Tech on TV: New Representations in Technorealism

Rochelle Terman
December 07, 2012
Image of the Techno TV logo.

When asked for the most important commentaries on new technology and society, one often thinks of cyberpunk classics such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Terminator, and so on. Indeed, it is well accepted that the best social commentary on technology lies in the genre of science fiction. Building off the tradition set forth by Mary Shelley’s Franksenstein, Aldous Huzley’s Brave New World and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, new movements in science fiction have commented on developing and future technologies such as computers, the Internet, artificial intelligence and prosthetics with a critical and often distopic eye.

Recently, though, film and television-makers have attempted to capture a more realistic representation of new technologies and our interaction with them. Films such as The Social Network, along with television programs The Wire and Gossip Girl, are distinctive in that they are among the first attempts to narrate the rise of new technologies, social media, and the Internet in a fictional yet realistic framework. Instead of gesturing towards a prophetic or ominous future with technologies that may be, these works portray technologies that exist now, but have yet to be understood. How these works represent technology, from both a user and developer perspective, reveals as much about the gadgets themselves as our collective feelings about them. To the extent that these productions reflect our own hopes and anxieties, they can shed light onto both the potential/pitfalls of technology as well as the nature of our politics, society, and human condition.
 
Consider, for instance, The Wire, which ended several years ago but continues to inspire critics and scholars alike to plunge its depths of social commentary, including its important presentation of technology, particularly mobile and surveillance technologies. What is noticeable here is not only the cat-and-mouse game between the police and drug pushers over who can outsmart the other with their technological innovation, or even the amusing mini-documentary on the history of the mobile phone (who can forget the dues ex machina of the picture phone at the end of the forth season?). Besides all this, The Wire’s greatest achievement was its accurate portrayal of just how important institutional and organizational barriers are to the usage of technology in the first place.  In short, a personal computer does not a James Bond make.
 

To see how realistic The Wire’s consideration of technology is, one needs only contrast it with another techno-heavy yet techno-utopian show, 24. As one blogger noted, although surveillance technology dominates the worlds of both shows, “Fox’s 24 bows in awe of the omnipotence and omnipresence of satellites and fiber optics, while HBO’s The Wire regards phone taps and recording devices suspiciously, as flawed tools that reveal the corrupt nature of bureaucracy and are, at best, necessary evils.” In 24, cool gadgets seem to come out of thin air, with no costs or bugs to bog them down. In contrast, characters on The Wire are constantly battling the expense of technology, its daunting complexity and its limited access.

 

Or take The Good Wife, a legal/political drama set in an age of 24-hour cable news, and which the New Yorker labeled definitive as “the first great series about technology.” What looks like a typical “case-of-the-week” legal show goes to new innovative heights by incorporating a vast array of technology stories straight from the headlines. In the second season alone:

 

Lockhart Gardner took a case involving the online currency bitcoin; used Twitter to upend British libel laws; handled a military case involving drone warfare; litigated crimes featuring violent video games and a “date rape” app; and dealt with various leaked-image disasters (a corporation fighting a viral video, an Anthony Weiner-like dirty photograph).

 
The Good Wife is notable not only for its emphasis on technology but also its approach, incorporating nuance and accuracy in a debate that is so often saturated by reductive punditry. Particularly enjoyable is the show’s criticism of the 24-hour cable news racket, which itself goes to great lengths to solicit our Twitter feeds and then proceeds to broadcast “experts” who warn us that Twitter is making us stupid.
 
While The Good Wife is perhaps the first great series about technology, it is certainly not the first series about new technology or social media. Gossip Girl earns that title, which I do not expect The New Yorker to follow but remains important nonetheless. Gossip Girl was not only the first mainstream series about a blogger; it was also the first to present plotlines that effectively blurred the lines between online and offline experience with plotlines that pivoted around the mobile phone. (It was also one of the first series to air its episodes for free online.)
 

At first glance, Gossip Girl might appear to be a cautionary tale for would-be Twitterers, or at least a dismal portrait of what happens when you mix teens and texts. And indeed, if SMS was a character on the show, it would probably appear as shallow and frivolous as Serena Van Der Woodsen.  But what makes Gossip Girl astounding for me is the utter ubiquity of information technology in a narrative format that pretty much plagiarizes Edith Wharton and other classic high-society literature. (It surely wasn’t an accident that the high schoolers put on a production of The Age of Innocence in season 2.)  For all the IT window-dressing and Web 2.0 antics, the show is really about mistaken identity and elite scandal, a theme that has existed for quite sometime despite our current anxieties that texts make sex.

 

Shows like The Wire, The Good Wife, and Gossip Girl mainly focus on the user experience when narrating technology and generally do a good job in rising above the reductivism that so often accompanies debates on tech. But there is the developer side as well, and here productions like The Social Network become relevant, as do some thrillers such as Hackers, Antitrust, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Much has been written on these films and I would encourage readers to explore those commentaries, but it is worth repeating here that the figure of the “geek” remains a contentious one, especially among us real-world programmers. The stereotype of the antisocial, Aspergersy computer nerd seems to be challenged only by the equally problematic “computer programmer as evil genius” archetype. The latter is quite clearly showcased in the newest Bond movie Skyfall, which casts new technology as the enemy, even as it fails to portray that technology accurately.

 
What is sorely lacking in these narratives is nuance. With Freaks and Geeks and The Big Bang Theory, comic-book nerds have become lovable, but computer geeks remain weird. I wonder whether a typical doctors or lawyers series (think: ER, Grey’s Anatomy, The Practice, Ally McBeal) could be refashioned for Silicon Valley. Then I become more interested in why such a pitch remains unaired, unmarketable, and even unthinkable. Perhaps a clue lies in last year’s SOPA debates in Congress, wherein our national lawmakers repeatedly referred to Internet developers as “nerds” instead of experts.
 

The best of these works may be considered a movement in technorealism, which attempts to forget a middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism by eschewing technological determinism in favor of a historical and sociological approach to technologies. Here, the Internet can be both good and bad, contingent on our interaction with it, much like previous technological developments:

 

Integral to this perspective is our understanding that the current tide of technological transformation, while important and powerful, is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. Looking, for example, at the history of the automobile, television, or the telephone -- not just the devices but the institutions they became -- we see profound benefits as well as substantial costs. (Technorealism)

 
Why should the “realistic” portrayal of technology (as opposed to science fiction) be included in the corpus of social-technological commentary? The answer, I suggest, is because these representations are not only representations but also social objects themselves. That is, these works are some of the first attempts into the historiography of new technologies, and like all histories, should be taken as social objects specific to the time and place of its construction.
 
What is important to realize is that a comprehensive history of new technology would include not only a story on technology’s invention, diffusion, and usage, but also on our contemporary representations of it—our fantasies and anxieties, our mundane interactions and political struggles, our stereotypes and surprises.
 
Of course, the history of 21st century technologies is still being written. But we are starting to see early representations of that history—sketches of what will be museum exhibits and textbooks in the near future – assuming, that is, if museums and textbooks still exist.

Rochelle Terman is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science.