Cinema boldly goes where no one has gone before
Cultural intersection between artistic visualisation and technology has started to look backwards
Films such as The Social Network indicate that depicting singularly driven and complex geeks like Mark Zuckerberg and their worlds are no longer of interest just to the tech fans eager for documentaries, but to a mass public.
Whether the medium is film, television, art, literature or music, the technology involved – for broadcast, design, production – is central to the transmission of culture and creative work of all forms.
But flip that around. What about current wave of highly disruptive technologies – computers and the internet – as cultural subjects themselves?
One or the other has featured in film, television and literature for years, imagined in futuristic settings – whether that be a cheesy, low budget 1950s film, the iconic speaking computers in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, countless science fiction novels in the near to distant future, or dystopian films like The Matrix.
And, if we need solid evidence of how deeply influential cultural creations like this are on the real world, witness the myriad ways in which computers and devices such as mobile phones, and the ways we interact with them, are shaped by books, movies and television shows.
Motorola has acknowledged the inspiration behind its clamshell mobile phone design was the Star Trek communicator. And the Star Trek Holodeck virtual playground remains a gaming holy grail for immersive, 3D environments.
Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. From its 1960s launch to the later series spin-offs and the films – now in a second generation of actors – the franchise has been phenomenally influential on technologists who are motivated to bring aspects of it to life in their modern products.
After all, what is Google Glass but a dorkier implementation of Geordie’s visor on Star Trek: the Next Generation?
All this is because there’s a reciprocal relationship between culture and technology. Our expectations of what new technologies should be like, and how we will work with them, are often driven by the imaginations of the writers, filmmakers and artists who first envision the future for us.
The child that watches Star Trek matures into the adult engineer who knows that bringing the communicator to life would be cool and useful – and stylish.
But the cultural intersection between artistic visualisation and technology is not just forward-looking, imagining and implementing a possible future. It has also begun to look backwards, with films like Jobs and The Social Network, and novels like David Eggers’ The Circle.
This is an interesting development. It’s a shift that indicates depicting singularly driven and complex geeks like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, and the nascent, hyper-growth technological worlds people like them create and which touch all of us, are no longer of interest just to the tech fans eager for documentaries, but to a mass public.
We want to understand these people and these moments in time, these new communities, the breakthroughs and the concepts that end up engaging millions of us as iPhones or ‘like’ buttons. We want to absorb them through the emotional and intellectual narrative truth of drama, film and fiction.
The mass international sense of loss at the death of Steve Jobs was an indication that something had shifted in the way people viewed technology and technologists. The announcement of film projects seemed inevitable.
I saw the first – Jobs, with lookalike Ashton Kutcher in the lead – last week, on a flight back from San Francisco. Reviews have been mixed, but I, and everyone I know who has seen it, found it an agreeable watch. It’s not a great film, but Kutcher is quite good and eerily Jobs-like, and it’s fun watching recreations of the Homebrew Computing Club, where the first Apple computer was introduced, and the West Coast Computer Faire.
The defining film is likely to be the still unnamed Sony project, with screenplay by West Wing and Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin. In the latter, Sorkin was predictably superb at getting under Zuckerberg’s skin, and at portraying Silicon Valley’s dotcom and entrepreneurial exhilaration and social churn. All of that had broad enough reach to draw massive audiences, and won Sorkin an Oscar.
The Eggers novel, about a fictional social network that is blended from real world entities like Facebook and Twitter, has had raves from many reviewers and – like The Social Network – a more mixed response from the tech world, which has nitpicked on the basis of verisimilitude.
That’s probably a good sign – art, film, drama, and literature have the job of getting at a narrative, emotional and psychological truth not always apparent to – or admitted to by – those in the midst of events. Documentaries and non-fiction are the place for strict historical accuracy.
It’s the very fact that we are ready for the former, and not just the latter, that intrigues and indicates that we are collectively hungry for a richer complement to ‘just the facts’. We need to understand our shifting, complex technological world at the more profound level of creative art.