I am amazed by the ways I see technology and the companies in that industry represented in popular culture. I find it fascinating because it is often times like looking at an odd, slightly uncomfortable, but an all-too-true version of yourself. This produces a wide range of emotions and often causes introspection. But I also find it fascinating because it provokes for me the question of whether culture predicts our future or rather it shows us what the possible futures are. In what way is this culture a self-fulfilling prophecy? So as tech looks into its Black Mirror does it see a Philip K Dick novel version of itself or can it tease out the best parts of its future and believe in the more empowering stories it tells itself about *changing the world*. I’m going to use three examples to talk through these questions.
Ubik by Philip K Dick – Towards the beginning of the book you meet the main protagonist, Joe Chip. Joe Chip is sitting in his apartment; he walks to his front door to open it.
The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”
…he found the contract. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes more and more prevalent and the common Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model becomes accepted we can see this situation happening in a not-so-distant future in a smart home near you. If you think your privacy is vulnerable now because of mobile devices, shopping online, etc; imagine what it will be like when everything around you is exchanging data, optimizing your experience, selling directly to you.
Westworld – Westworld had a fantastic first season on HBO and was one of my favorite shows of last year. Westworld tells the story of a park (think Jurassic Park but for Androids) where people pay to go on virtual stories and adventures that they cannot tell are fake. As virtual reality begins to take off we need to consider the ethics of simulation, role-playing and the virtual world. We also need to consider the ethics of creating artificial intelligence. Will the world turn out to be like this quote?
“They say that great beasts once roamed this world, as big as mountains. Yet all that’s left of them is bone and amber. Time undoes even the mightiest of creatures. Just look at what it’s done to you. One day you will perish. You will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt. Your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced. Your bones will turn to sand. And upon that sand, a new god will walk. One that will never die. Because this world doesn’t belong to you or the people who came before. It belongs to someone who has yet to come.”
Also, I like Westworld because it raises the question of whether humans ourselves are simulations or artificial intelligence? If we’re able to achieve it then it is improbable to have been the first to have achieved it and thus are most likely in a simulation ourselves.
We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.
Silicon Valley – This show has me in tears when I watch it for two reasons: 1) it is incredibly funny and relevant to my day job and 2) it is painfully true and I feel depressed about our industry’s worst problems. One of the themes that run across the show is this notion of what we do has the capacity to change the world and how all these services we offer, no matter how inane contribute to “the good life.” This is also coupled with the notion that we can achieve these world-shattering ventures and create filthy amounts of money for everyone involved. Therefore, if we do not see a startup as this type of “unicorn” company then we should not invest in them or give them very much heed as a “success story.” *Silicon Valley*, hopefully, forces us all to realize that there is a reality distortion field in everything we do and that we need to realize that while we sometimes create “value” in terms of high valuations we are not creating real value that can actually effectuate change for those that need it most.
There are much more examples of these stories of hope and despair in the tech industry ranging from Black Mirror to The Circle. However, do these stories point to a future already here? Are they meant to wake us up to what is already in front of us? Or, do they predict possible futures that we can change? I believe it is a bit of both. I believe that pop culture shows you the best and worst perceptions of yourself, according to how people see you. It is like holding up a broken mirror to yourself and seeing yourself outside of how you traditionally view yourself. So if pop culture is reflective of the tech industry, at the moment, we need to take a hard look at our industry and ask why there are so many scary versions of ourselves? Yet, I also believe that if we take the time to reflect on these stories of ourselves then we will see that we can adapt, change, and carry the lines of hope, optimism, eternal equality in each of these stories and run in that direction. Towards the direction where technology is a form of empowerment and justice-enablement. Then, maybe, just maybe, our cultural version of ourselves will not look so scary!
What are you favorite tech pop culture references? Why do you think cultural artifacts are important to study? Are these texts predictive? Leave your comments below and share with others.