by Adrien Johansen
There’s no denying that technology has made movie production more accessible. But what about the role of tech as part of the stories being told on screen? It’d be reasonable to think that as the digital landscape is such an integral part of the way we live our lives that it’d be more of a feature in our media. But this isn’t always the case.
In his TED talk, scholar John Hunter posits that the lack of smartphone and networked computer presence in movies is because audiences resent the control such tech has over our lives, and they don’t want to see it in their escapist media. There’s certainly some truth to this. But it also raises some interesting questions about what it means when filmmakers make the conscious choice to use the trappings of our digital landscape to tell stories.
There is an ongoing debate about the way technology is integrated into our lives. It has affected areas of social existence, from how we approach dating to the way we choose to gamble. This has become an interesting subject for movies and TV shows that eschew escapism and instead seek to shine a light on how — for good or ill — our world is reliant upon our access to smartphones and the internet.
The primary way most of us integrate our devices with our lives is through social media. Netflix’s The Social Dilemma (2020) examined this from the perspective of a docudrama. On a daily basis, most of us see how social media has changed the way we go about social activities, such as celebrating birthdays and sharing everything from mundane to important life events. We are comfortable uploading videos of activities and seeking connections. While The Social Dilemma agrees that technology has a positive role, it also gives audiences access to engineers who have worked for online companies, and who talk about how our casual interactions have wider-reaching consequences. It shows how technology in our lives plays the role of a relatively unregulated influencer — social media companies are engaging in data mining so advertisers can sell more effectively, and surveillance tools are used to manipulate behavior.
However, sometimes social commentary is better consumed and processed through fiction. This can give space for audiences to gain insights but also be entertained. 8th Grade (2018) is a comedy-drama that explores how smartphone reliance and social media are impacting the lives of teenagers. The movie’s protagonist strives to overcome her social anxiety and need for acceptance among her peers through the tools of our digital age. But on a deeper level, it also shows how the expectations of a tech-reliant society impact more complex issues such as sexual consent, and how, for all its positive attributes, technology doesn’t make in-person relationships any easier.
As a Narrative Device
Filmmakers have noted that the prevalence of cell phones presents some creative opportunities for storytelling. Some contemporary visual media have taken the approach of using technology as a character or device to help drive the narrative forward.
Text messaging has become especially popular, here. Shows like Sherlock (2010) have built the potential for enhanced mystery in antagonists through the anonymity offered by messaging platforms. However, to make this an effective part of the viewing experience — no one wants to watch a character just looking down at their phone — producers have made messaging part of the visual cinematic language. The mystery series, alongside others such as House of Cards (2013) and Taken 3 (2014) present the messages on-screen, drawing the audience more closely into the tension of the situation while also giving them a chance to connect emotionally with the character’s reaction to the message.
Indeed, horror movies in particular have long relied upon contrasting the mundanity of our everyday lives against intense situations to give greater emotional impact to the narrative. As we have become more comfortable and reliant upon apps on our devices, this has made it fodder for this type of storytelling. 2019’s Countdown uses the fact that we now have apps for almost every part of our lives to drive the narrative conceit that there would be an app that could accurately predict the exact moment of death. It uses our acceptance of app ubiquity and uses it to enhance the presence of fear in our lives.
As a Cautionary Tale
Perhaps the most prevalent way in which technology is used in movies is as a stark warning. Movies and TV shows tend to approach the subject from the perspective that if we don’t pay close attention to how we continue to allow technology into our lives. Terror about the prospect of machine dominance — artificial intelligence (AI) in particular — is not new, but as these have become a realistic part of our day-to-day lives, there is certainly an added element of realism.
Over the last several years, certain episodes of Black Mirror (2011) have taken this approach. The season 2 episode Be Right Back deals with how social media activity aggregation could result in AI imitations of us, and season 3’s Men Against Fire shows how acting on online information without critical review can be deadly. Even the 2013 movie Her presents warnings about emotional connections to the computer intelligence we live with.
HBO’s Westworld (2016) also considers the rapid increase in automated procedures that we accept into our lives. But the narrative is more rooted in where we draw the line between machine and human, and how technology can bring out the worst in us. Yet, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t quite reflect our current reality. Our digital economy as it stands is gradually starting to utilize technologies that are featured in these fictions — AI, big data, and machine learning among them. However, this evolution has largely been a positive influence in supporting more efficient ways for us to live and work. Indeed, it has been instrumental in helping us all stay connected and productive during our recent pandemic. Still, the role of technology in these movies and TV shows helps us to remember that there are dangers about which we should continue to be vigilant.
Our world is increasingly technologically dependent, and as so often happens, popular media is exploring the scope of this. Whether as social commentary, narrative device, or a warning for the future, these movies and TV shows help us to explore our fears, understand the impact on society, and make more informed decisions.