10/09/2015

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Like those paranoia-inducing emails your mom gets from anonymous senders, media producers feed on fear. It’s what they live for. Now that television is reaching an unprecedented level of quality, the aforementioned business of fear is growing and we’re all in for one hell of a ride.

As of late, two excellent television shows have brought new life to a fear of tech: Humans and Mr. Robot. Both shows have raised the bar in television as we know it in terms of story, character development and production quality. The real issues they discuss and struggle with in the stories have likewise scaled up. For better or worse, these two shows have become the exact opposite of reality TV: engaging, challenging and eerily real.

British-produced series Humans plops us in the middle of an alternate United Kingdom half run by robots toting the latest in near-perfect Artificial Intelligence. With enhanced learning, god-like precision and unerring judgement, they’re everything we want to be. The show doesn’t pull its punches when it declared the obsolescence of man in the midst of these supreme beings. They make people look like clumsy little flesh puppets constantly bogged down by emotion. The new model T rolled in to town and it doesn’t flinch at flying cockroaches or cry at Pixar movies.

On the flipside of life-ruining science fiction is our overreliance on machines. Mr. Robot let loose the most devastatingly accurate portrayal of hacker culture in recent years. In the show, an unassuming tech worker goes vigilante as he crushes villains big and small under the weight of their own dirty laundry. Between some major digital attacks are smaller but equally sinister hack jobs targeted at lowlifes of every shade and caliber. Operating outside of the law and beyond the grid seems to come easy to the young morally gray hacker. Anyone seems to be a possible target and pulling the trigger comes as easy to some as stepping out for cigarettes. In the wake Edward Snowden, intimate celebrity pictures getting leaked and Sony’s PSN getting hacked, the new question is: are we as safe as we think we are?

The tradition of technophobia

The writers of these shows have tapped in to something beautiful here. In the ‘90s and early 2000s we were afraid to be swept away by a typhoon or an earthquake inspired by this new-fangled thing called climate change. In the mid-2000s we were all about those zombies – a creature repurposed to allude to the mindless consumerism of the multitudes. Now nearing the tail end of 2015, technology seems to be shaping the way we dream of dying.

Now a tech-inspired apocalypse is hardly a new concept. Movies such as 2001 A Space Odyssey, A.I., Terminator and The Matrix also point out artificial intelligence as the cybernetic hyper intelligent elephant in the room. As crude and inaccurate as their depictions may be, hackers have been featured in movies like the Mission Impossible franchise, Swordfish and Live Free or Die Hard – the fourth one.  But this time around, shows are raising questions that could pass as warm-ups for a philosophy seminar.

Sci-fi has always been the philosophical genre allowing us to let those hypothetical situations play out in a secure biome set in fiction. A little production magic and our what-ifs become let’s-sees. Now that technology has progressed at a maddening rate in the last two decades, so have our questions. Smartphones and cloud-based storage bring with them holes in privacy. A progressive hacker culture and exploitative companies running rampant get us daydreaming of a digitally executed uprising. Automation and and increasingly difficult job market has us questioning our work and role in a futuristic society.

The new fear

The fictional AI of this era is now inspired by modern technology like the unassuming Siri, the infinite wonders of the Internet and the impending threat of automation phasing out jobs. We are learning to be afraid of obsolescence: the end of our purpose. Being phased out is a fate much worse than death. Not only will you not exist. You won’t matter. Why bother being a doctor when a robot could learn that job in a few minutes? Why try making new friends when you have an unshaking, lifeless shoulder to cry on?

Hacking brings in an all new threat to life. All the systems, companies and structures we have so instinctually trusted with our lives are not as safe as we may think. With cybersecurity being treated as just another annoying footnote in board meetings, crucial databases are being left out in the open. What more is that companies are moving more and more towards storage options we can’t control. Mix that with civil unrest brewing under the heel of bloated corporations and you have yourself the perfect antagonist to ever wield a keyboard.

These aren’t the threats of tech like we remember them popping up in the ‘90s. That was a much simpler era where robots wanted to kill you just because they were programmed to and computers were just green screens in laboratories. The threat of technology is getting a lot more philosophical as technology evolves. Mainstream media is starting to scare us less with jump scares and more with seeds of uncertainty.

It’s a different brand of fear to be perpetually vulnerable, and also be so close to the actual threat. You know that when you walk out of the theatre, The Rock will probably never run around a crumbling LA nor will a giant radioactive Japanese lizard destroy yet another major US city. Malware and losing your job to impending automation however hit much closer to home. As fictional as it is, consider asking Siri to spare you in the coming robot uprising just to be sure.

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