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.