chosen to focus on – but it’s interesting I think that the two ads chose to show how technology can be used to enhance the serious stuff as well as the lighter side of life.
  • Having said it’s partly about social interactions, there actually isn’t any bringing together of people in Sight as in the two ads. The male character operates in his own, largely digitally-generated, world until he goes on the date. But even there, he has to be pulled away from his augmented reality and into the un-augmented real world; his attention flicks away constantly to check scores, update statuses and so on. There is no relationship being built (as in Inbox) or developed or improved as in the two ads.

I think what makes this film so disturbing to me is that it is based on technology that’s currently being developed: it’s a clearly dystopian vision by the end and yet it’s not that far-fetched. There’s a lot that’s really fascinating about its potential, but this film raises questions about how far it can be taken and the potential for more unwelcome developments with the wrong motivations behind it.

Charlie 13

Watch the film here.

This film reminds me a lot of the young adult dystopian fiction that I’ve read over the past year or so (see a sample on my other blog). A teenager (or pre-teen) has grown up largely unquestioningly in a future society, but begins to demand more in terms of answers and explanations, often in anticipation of whatever event, ritual or decision marks them leaving childhood behind. In Charlie 13, that event is the implantation of a tracking device on your 13th birthday.

I find it interesting to compare the future societies depicted in these books. In some cases, life appears completely transformed (in The Hunger Games, for instance). But in others, society remains unchanged aside from one key thing. In The Declaration, it’s that a medication has been developed which extends life indefinitely. In Unwind, it’s that abortion is outlawed but parents can give up their children at a later point. And in Charlie 13 it’s the implant which gives the authorities eyes everywhere. Aside from this, everything else looks relatively unchanged – houses, furnitures, clothing and so on all seem quite normal.

The landscape is pretty bleak, not too dissimilar in atmosphere to that shown in New Media. But there’s a difference: this isn’t everywhere. From the first moments of the film we understand that there is a clear distinction between ‘society’ and ‘outside society’, and the chain link fence raises questions about whether something bad is being kept out or whether people are being kept in. Charlie is already nervous about having his tag implanted and intrigued by what lies outside the boundaries, but it’s a brief conversation with a man outside the fence, a ‘deserter’ who is presumably Charlie’s long-lost father, that decides him.

What I like about Charlie 13 is that the technology itself isn’t presented as being repressive or oppressive (there’s a lack of determinism, I suppose). Tracking technology and all-seeing authorities are not necessarily bad things, but there is a hint that the authorities abuse it when Officer Harker tells Charlie’s mum that he and his best friend have been declared ‘incompatible’. That divide between those who have complete control over or access to the technology and those who are subjected to it is even more evident here than in Sight. It’s the human use and implementation of the technology that’s concerning.

At one point, Officer Harker tells Charlie that ‘the chip makes you part of something bigger’. Isn’t this one of the major draws of social media and technology? This is partly what Microsoft and Corning are selling in their ads, but Charlie is able to see beyond that appeal, and he tells Harker ‘it’s not real though, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be’. What Charlie is really frustrated by and resisting is the lack of information and the lack of choice. He’s smart enough to realise that – despite what the big corporations might sell in their ads – technology is more often than not divisive. It’s not equalising; there will always be people who have more access to the technology than others, and there’s always the potential that those people will abuse that power.

Plurality

This film almost takes the idea of surveillance and all-seeing authorities from Charlie 13 to another level. In this version of the future, every movement made by anybody is monitored and tracked, not via an implanted chip but via their DNA. There are benefits to this of the type promoted by Microsoft and Corning: the ease and convenience of paying, starting your car, travelling without needing cash, keys or passports. On top of this, the ‘grid’ has contributed to rapidly falling crime rates.

The added twist to Plurality compared to the other films is the introduction of time travel, which is used as a mechanism for imagining the future consequences of the grid. The authorities detect a ‘plurality’ – the same person detected in two places at the same time. During the ensuing chase, we see a society which is dramatically different from ours (unlike in Charlie 13). There’s a lot of Minority Report style technology, augmented reality, personalised adverts and digital greetings. Having caught both versions of Alana, the authorities question them until they determine which is the plurality. She confesses and says that she has come back to stop the grid because of what she knows it will lead to in the future. She tells Foucault that ‘you’ve replaced freedom with the illusion of safety, but we’re not safe’.

Safety and security is an omnipresent issue when it comes to technology, whether it’s personal Facebook privacy settings or corporate digital security. And I think what Alana means is that by tightening up security to such an extent, the authorities are not only reducing crime but also making themselves and society more vulnerable. There’s one system, the grid, which contains every piece of information about every person in the population; if that system is compromised, there’s no back-up and the consequences could be devastating. There’s perhaps a warning in here to organisations that are responding to social media and new technologies by locking things down.

I’ve not had time to read Cory Doctorow’s novel Little Brother, suggested by the course organisers as related reading on the educational implications of this kind of society, but I’ll add it to my ever-growing reading list. I’m also going to have a browse of some blogs by other participants in the course, because the specifically educational implications of this version of the future are not clear to me at the moment.

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2 thoughts on “#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 2)

  1. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 3) | Good To Great

  2. Pingback: #EDCMOOC: being human – reasserting the human | Good To Great

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