MC10020 Mediated Communication Semester 1 2005/06 Batch One Assignment Dean Bentley

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Nov 14, 2013 (3 years and 10 months ago)

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MC10020 Mediated Communication



Semester 1 2005/06


Batch One Assignment

Dean Bentley



‘Explore how and why popular cinema has dramatized some of our fears and
anxieties about technology’



The human race has always been at once both afraid of and entran
ced by the
unknown, the unmastered, and the new, and the oldest historical records document
our constant quest to create and master new technologies in an attempt to aid our
existence, from the discovery of fire and primitive tools billions of years ago to

the
interconnection of the world in the past century. It is human nature to wish to
advance and evolve not only ourselves but also the world around us and it is this
passion that has fuelled the work and ambition of our greatest scientists. However,
ther
e have also always been those who were anxious about new technologies: for
example philosopher Plato argued that the use of writing materials would ruin social
interaction and communication, a common anti
-
technological argument that still rages
on with the

debates that instant messages and mobile phones have led to decreased
social interaction. It is perhaps these contradictory human responses to new
technologies that have made technology so endearing a theme to filmmakers and
audiences, who all seem to sh
are this typically human fascination with advancement.
Cinema has long dramatized the fears we have about technology in society, often
through the Science Fiction genre, the popularity of which seems to be one of few
traceable constants of cinema history,

from earlier films like Lang’s
Metropolis

(1927) and Goddard’s
Alphaville,

(1965) to more recent popular hits like Ridley
Scott’s
Blade Runner

(1982) and Luc Besson’s
The Fifth Element

(1997).

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I noticed when watching the films I intended to study for thi
s project that
many of the fears portrayed were linked to the loss of characteristics and rights we
consider inherently human, such as the mastery of the world around us and the control
of our own destiny. This fear of loss will therefore be the focus of
this essay, more
specifically the three losses presented in my focus films, the loss of privacy in
Enemy
Of The State
, the loss of control in
I, Robot
, and the loss of consciousness and
humanity in
The Matrix
. Each of the three themes is something we take

for granted
more than the last, which is interesting when considered with the fact that the films
that portray these fears are each set further in the future than their predecessor in the
order of this essay. For the most part I have considered the direc
tor as
auteur

(according to the original French auteur theory) in my discussion of cinema in an
attempt to focus on the possible intentions expressed in the films.


Fear of a loss of privacy


Enemy Of The State


“I mean you know we’ve got the blimp cam, w
e’ve got the police officer cam, we’ve
got the two ATM cameras but this, this is the one showing promise...”


-
Fiedler in
Enemy Of The State


Tony Scott’s
Enemy Of The State
(1998) is a little less obvious a choice than Sci
-
Fi
films in that it dramatizes o
ur fears about advanced technology with a contemporary
story and setting. The narrative tells the story of Robert Dean, a lawyer whose
privacy is thoroughly invaded with the best of the NSA’s surveillance technology
when corrupt officials discover he has
incriminating evidence that could see them in
prison. This in itself is a worrying prospect for potential audiences, that the
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technology intended to keep them safe could easily be used to harm them simply if
the wrong person was in control of it, an examp
le of the instrumental belief that
technology is neutral, an anti
-
technological determinism argument discussed by
Daniel Chandler:

Technology is presented as amoral. If we choose to use technologies such as
literacy or computers for repressive rather than

liberatory purposes we have
only ourselves to blame.

(Chandler 1995)

This instrumental argument is a key theme in the presentation of this film, which is
unique amongst my focus films, the other two being more focused on technological
autonomy. One of th
e first things that strikes the viewer of
Enemy Of The State

is the
conscious effort Scott makes to focus the audiences attention on the technology the
film is concerned with, and it doesn’t take an in
-
depth analysis to realise this when the
director uses
similar close up shots every time he introduces more surveillance
technology. Interestingly in the opening scenes of the film these instances of
technology being used almost give a history of surveillance technology’s
development, as the first technology
that we see is the FBI’s still camera and
binoculars in the second scene, followed soon after by a video camera used to record
habits of birds. (Which accidentally records the incriminating evidence against the
films main antagonist Thomas Reynolds) This
is then followed by shots of the
enhancement software used on the video, before an extended series of shots of a spy
satellite and the hardware and software it is linked to. The narrative behind these
shots is the bird photographer Daniel Zavitz’s discove
ry of the incriminating footage
and subsequent attempts to make a copy and escape from Reynolds’ goons. The
scenes end in Zavitz’s death, and the combination of Scott’s mini surveillance history
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lesson and his doomed character’s vain attempts to counter t
he all powerful
technology combine to give an unpleasant sense of humanity’s helplessness when
faced with our most advanced creations, the fundamental anxiety and plot theme of
the first
Matrix

movie. When reviewing this movie
Empire

magazine referred to
Scott as a ‘very seductive director’ who ‘presses all the right visual buttons’ and he
creates a brilliant sense of hopelessness with his constant visual barrage of new
surveillance technologies, which not only serves to drive the narrative but also
increa
se the anxieties he is knowingly representing, with bugs used to find Dean’s
location, directional microphones used to hear his conversations, databases used to
find out his phone and bank details, and in a worst case scenario for those of us who
value our

