Web of Lies

Why do films so routinely misunderstand the internet?

In the infamous tech-thriller The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995), Sandra Bullock plays systems analyst Angela Bennett, who receives a floppy disk that immediately involves her in a ridiculous criminal conspiracy network. She is pursued and knocked out, and when she wakes up, every record of her life has been erased. Her credit cards don’t work. Her house is for sale. Her social security number is registered to someone else. Moreover, she has nobody to turn to, because nearly all her relationships were online. In a sense, she had only herself and her chosen isolation to blame for her complete disappearance from the world.

Most modern futurist narratives serve only to scare people about the overwhelming and presumably incomprehensible dangers of a digital world. Stunningly, the framework used by The Net has barely evolved in two decades. In Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014), for example, which barely recouped its budget, a squeaky-clean future is corrupted when an idealistic scientist decides to upload his consciousness to the internet and instantly begins the AI takeover. James Ponsoldt’s The Circle, this spring’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, is the muddled story of a social media company gone wild. Mae, played by Emma Watson, ultimately overthrows the company’s evil executives, reducing complex and high-stakes issues to a match between solitary actors of good and evil.

Most modern futurist narratives reduce the internet to a mysterious imposition or an alternative reality rather than a feature of reality itself

These are not compelling, artful or thoughtful representations of the digital era — they are simplistic thrillers, more indebted to blockbuster formulae than to any inspired perception of digital reality. Worse, they rely on flawed, and badly outdated conceptions of the internet, which they reduce to a narrative “Other”: a mysterious imposition on our lives, or an alternative reality controlled by malevolent forces, rather than a feature of reality itself. Media that attempts to depict “the way we live now” by envisioning the way we might live tomorrow should not be so simple.

Within science fiction, the internet and social media have proven to be particularly mystifying subjects. They constitute their own, troubled subgenre, with dated preoccupations and conventions that developed at a time when digital technology was new, and relatively unfamiliar to the average viewer. They’re often set in the near future, to offer a predictive extrapolation of a nascent technology; often the evil lurks within the technology itself, or the hearts of its proprietors, rather than the humans who make use of it; in the end, a lone moral operator resists and defeats the digital conspiracy. These films reflect common biases and misconceptions about how the internet works, boil them down to their most reactionary essence, and make them didactic. They disregard the ways in which humans and their technologies are fused.

In accurately identifying a cause for dread and concern, these films misrepresent its nature. The Circle is far from alone in this false imagination: #Horror (Tara Subkoff, 2015) is a bluntly condescending tale of teen cyberbullying, finding toothless preachy horror in the shallowness of millennial vanity on social media; and Jason Bourne (Paul Greengrass, 2016), which features a limp subplot about the leader of a Facebook-esque social media platform attempting to get the government to use it as a surveillance resource; it makes perfunctory non-sense that suggests the writers have just learned about the internet. These movies tap into relevant and undeniably timely anxieties, yet flatten them into tropes, turning real inquietude into a moral monolith. The enemy in both of these films is digital tech itself, which corrupts human ingenuity.

Manohla Dargis, the New York Times film critic, recently reminded me of Susan Sontag’s brilliant 1965 essay, “The Imagination of Disaster,” in which Sontag discusses how science-fiction films keep us distracted, but also “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it … These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them.” In an era of digital cinema wherein summer blockbuster season is now year-round, these films risk “neuter[ing] the threat” of global catastrophe. By hyperbolizing the wrong threats, they mislead us and give us a false sense of understanding and control. We exit the theater with a feeling of resolution, believing that we grasp the extent of the problems they dramatize, and how to protect ourselves — dystopia has already been averted. We constantly place ourselves within cinematic narratives; that’s part of what is so captivating about the medium. But when a genre subjects imminent concerns to dated and ill-fitting precepts, we lose the ability to articulate genuine fears, and identify their sources.

In her keynote address at DrupalCon 2017 in April, Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, pointed out how much of film history itself has been shaped by authoritarian regimes through filmmakers like Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl: “The craft is not a tool that you can control, it’s not something that’s neutral.” It makes sense that a medium with a detailed history of misuse for authoritarian ends would struggle to diagnose the misuses of current media technology. Tufekci continued (emphasis mine), “Modern authoritarianism is increasingly going to be about nudging you in this balance between fear and complacency. If they can profile each one of you, understand your desires, what are you vulnerable about, what do you like, how do we keep you quiet, moving politically … They control this environment.”

