Several new series are taking on digitalization, computers and the internet in their own innovative ways. What do Halt and Catch Fire, Mr. Robot, Silicon Valley and Cyber CSI all have in common?
“Connecting People”. With the unveiling of this slogan in 1992, Nokia took an important first step into a dawning era of global mass communication. That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. Microsoft had just driven Apple out of the PC market. No one had a clue that mobile devices would so fundamentally shape people’s navigation of the analogue world. In England that same year, the first SMS was sent, signalling the beginning of a second generation of mobile communications technology. A year later, with its model 1011, Nokia brought to market the very first mobile phone capable of both sending and receiving text messages. With their prophetic slogan “Connecting People”, Nokia was delivering an implicit promise that digital technology, rather than further isolating or alienating people, would instead facilitate ever-easier communication, transcending linguistic, cultural, and geographical boundaries. This message felt so simple and universal that the Finns clung to it, even after a company from Silicon Valley had long achieved epochal dominance over mobile communications. Dominance it continues to hold.
There is a mythical dimension to this historic moment; the threshold at which computers begin to influence and occupy nearly every aspect of our everyday lives. It absolutely makes sense that in recent years cinema and television have turned their attention to this crossroads of humans and digitalization. Apple’s great innovation was to make the human-machine interface an everyday affair; as a popular news source, social media have long surpassed traditional channels. The NSA affair was merely the most prominent example of the fragility of citizens’ rights in our networked world. Biographies of Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network), Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs) portray the digital entrepreneur as heroic—an exemplary pioneer of the Zeitgeist through which to better understand our absolute compulsion to communicate.
Cinema, with its logic of dramaturgic condensation (an attempt to compress a life into two hours), tends towards an antiquated cult of genius. Television, because of the proliferation and involution of the series-length format, offers another avenue through which the story of human-computer symbiosis can be told. TV series no longer seem obliged to narrate broader social processes by means of single, exemplary biographies. Instead, they seek inspiration in more open and popular formats, such as period dramas and sitcoms.
Series like Halt and Catch Fire, Mr. Robot, and C.S.I Cyber take different approaches to the question of how computers shape our daily lives. Certainly the most blatant position is represented by C.S.I. Cyber which claims to be based on the latest advances in digital forensics and law enforcement, but which ultimately ends up looking like cheap science fiction. Halt and Catch Fire assumes a historical perspective by returning to the birth of the personal computer revolution in the mid-1980s. What these series have in common is the fact that they turn, with varying degrees of explicitness, upon the question of human-computer relations and the rise of new forms of communication.
Which brings us back to the classic Nokia slogan “Connecting People”. It could function just as well as an advert for Halt and Catch Fire or Mr. Robot. By contrast, the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley takes things a step further. The faith in progress and utopia of internet startups makes way for scepticism bordering on the absurd. The idealism of “Pied Piper” founder Richard Hendriks, a kind of anti-Steve Jobs, is in constant conflict with the monetary interests of technology firms and venture capitalists. While Silicon Valley draws from 1980s experiences of series-creator Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead), its mannerisms and habitual blindness results in cult of genius and self-determination clichés that are unmistakably of our own time. This hints that technologies of the future will evolve more rapidly than the mentalities so at home in Silicon Valley.
In this respect, Halt and Catch Fire is the most interesting series—not only because of the amazing transformation it has already undergone in just three seasons. Written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, it was originally conceived as a follow-up to the immensely popular 1960s-based series Mad Men. Nevertheless, Halt and Catch Fire has little in common with the glamorous world of Madison Avenue marketing executives. The first two seasons are set in the Texas “Silicon Prairie” of the 1980s, the other birthplace of the American computer boom.
This is also a series about the marketing of visionary ideas, but the main roles go to programmers, developers and coders, thrilled by the beauty of elegantly coded commands, preoccupied more with software’s technical abilities than its moral implications. To a degree that is astounding for a television series, Halt and Catch Fire is meticulous in its descriptions of technical processes. As part of the drama, this “nerd factor” is important, as the series’ makers are also concerned with questions of social applicability. Its dramatic composition thus functions as a kind of operating system for addressing fundamental questions about the role of computers in our everyday lives.