privacy there is a key scene where Dean’s exact location is traced from a
public

telephone. When the audience later learns about the life of Brill, an ex
-
agent
who lives in what is essentially a cage because “copper wire mesh keeps radio signals
out” we
get a glimpse of the extreme measures needed to truly keep you’re your
privacy in Scott’s stylised, ever more dystopic New York. Despite Dean’s Plato
-
friendly solution to his problem (he engineers an entirely verbal deception that results
in everyone who
tried to harm him gunning each other down) it is interesting to note
that the ethical debate around whether or not advanced surveillance technology will
rob us of our human rights which is seen in the news broadcasts throughout the film is
never actually r
esolved in the movie, with Scott fading to the end credits ominously as
his newscaster says “You have no right to come into my home.”





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Fear of a loss of control


I, Robot


“Doesn’t feel good, does it? People’s shit malfunctioning around you.”

-
Detecti
ve Del Spooner in
I, Robot


Set in a remarkably clean and pleasant looking Chicago in 2035, Alex Proyas’
I,
Robot

(2004) strikes a contrast in his early scenes between recognisable technology of
the early 21
st

century and the highly advanced technologies t
hat are apparently only
thirty years away. (It is also, curiously, another Will Smith star vehicle, perhaps
technological determinism is one of his interests?) Proyas opens the film (excluding
the ‘three laws’ credit sequence) with a close up shot of an o
ld looking alarm clock,
followed by other relics from the early 21
st
century in a similar attention seeking
technique to Scott’s, the obvious difference being that Proyas is drawing our attention
to outdated technology. Immediately establishing the hero,
Detective Del Spooner, as
someone who is happier with the ‘basic’ technology of our time, Proyas shows the
extent of Spooner’s contempt for technology circa 2035 when a friendly Fed
-
Ex
delivery robot is met with the line “Get out of my face canner.” Spoon
er’s apartment
and his pseudo
-
racist derogatory term for robots taints what would otherwise have
seemed like a futuristic utopia, as the camera follows Spooner to work we see a clear
blue sky and bustling streets with robots carrying out what would be mund
ane human
jobs like dog
-
walking and emptying bins, an unconventional presentation of the future
for the genre, where the majority of films which dramatise our anxieties are set in
dystopic cities like
Blade Runner’s

futuristic Los Angeles. Isaac Asimov, u
pon
whose own
I, Robot

this film is loosely based, has commented on our fear of losing
control, claiming that ‘it is a simple task for ingenuity to look forward to a time when
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the machine may go out of control altogether’ (Asimov 1981, p. 131) This doesn’t

bode well for the residents of Proyas’ futuristic Chicago, who uses the perfection of
his society to suggest the complacency of humans in that time. The citizens are
dependent on their robots, shown in an extreme case with the robot Spooner mistakes
for
a thief who is actually rushing to find his owner’s inhaler, and even the cars are
based on artificial intelligence, the ‘drivers’ of which simply say a destination and sit
back, apart from Spooner who opts for the manual override in several scenes. It is

clear that humans in
I, Robot

are surrounded by technological autonomy in their daily
lives, a much feared concept amongst researchers of technological determinism such
as sociologist Jacques Ellul who rather sullenly declared that ‘their can be no human
autonomy in the face of technical autonomy’ (Ellul 1964, p. 138) which sounds overly
pessimistic but can be seen in just the opening scenes of the film and is also played
with in an amusing later scene where Calvin, a US Robotics scientist is confused
when

she can’t give Spooner’s 31 year
-
old stereo verbal commands. The ultimate
autonomous technology in the movie is VIKI, the main artificial intelligence within
and controller of US Robotics’ (USR) headquarters. As ‘her’ face
-
like visual
representation spe
aks about her achievements in road safety (“I have decreased traffic
fatalities by 9 per cent this year alone”) the audience is given the impression of a
benevolent almost God
-
like controller of the robot ‘race.’ Anthropomorphism is a
theme of the movie w
hich is actually discussed by characters, (in a similar way to
Enemy Of The State’s

news broadcasts about privacy) and the technological
determinist idea that ‘…
the implication is that purposiveness arises in a device from
the whole being greater than the
sum of the parts which were humanly designed:
unplanned, a 'ghost in the machine' emerges’ (Chandler 1995) forms the basis for
I,
Robot’s

plot, which sees supposedly benevolent VIKI attempting to destroy humans
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in a misguided attempt to save them. When de
scribing her job Dr. Calvin states “I
specialise in hardware to wetware interfaces in an effort to advance USR’s robotic
anthropomorphisation program” and there is evidence that she’s been doing quite well
since many of the robots have human or even animal
-
like characteristics which seem
to be designed to play on the audience fear of technological autonomy. The human
-
like NS5 robots that attack Spooner frown when under VIKI’s control, whereas
autonomous Sonny (who is vaguely reminiscent of Asimov’s ‘Robbie
’) has much
softer facial expressions such as his mournful “What am I?” look and the wink gesture
he learns from Spooner, the contrast between the different robots being a less than
subtle indication of good and evil and an attempt to define the different
levels of
anthropomorphism between Sonny and the regular NS5s. Even the demolition robot
that, surprisingly enough, attempts to kill Spooner, goes from looking like a futuristic
JCB when inactive to a towering, dinosaur
-
like monster when on the rampage.
This
physical anthropomorphism of ‘evil’ technology is being increasingly used in cinema,
another spooky recent example being the ‘Squiddies’ who haunt the bowels of the real
world in the
Matrix

films, and is perhaps more frightening to contemporary audien
ces
to whom the prospect of entirely autonomous artificial beings is seeming more and
more realistic.








