In an interesting nod to Hollywood’s influence, tech titan Peter Thiel has suggested that his industry is being hurt hurt by its portrayal in Hollywood as a source of advancements with post-apocalyptic consequences:
Thiel, who made billions as a co-founder of PayPal and as an early investor in Facebook, told a standing-room only audience Monday that the high-tech industry is in “deceleration” due in no small part to movies like Avatar and The Matrix that make technological innovation seem “destructive and dysfunctional.”
Hollywood keeps making movies where “technology is going to kill you,” Thiel complained at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. He said the “Star Trek retread movies” are an exception. Thiel said other factors — like government regulation and a “risk-averse” business culture — also are hampering the tech industry, but it will be a “very good sign” when Hollywood stops making movies about scary new technologies.
I think this calculation is a bit off. Hollywood tends to portray technology in three broad categories: as a source of miracles and certainty in day-to-day life, as an industry that has large concentrations of smart, if socially awkward, people, and as a force that operates independent of its creators. Those first two categories are almost uniformly positive. And I think that the real damage would be done if science fiction suggested clearer connections between the current state of science and the possibility of future developments gone terribly wrong.
Technology really is everywhere in pop culture depictions of contemporary life, and almost uniformly portrayed as a source of good or an extremely useful tool. DNA matching is presented as so reliable on televised crime shows that it affects how juries view evidence, and how lawyers decide their cases. And it’s hardly the only technological miracle to make regular appearances on crime shows. Bones, a procedural I enjoy quite a bit, features everything from the Angelator, a computer simulation tool that can recreate all sorts of crime scenarios, crack codes, match faces, and pour through data, to the inventive experiments of Jack Hodgins who’s presented as a genius at analyzing particles and organic materials. And that’s just in the matter of biological science. Pop culture has adopted rapidly from presenting computers in and of themselves as magical portals—an early Veronica Mars episode treats the Internet Movie Database as if it’s something of a miracle—to treating them as tools that ordinary people can achieve wonders with, whether they’re empowered by blogging or tweeting (or sleuthing through social media), or hacking publications, databases, or processes, be it for good or evil. These are all tools that can be used for any number of ends, be they cruel or kind, but the capacities of technology are firmly under the control of the human beings who employ them, rather than independent entities with wills of their own.
Similarly, the people who are particularly adept with technology can be malign or good-willed, and they come in many forms. There’s Zach Florrick, the teenaged son of Alicia and Peter Florrick on The Good Wife, who has a talent for sorting through Photoshopped forgeries of his father, or Christopher Pelant, the hacker on Bones who forced the team investigating him to stop either a drone strike on a girls’ school in Afghanistan or a bank robbery. Tech companies are actually on the rise as popular places to set stories in pop culture. The Internship, which is is effectively a feature-length piece of Google product placement, features Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as adults attempting to reinvent themselves for the contemporary workforce in the company’s competitive internship program. Betas, one of Amazon’s original streaming pilot shows, is set in Silicon Valley’s start-up community, and follows the adventures of a team of young men who are seeking venture capital investment so they can get a social application off the ground. Even Girls, which is more concerned with the creative life than with technological innovation, recognized that the appeal of technology as a career has spread from the West Coast to New York—Charlie, Marnie’s ex-boyfriend, turns himself from a scruffy member of a band that’s going nowhere into a mini-mogul with the development of an app that blocks users from making certain phone calls. Competence with technology, if not a career in it, is something that’s presented as broadly aspirational.
That said, it’s absolutely true that technology is frequently presented as a source of a great deal of trouble in the future. In The Matrix, technology becomes a problem when it wrests control of itself from its human creators, freeing machines and computing technology to pursue their own path for their development. Avatar presents a more mixed view: technology grants humans a range of extraordinary capacities, from projecting their consciences into other bodies, to large-scale mining, but its moral value is dependent on its application. Even Star Trek, a franchise that Thiel gives a pass, suggests that technology can fail, as it did in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie when so-called “red matter” doesn’t succeed in stopping a supernova.
But are these cautionary tales driving people away from technology? Or are they lessons that suggest that people of good will should get into the industry to make sure that they harness the awesome power the future promises, rather than getting harnessed by it? I don’t think that an industry, or a field has to be presented uniformly positively for it to be inspiring and fascinating. And it’s hard for me to imagine that more people respond to visions of a future with technology run amok by opting for Luddism than by wanting to master it.