Tech paranoia as a genre is obsessed with being up-to-the-nanosecond. The whole point of Black Mirror and all its networked brethren is to extrapolate how cutting-edge problems are going to metastasize five minutes into the future.
And yet in spite of its grim grip on the pulse of the zeitgeist, tech paranoia can be oddly divorced from political realities, even the ones most relating to technology. The focus on onrushing virtual dangers and tensions often blinds creators to real ones. The new Amazon television show The Feed, debuting on Nov. 22, illustrates with unusual, unfortunate clarity how aggressive hipness can be its own form of naïveté.
The Feed is a British near-future science-fiction series based on a novel by Nick Clark Windo. Scientific genius/megalomaniac Lawrence Hatfield (David Thewlis) has invented a kind of mental internet called the Feed. Thanks to a brain implant, people can access an international information network just by thinking about it, instantly contacting the rest of the world at the speed of a firing neuron. Lawrence and his wife Meredith (Michelle Fairley) want to extend the Feed to everyone everywhere on the globe, in the utopian hope of achieving universal connectivity and peace. Lawrence’s son Tom (Guy Burnet), a Feed therapist, is skeptical. But he still helps his parents track down dangerous rebels, resistors, and hackers, who are somehow using the Feed to take over people’s minds, turning innocent bystanders into deadly assassins.
In the early going (six of the show’s 10 episodes were provided to critics), The Feed ropes in a lot of familiar fears about the web weakening and dehumanizing humanity. Tom treats Feed addicts who go into spasming withdrawal if they drop offline for a few seconds too long. As in Black Mirror’s famous “Nosedive” episode, the addicts are obsessed with getting social-media likes — they perform dangerous stunts or amorally share their friends’ private information for hits.
Many of these plotlines are drawn from real-life concerns about the way tech companies handle data and affect society. In real life, Amazon monitors private conversations through Alexa; on The Feed, Lawrence uses his control of the network to read the thoughts of his own daughter-in-law Evelyn, (Clare-Hope Ashitey). In real life, conservative NY Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat worries that access to porn online is corrupting a generation of young men. On The Feed, Tom’s brother Ben (Jeremy Neumark Jones) uses a creepy app that lets him create VR fetish porn featuring his estranged wife.
Tech panic ripped from the headlines feels relevant. But a series where all the headlines are tech panic seems less so. In The Feed’s, controversy over the Feed is the only political issue in the world.
Lawrence boasts that his brain is more efficient than that of the vast bulk of humanity, evoking eugenicist language about Caucasians’ innate biological superiority. But while the public is scandalized, no one talks about the racist implications — even though Lawrence’s chief rival, and the person he’s most pointedly denigrating, is a black woman. Similarly, when Lawrence meddles with fetuses, the arguments about consent that ensue parallel the language of the abortion debate. Yet none of the characters mention abortion, or religious objections, or any of the issues and links that would naturally be at the top of everyone’s mind in a conversation like this.
The point isn’t that The Feed has to address racism or reproductive rights. Not every television show needs to be Watchmen or The Handmaid’s Tale. But a world where all politics can be reduced to pro-tech or anti-tech feels thin and blinkered, not just about racism or sexism, but about the ways in which technology can actually be dangerous, and the ways it extends into all aspects of our lives.
The clearest illustration of this in The Feed is an ill-considered segment where Meredith travels to Southeast Asia to sell the president of an unnamed country on installing the Feed for his people. The mission is controversial because the country relies on tourism from people escaping the Feed’s reach. Meredith shares some racist stereotypes about the instability and violence of countries in the region, then has her stereotypes confirmed when she barely escapes from ominous crowds of anti-Feed rioters.
New technology has in fact sparked violence in southeast Asia — but not because the people in that part of the world are militant Luddites. Instead, technology made it easier to enable and weaponize preexisting prejudice. Facebook is widely used in Myanmar, and the government and Buddhist activists used the platform to incite and coordinate genocidal violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
The Feed could be even more dangerous as a propaganda device. It has the ability to beam realistic manufactured images directly into people’s brains. It’s easy to imagine how an outlet like Breitbart would use that. But The Feed can’t imagine it, because in its world, the only politics is pro- or anti-Feed, which means Breitbart and other old school hate-mongers don’t exist.
Tech-paranoia narratives often present as dystopias — sometimes apocalyptically so, as in the Terminator franchise, in which the machines are literally out to destroy humanity. But imagining a world where the web is our biggest problem means imagining a world that looks like a utopia compared to the world we have now. You can at least hope that coders will fix the Feed. No one’s going to fix Brexit.
There are plenty of shows and films which integrate fears about technology with more nuanced and thoughtful political critiques. The sixth episode of Watchmen, which airs Nov. 24, is about the effects of advanced tech in the hands of racist demagogues. Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire” is about the way tech can be used to justify and enable violence against marginalized groups. For that matter, 1984 explored the totalitarian implications of surveillance technology more than 70 years ago.
Tech paranoia doesn’t have to write over real-world social tensions with virtual conflict. But The Feed shows how it often does. One of the dangers of advanced technology, in fact, is that we may start to think that advanced technology in itself is a danger, that we’re cyborgs if we carry our phones with us everywhere, or that enhanced human communication is somehow killing human communication. But all these worries about losing our humanity can erase the fact that being human in practice has often meant being terrible to other humans. New tools are just new tools. The frightening part is how quickly humans turn them to the same ugly ends.