Saturday, October 21, 2017
Futures Before the Internet: of Star Trek and Blade Runner
Since the mid 1990s, the thrust of American technological progress has come through the commercial Internet. Streaming video, smartphones and MMO games such as Destiny are but some of the many advances that owe their mass adoption to Internet connectivity. It is difficult to imagine a world today without the ad-supported commercial Internet, so much that a vast amount of today's futuristic science fiction stories don't even try. What kind of a world would exist without the ad-supported Internet--or, possibly, if it was replaced by something else? Some of the more interesting approaches to creating a speculative world without the commercial Internet have been demonstrated by two sci-fi franchises created before its existence.
For all the sophisticated technology shown on the various Star Trek series, none of them has ever demonstrated a world in which the Internet as we know it exists. This is a world which has incorporated, over the course of several series, video games that have become so sophisticated that they can simulate actual life experiences (the Holodeck), androids that have become nearly human (Data), starships that can travel considerably faster than light, and matter replicators that could create numerous objects. Of course, since the Star Trek world is both post-capitalist and post-scarcity, any online connective system that exists in it would likely be very different from the ad-laden, user-data hungry Internet of today, but actual storylines involving "hacking" and the data side of technology can be surprisingly rare over the course of the various Trek series. Even the latest series, Star Trek Discovery, which has gone out of its way to conform to the tropes of "Prestige TV" in utilizing a darker atmosphere and a very serialized narrative, still does little to explain how a world of such technological wonders would exist without the current Internet. As its narrative continues to evolve, it seems more preoccupied with conspiracies in the Klingon Empire and the bizarre "Tardigrade Drive" creature than how its technological wonders could work. Ultimately, Star Trek has always been defined by its striving for a better future than a painstaking analysis of exactly how such a future could work, and Discovery seems likely to maintain this legacy over the course of its run.
Another pre-online culture sci-fi series that has not incorporated the modern commercial internet is the Blade Runner films. The first Blade Runner, though set in 2019, was released in 1982, before online services were widely available; its portrayal of a world 37 years from its release date is understandably different from our own. Its visual aesthetic, of blocky shapes, bright neon, and visible "cyberpunk" technology seems very different from our current 2017 reality. And yet, it is a world that, if different from ours, is in many ways parallel to it; although there is no "Internet" in Blade Runner, computers clearly have some form of searchable databases and online connectivity. It is a world that is far more advanced than our own in many ways (complete with flying cars!) and no less commercially oriented, with gigantic neon billboards for corporations and loud audio advertisements bombarding the citizens of the future megacity Los Angeles at every waking moment. If not quite the same as our current timeline, Blade Runner in many ways anticipated it from the perspective of the early 1980s.
The unique aesthetics of this world make a return in its sequel, this year's release Blade Runner 2049. The various Star Trek series have very different looks in terms of production design; the bright colors of the 1960s original series seem particularly jarring when contrasted to Discovery's comparatively shadowy hues. Unlike this, the two Blade Runner films strongly resemble each other; 2049 retains the blocky look, flying cars, and gigantic billboards of the original, as well as its dark, noirish color pallete. But a closer analysis reveals that the advertising technology of 2049 has grown far more advanced than its precursor, with eerie, aetherial holograms populating the sides of buildings and numerous digital billboards...and even the main character, "K"'s apartment. The "Joi" hologram in K's apartment serves partly as an incredibly sophisticated evolution of the various "personal assistants" available now like Amazon's Alexa; like these, she can obey voice commands and search requests for her owner. But she is far more advanced than any currently available personal assistant; she is able to perfectly read the emotions of K, arrange her holographic appearance in any manner he desires, and respond to his wants better than a human being could possibly hope to. The Joi holograms have such an uncanny ability to intuit human emotion that K's final encounter with one occurs in a haunting way that will have the viewer question the motives and programming of them during the entire film. Though 2049 lacks the familiar "social networks" of our age, it presents a world in which the soul of our Internet--the advertising--has become so incredibly sophisticated that it can achieve an almost human status in our physical world. What will happen if that technology that Silicon Valley has invested so deeply in--the adware of our current "primitive" Internet--becomes so advanced that it no longer needs a computer screen to reach into our lives? This is one of the true questions that 2049 poses for our age, as much as the techno-utopianism of Star Trek's seemless replicators was a project of the now-lost optimism of the 1960s.