Tech on TV: New Representations in Technorealism
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.
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).
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.
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)
Rochelle Terman is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science.