A film about screen culture and its implications. While the world burns, where are we?
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer: Jordan Brown
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
The germ of the film started in 2009. Back then, smartphones were relatively new. Facebook was only really beginning to take off. YouTube started to become a thing. Google began scanning out-of-print books to amass, for itself, the largest digital repository of books online, to essentially privatise that information and sell advertising. Google had also normalised a surveillance culture by driving around creepy cars that photographed your house and published the pictures online without your permission, while also secretly vacuuming up your wi-fi connection and reading your e-mail.
Workers in Apple factories assembling iPhones were committing suicide so much that the company put up big nets to catch them and send them back to work, such is the machinations for a conglomerate bottom line. Data mining was also becoming a big thing, and companies like Narus were revealed to be at the forefront of mass surveillance for governments, with Orwellian titles like "Total Information Awareness." Yes, really. Many years later, this was all revealed to be much worse than ever anticipated with the Snowden documents, but even back then, in 2009, I could see a convergence of serious personal, societal and political implications stemming from digital technologies, at a time when there was (and I think still is) a vast imbalance in general discourse about technology and its effects.
We're constantly awash in positive messages about technology that spout the so-called "wonders of progress" and the "great levelling," that the Internet is "not like the old society with the gatekeepers that are controlling the flows of information; that this time we're free." But I think this is a serious fallacy. What we're actually living through is a concentration of corporate and state power that old media empires could only dream of. Right now, there are a couple of huge corporations that have tremendous unquestioned control over our lives and over the way society is organised and functions, with insights into our lives, and influence over our behaviour on a scale never before possible.
Each one of the big four technology corporations (Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft) have individual annual GDPs larger than some entire countries. The userbase of Facebook, for example, is larger than the entire population of the United States, China and Brazil, combined. At the same time, there is not only this convergence of corporate and state power, but a social dependency on this arrangement, which is very concerning and dangerous.
For instance, the Internet is often heralded as a big "win" for democracy, that it has "levelled the playing field." And while it is true that today we all have much more access to information, we're unfortunately generally not seeing more informed democratic societies emerging. Instead, we're seeing increasingly fascistic social constructions rearing their ugly heads again, often with technology corporations at the core. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web), the Internet is the largest surveillance network ever invented, and the social control that emerges from this giant global surveillance megamachine is powerful, intrusive, and has serious consequences in the real world.
Activists in the UK being pre-emptively detained before an event based on their social media data, for example. Or protesters in Egypt being rounded up and tortured using information extracted from Facebook. Companies like Cambridge Analytica using big data profiling and targeted social engineering to manipulate referendums like Brexit in favour of the interests of illusive billionaires like Robert Mercer, or to have figureheads like Donald Trump elected.
It's like what Chris Hedges calls "Inverted Totalitarianism." Technocracy is the new democracy.
So I decided with this film, that a polemic was necessary, to dive in and take a hard look at what I think is actually happening. What does it mean when Google essentially controls the world's information? What are the implications to privacy, autonomy? Memory? What sort of Ministry of Truth style world actually exists and would be perpetuated by these huge companies having extensive influence over the information streams that billions of people access every day? How did we sleepwalk into this culture where we're all essentially zombies glued to a screen for 10 hours a day? Who or what benefits from that? And what perpetuates the cycle of dependence and addiction to these technologies and to the technoculture itself?
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Have you ever caught yourself in "the zone" endlessly scrolling through Facebook, or playing Candy Crush; or spent hours Googling away fleeting curiosities? Are you checking your phone first thing in the morning and last thing before bed? How much do you unknowingly need that social-validation dopamine-rush from the Likes or comments on Instagram? Do you get lost in the real world without GPS directions from your phone? Why is it that thinking about going on holiday with friends leads to ads for travel appearing on Facebook?
Perhaps you really want to leave Facebook but you can't, it keeps signing you back in. Your boyfriend is addicted to playing World of Warcraft so much that he loses his job. Your girlfriend is getting ads from Target for baby products before she even knows she's pregnant. You can't even read a book anymore without thinking about checking your e-mail or looking up some phrase on Wikipedia, or wanting to do something else. Like binge-watching an entire series of TV in one sitting...
I know these may sound like extreme examples, but they're based on events and trends playing out in the world right now. Perhaps we can even see glimpses of these things in ourselves to certain extents already.
But don't feel too bad personally. The addiction is by design. Technology makers drive and build for this kind of rapacious engagement, to keep us coming back to their portals, salivating like Pavlov's Dog for more content and for the next new shiny device. So how does this all happen? Why? And why do we love it? Why do we keep coming back like good little slaves?
TLDR: If you're using or have ever used a screen, I think you should watch this film.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I think there are definitely interplays between the personal and larger social scale. It's an important question. But in many ways, with the technoculture, it's a one-way street. Worse still, it's a one-way street that can *pretend* to go both ways, and often we can come to believe in the illusion.
For example, there's a concept explored in the film called the Filter Bubble. It's essentially shorthand for the way in which algorithms are constantly watching and analysing your behaviour online in order to tailor your experience of the world; to filter the world down into your own unique bubble of information. For instance, what appears in my Facebook feed will be very very different from what appears in yours. My Google results are specifically edited for me. I see one thing, you may see another. The same is true for my Netflix queue. My Amazon picks. My Yahoo News page. All those advertisements that we're completely awash in online. It's all been tailored and edited individually, for each of us. We are the product.