Bad digital sci-fi isn’t necessarily propagandistic, but it does tend to stoke the wrong fears, leaving us complacent in the face of the genuinely fearsome; and it very rarely comes close to identifying the nature of modern authoritarianism, or to questioning our complicity. Insubstantial films like Nerve (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2016), Men, Women and Children (Jason Reitman, 2014), and the remake of Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017) merely diffuse our fears, allaying rightful worries that might lead to meaningful action; the lone-hero narratives they recycle nudge us away from a crucial faith in collective action, enforcing our sense of security under the pretense of revolution.

In “The Imagination of Disaster,” Sontag offers a helpful analogy when she gives two historical examples of populaces faced with apocalyptic destruction. The 17th-century Eastern European Jews, upon hearing that Shabbetai Zevi had been proclaimed Messiah and that the end of the world was imminent, took note, packed up their shit and trekked to Palestine. The people of Berlin, upon being informed of Adolf Hitler’s intent to murder them all before the Allies arrived in 1945, reportedly reacted without any particular alarm at all. “We are, alas, more in the position of the Berliners than of the Jews of 17th-century Eastern Europe; and our response is closer to theirs, too,” Sontag mused. In a roundabout way, The Net was onto something when it suggested that Bullock’s character brought it on herself by shutting out the rest of the world and passively accepting her loss of control.

In her now-famous “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway said: “Ambivalence towards the disrupted unities mediated by high-tech culture requires not sorting consciousness into categories of ‘clear-sighted critique grounding a solid political epistemology’ versus ‘manipulated false consciousness,’ but subtle understanding of emerging pleasures, experiences, and powers with serious potential for changing the rules of the game.” This subtlety is crucial: understanding new, fragmented and enhanced realities requires understanding the shifts in perception they engender.

These films reflect common biases and misconceptions about how the internet works and boil them down to their most reactionary essence

Olivier Assayas is a rare director who has taken this dystopic tech-anxiety in productive and meaningful (and entertaining!) directions that actually probe and interrogate the boilerplate futurism we’re normally confronted with. Demonlover (2002) cleverly conflates sexuality with cyber-capitalism, obsessing over what it means for the internet to be a place to the point that physical spaces are made spatially and temporally indecipherable from “virtual” ones — it understands that the internet is part of us, and neither fully condemns nor flatly anticipates a techno-dystopia. Although it vacillates into clear disapproval of the desensitization toward sex and violence that the web accelerates, ultimately it devolves into an amoral cyclone that implicates everyone involved, highlighting our collective complicity in networked capitalism.

This year’s excellent Personal Shopper is not a digital sci-fi film, although its use of social media communication as a device reflects the nature of the medium itself. In its most striking sequence, Kristen Stewart wordlessly communicates via text message with an unknown person or entity, in an exchange that is by turns erotic, terrifying, mysterious, compulsive, shocking, and banal. Digital life is rendered honestly and seriously, and the danger resides in the unknowability of who is on the other side of these messages. The danger is human (or, maybe, spectral), and its menace is compounded by its use of a mundane, everyday digital tool. Instead of providing emotional catharsis by way of cautionary tale, Personal Shopper acknowledges lived digital experience, and alludes to the impossibility of “exorcising” the threats embedded in our networked reality. Reality is what is at stake.

More recently, Haraway has been at the centre of the years-long academic debate over naming our current geologic era. The crux of this debate rests on determining how to define modern human experience. Is it the Anthropocene, focusing on the human race’s paramount role in reshaping the planet with no separation between social and biological activity; or is it the Capitalocene, which suggests that it is actually our specific economic systematization that is responsible for transforming nature? What is the true position of humanity within the natural world? Haraway has provocatively (and contentiously) put forward a new term: the Chthulucene, not in fact a reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s creature but instead deriving from the Greek word chthonios, meaning “of, in, or under the earth and the seas.”

Somewhat radically, Haraway is suggesting that this geologic era of humanity must be understood for its ongoing interconnectedness, pushing aside notions of individuality and embracing the non-arrogant interwoven reality of the world. In her essay “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene,” she explains: “Specifically, unlike either the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen  —  yet. We are at stake to each other.” She then refers to the misguided, voluminous stories of Capital and Anthropos, “both of which invite odd apocalyptic panics and even odder disengaged denunciations rather than attentive practices of thought, love, rage, and care.” Films that imagine our near-future traffic in this disengaged panic. To ideate for the future is to put ourselves within the world, and to do so without compassion and percipience is to engage in utter defeatism.

Jake Pitre is a graduate student in Film Studies at Carleton University, working on a thesis about Steven Universe and queer fandom. He has been published at Dazed & Confused, Polygon, Paste Magazine, the Outline, and Hazlitt