The historical setting allows issues of huge contemporary relevance to be implicitly dealt with. Organization of the workplace, for example. Or ethical questions raised by the application of the latest technological developments. The free spirit of entrepreneurial innovation is not immune to the pitfalls of glaring naiveté. The dramatic dynamism of the series is driven in no small part by a successive shifting of focus. In the first season, entrepreneur Joe MacMillan is introduced as a charismatic figure in the mould of Mad Men’s Don Draper. Taking a backseat role in the second season, he proceeds to re-emerge in the third (now located in Silicon Valley) as a security guru with an uncanny resemblance to Steve Jobs. In his place, women begin to take the reins in season two. The coder Cameron Howe, always listening to some obscure punk song on her headphones, collaborates with the computer engineer Donna Clark in developing an online platform used to chat and also, potentially, to buy and sell goods. Here, “Connecting People” is to be taken literally. In the more optimistic moments, Halt and Catch Fire tells of early internet users forming novel, scattered, online communities on the basis of shared needs and interests. In the series’ more cynical (read: realistic) strain, these users are already understood as something else: customers.
Hacker Elliot Anderson, from NBC series Mr. Robot, shares many motivations with Halt and Catch Fire’s protagonists. The young programmer suffers from a dissociative identity disorder, complicating interactions with his fellow humans whilst also making him the perfect embodiment of a mainstream image of the IT autistic. However, he also possesses an extraordinary degree of social intelligence. When he’s not testing the vulnerability of multinational corporations’ IT systems (such as “Evil Corp”), he hacks friends’ and colleagues’ computers in order to protect them. This social hacking is Mr. Robot’s strongest metaphor for the permeability between social and computer systems. In the elaborate monologues drawing viewers into his schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness, Elliot repeatedly engages in wordplay “short-circuiting” the technical aspects of his life as a hacker. In the first episode, he discusses his demons. His delusions. His compulsive habits. He compares them to system utilities and background processes (DAEMONs) that determine his actions. Here we have the human psyche as an operating system. Elliot’s intellect becomes a computer monitor (mind=screen) on which the world is shrunk. His IT skills are the only means through which he can come into contact with fellow human beings.
Mr. Robot would only be half as interesting if creator Sam Esmail understood hacking as merely a social metaphor. Hacking is also a specific cultural technology and technique; perhaps more precisely, a culture-jamming technique. In the first season, nothing short of the impending collapse of the global financial system is at stake. Esmail places great emphasis on realistically depicting hacking procedures, right down to the concrete formulation of commands, explicitly written for the show by expert cyber security consultants. Computer screens play an integral role in the drama. This attention to detail not only makes Mr. Robot a fascinating character study, but also a clever reflection on the connections and tensions between technical and social skills. Here lies the key difference between Mr. Robot and a series like C.S.I. Cyber, in which “cyber” is equated in sweeping terms with “everything that has to do with electronic devices” (according to the main protagonist, Avery Ryan, played by Patricia Arquette). Mr. Robot offers a more nuanced counterpoint to this blinkered, ultimately reactionary understanding of cyber, an understanding with a dangerous, hidden dose of techno-scepticism at its core.
The HBO series Westworld, as the youngest member of this new generation of television series dealing with the relationship between humans and computers, represents the flip side of this social utopia. In the theme park that gives the show its title, the super-rich of the future can (in exchange for a lot of money) get immersed in a fully automated Wild West simulation. If they wish, they can also indiscriminately massacre, Grand Theft Auto style, the humanoid robots populating the park. However, after a software update goes awry, the machines suddenly begin to develop consciousness and volition. In the dystopian reality of Westworld, computers have long lost their social function. They have been reduced to pure capitalist commodities, realising the worst fears of idealists like Cameron Howe, Elliot Anderson and Richard Hendriks. It is no wonder that the fascination for computers currently winding its way through US television can be traced back to the pen of techno-sceptic Michal Crichton. The idea behind Westworld is, in fact, nearly 50 years old.