There are serious consequences on the larger social scale of this sort of individualisation and outright manipulation of our information experiences. For one thing, we can more easily become insular people, atomised. We can become distrusting of others and intolerant of other points of view or information that challenges our own little bubble. Society then becomes increasingly polarised, factional. As we see.
There is also the problem of the loss of a collective narrative. I mean, if we can't even agree on what is real and happening in the world, because each of our experiences are now so customised and individualised, how can we have the larger coherent conversations necessary to wade through all the extremely pressing social problems that exist right now, let alone work to solve them effectively?
How can we organise and return to the notion of a real community when the screen has totally co-opted, subsumed, and replaced with a toxic mimic, critical aspects of human experience?
With the screen, we're reduced down to good little consumers, endlessly chasing ratings and feedback. Who benefits from that?
And that's the other problem too that exists with this kind of hyper-individualism. We're witnessing an unprecedented decline in empathy at a time of rising economic disparity and inequality; at a time when we need empathy and social engagement the most. But what we're increasingly seeing is the opposite. For the most part, there's a mass withdrawal into the world of the screen, into a world of distraction and sugar treats in the form of Likes, cat videos and meme GIFs. Let's just go shopping again, you know?
This is all so horrible. And so back to the personal and larger scale, not only do I think we need to turn the screens off and return to the real world; we also need to turn off the larger social structures that give rise to and emerge from these technologies. That may be what seems like a big ask, but literally, the entire world is at stake.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The vast majority of feedback so far has been a wonderful outpouring of people's stories dealing with overcoming their addiction to their devices, or even beginning to question their relationship to their shiny little pocket oracle. Some talk about the distraction, the scatterbrain-type thinking they've encouraged and strengthened because of the screen, playing out in wider social interactions or influencing other areas of their life. And so on.
All sorts of this kind of feedback. And so far, the vast majority of viewers have seen these effects as negative and have wanted to do something to change it, which is great.
I feel like these issues generally effect us all, no matter our screen time or usage, or which devices we have or don't have. We're all embedded in this larger culture of pervasive digital technologies, and that's the common thread to all these stories: How we've been enticed to accept this in slow incremental stages; how we've been worn down to accept technologies constantly pushing back against our boundaries (privacy for example); and not only that, to become to be enthralled by this encroachment, to love it, to end up like screen zombies, dead and ready to give away the last of our minds completely to Google, just how Ray Kurzweil would want it.
So it's great to see people not only wanting to reject all of this, but putting it into action in their own lives and also looking to the larger social scale.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Yes, it was surprising. I was almost expecting this documentary to fall on deaf ears. But again, it's very heartening to know that even underneath the tremendous weight of the machines, that some people are still present in their humanity; that it hasn't completely crushed all of our souls yet. And better still, that some are willing to return to the real world and fight back. This did challenge my preconceptions, and gives me strength and encouragement that we don't have to live this way and that another world is possible.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
My dream is that this film will help us to return to the real world and fight for what is important. Because life is not a computer game, and the huge challenges and problems we're facing globally are real, and I think cannot be solved in the fast, distracting world of the screens. Not only do we need to summon some serious contemplativeness, we actually have to be inspired to get to work.
I want this film to begin to open up those questions for people, just as it did for me, and to be a catalyst for the journey to seriously change, along with all the other really great work out there. Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, for example. Or Susan Greenfield's Mind Change. Derrick Jensen's Welcome To The Machine.
In the words of Lewis Mumford, "The institutions that now have their hold upon us [are] even more compulsive and even more effective than ever before if we don’t care, if we drop out, if we lose ourselves in insane fantasy of some kinds. We lose our possibility of restoring our own autonomy, of taking charge of our life, because this requires greater energy, greater effort, than that which is required to live through the daily life of a machine worker. We have to become fully activated human beings, every part of us, tremendously alive and ready to take charge, and this can’t be done by people who are in escape, people who have formed the habit of total rejection. We must know what we want, not just what we don’t want."
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
There's a famous poem by Martin Niemöller called "First They Came" which deals with the cowardly culture of self-interest and the chilling effect that dominated Germany following the Nazis' rise to power:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Considering the creep of the technoculture, when the Big Brother machine comes for you and your loved ones, what will you do? Will you speak out? Why or why not?
Better yet, will you organise to stop them? Why or why not?
Interview: January 2018
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Stare Into The Lights My Pretties
A film about screen culture and its implications. While the world burns, where are we?
Length: 120 minutes.
Director: Jordan Brown
Producer: Jordan Brown
Writer: Jordan Brown
About the writer, director and producer:
Jordan Brown is an activist, artist, musician, and filmmaker whose work focuses on dominant culture and the real impact on people, society and the environment.
Key cast: Susan Greenfield, Katina Michael, Derrick Jensen, Lelia Green, Roger Clarke, Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Douglas Rushkoff, Lewis Mumford and Eli Pariser.
Funders: Jordan Brown, Kyle Magee, Stuart Brown, Katina Michael, M.G. Michael, Debra Protaseiwicz, Nathalie Crawford, Claire Hilton, Liz Shield, Oliver Grabinski.