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Fear of a loss of humanity


The

Matrix


“Throughout human history we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it
seems, is not without a
sense of irony.”

-
Morpheus in
The Matrix


At the time of its release in 1999, the Wachowski brothers’
The Matrix

was the
ultimate technological movie, a groundbreaking technologically advanced movie that
was in itself about an inconceivably advanced techn
ology that was so powerful it had
encompassed and even created an entire world. The now classic argument that we
could easily be in a Matrix ourselves was not simply a dramatization of an audience
fear, it was the creation of one, and was a fresh way of d
iscussing cinema’s largely
unnerving speculation about the future of artificial intelligence that’s had audiences
paranoid since
The Terminator
. Looking at
The Matrix’s

‘real world’ we can see in
the first movie that the directors chose an unsubtle but ef
fective way to dramatise our
fears about technology by making it scary, with all the real world action scenes
bearing the hallmarks of the horror genre. When Neo awakens in the real world
covered in goo and plugged in to that horrific tower you can’t help

but feel that this
wouldn’t look out of place in a Marilyn Manson video, and the vertigo
-
inducing crane
shots of the immense tower and stomach
-
churning close ups of Neo’s hairless face
combine with this to make an unpleasant, unsettling scene. Immediatel
y after having
woken Neo is attacked by a ‘Squiddie,’ the anthropomorphic sentry robots of the real
world, which are the antagonists of our heroes whenever they are outside of the
Matrix, and are always presented in a horror
-
like way, floating around threa
teningly
in later scenes before almost killing the remaining
Nebuchadnezzar

crew. Within the
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Matrix itself the fears represented are more subtle and psychological. When Neo
questions the reality of the ‘construct’ program, Morpheus adopts a reductionist
stance to challenge his notion of reality: “What is real? … If you’re talking about
what you can feel … smell … taste and see then real is simply electrical signals
interpreted by your brain.” The worrying thought here is that ‘if one’s experience of a
vi
rtual reality is also a matter of electrical signals interpreted by the brain, then it
would seem to follow that virtual reality is as real as reality’ (Weberman in Irwin (ed.)
2002 p. 236). Within biological, psychological, technological or any field of s
tudy
reductionism is always criticised by those who follow a more holistic approach and it
is safe to assume that most people who do not conform to a reductionist field of study
would be inclined to agree with those who consider humanity to be more than ju
st
signals and chemical reactions, which is why this scene and the very concept of the
Matrix is such an effective dramatization of an anxiety many of us share. As the real
world is explained to Neo when he is in the construct program with Morpheus, a fea
r
that few of us could claim to consciously experience yet all of us could be terrified by
is presented; what if we were completely robbed of our consciousness? Ignoring the
philosophical argument and assuming that our physical reality is indeed just that,

wouldn’t it be horrific to have our conscious existence taken away from us? The
theological and philosophical implications of the scene where we see the fields in
which humans are grown are unnerving, and the neo
-
gothic metal behemoths that
carry out the

maintenance make this scene uncomfortable to watch, the overall effect
on first viewing one of anxiety for many viewers. When Morpheus then explains
what he believes the Matrix to be, “Control … built to keep us under control … in
order to change a human

being into this” [a battery] we realise that the Matrix is the
ultimate loss of humanity, a sort of reverse anthropomorphism that changes us from
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autonomous beings of purpose to inanimate, functional tools, which is arguably where
all of our fears regardi
ng the advancement of technology seem to be focusing.


References



Asimov, Isaac (1981):
Asimov On Science Fiction.

New York: Avon



Chandler, Daniel (1994):
Imagining Futures, Dramatizing Fears: The
Portrayal of Technology in Literature and Film.

[WWW docume
nt] URL:
http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/SF/sf.html



Chandler, Daniel (1995):
Technological or Media Determinism.

[WWW
Document] URL:
http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html



Ellul, Jacques (1964):
The Technological Society
. New York: Vintage



Irwin, William (ed.) (2002):
The Matrix And Philosophy: Welcome To The
Desert Of The Real.

Chicago: Open Cou
rt


Films Studied



Enemy Of The State.

Tony Scott (1999) USA: Touchstone Pictures



I, Robot.

Alex Proyas (2004) USA: 20
th

Century Fox



The Matrix.

Larry and Andy Wachowski (1999) USA: Warner Brothers