By Cheryl Eddy
Science fiction films have been warning us about the dangers of technology since Metropolis. But now that we’re living in an age where tech has produced so many conveniences that feel essential to everyday life, it’s sometimes easy to forget about its scarier aspects. Gathered under the theme of “Technology: For Better or Worse,” these four documentaries tap into personal stories to spin their cautionary tales — excavating grimy corners of the internet, the eerily invisible power of AI, and the hazards of outdated thinking, while also unearthing glimmers of hope that the future isn’t totally doomed… at least not yet.
San Francisco gets a shout-out in Arthur Jones’ Feels Good Man, a profile of artist Matt Furie — a former employee of Community Thrift on Valencia Street, where donated toys helped inspire the anthropomorphic animals in his cult comic Boy’s Club. Somehow, and nobody’s exactly sure how except that MySpace and 4chan had something to do with it, one of Furie’s characters, an easygoing, droopy-eyed frog named Pepe, became a popular meme. But as Pepe began to build a massive online presence, the more removed from Furie’s source material he became, and it didn’t take long before Furie began to lose control of Pepe in the worst way possible.
Using interviews, clever animation, and all the jolting visuals afforded a tale so tightly tied to the internet, Feels Good Man digs into the powerful realm of anonymous trolls to discover how Pepe became a symbol of the alt-right, used to spread hate online and eventually in the real world. At the same time, Jones’ doc explores the emotional toll Pepe’s infamy takes on Furie — the mild-mannered father of a young daughter who’s aghast when Pepe becomes twisted into “the perfect trolling accessory,” and who becomes regretful of his decision to delay legal action to reclaim his creation.
Coded Bias, from filmmaker Shalini Kantayya, exposes another tech horror story with the help of determined MIT student Joy Buolamwini, who knew something wasn’t right when an AI-based art project she was working on —a mirror meant to offer positive motivation to whoever was reflected in it — had difficulty reading her face because of her darker skin tone. When she put a white mask on, however, the software had zero issues picking up the image.
This is the hard truth that propels: Even the most forward-looking technology can be, and very often is, embedded with narrow-minded points of view that echo from the past. Artificial intelligence and the algorithms that power it favor the sorts of people who first studied and controlled it — white men, of course — and they still carry the biases those creators may have embedded into their work. Since there’s no regulatory agency keeping an eye on AI, using it as a tool is problematic in any context, though its popularity among law enforcement is particularly troubling; as the film demonstrates, civil rights violations can easily be facilitated by a machine that can’t really be held accountable for its actions.
Buolamwini, who becomes an activist focused on raising awareness about bias in technology, is just one of the charismatic women we meet as part of Coded Bias, a film that may forever alter the way you view your Facebook feed — a space carefully curated by a social media robot that’s built to target and influence your interests. The doc also checks in on China’s current surveillance state, examining the country’s overt use of facial recognition technology and how it tracks each citizen as part of its social credit system, before pointing out that China’s way of doing things is actually not any more sinister than what’s happening in the US, where internet users willingly hand over mounds of personal data every time they go online (whether they realize it or not). “At least China is transparent about it,” one expert wryly points out.
As eye-opening as Coded Bias and Feels Good Man are about how the internet really works, the most startling tale in “Technology: For Better or Worse” comes courtesy of Thomas Balmès’ Sing Me a Song. It’s a sequel of sorts to Balmès’ 2014 film Happiness (Festival 2014), which followed Peyanki, a young Bhutanese monk, as he nervously anticipated the arrival of TV and the internet in his remote village. Sing Me a Song jumps to 10 years later — and the bizarre sight of the teenaged Peyanki and his peers dressed in their traditional robes, muttering prayers as they hunch over their smartphones. “Things aren’t the way they used to be,” one of their teachers observes with discernable woe.
Video games, the more violent the better, appear to be the preferred way for most of the young monks to pass the time, but Peyanki focuses his attention on a woman he meets in a chat room where songs are exchanged, hence the film’s title. Sing Me a Song takes a turn when Peyanki scrapes together enough cash to travel to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and meet his crush face to face; once in the big city, he learns a lesson familiar to anyone who’s ever floundered in the stormy seas of online romance. Peyanki goes through the wringer in Sing Me a Song, but he clearly trusts Balmès enough to allow access to some deeply personal moments; by the end, you’re left hoping that there’ll be another chapter added to this story with a third film somewhere down the line.
If there’s an odd doc out in this quartet, it’s fitting that it’s We Are as Gods, which traces the life story of a unique individual: counterculture and cyberculture icon Stewart Brand. Brand is best known for creating the Whole Earth Catalog — a sort of revolving alt-culture guide focused on product reviews, it’s described here as “the web on newsprint” — but as David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s documentary reveals, he’s been living an extraordinary life nonstop for the past eight decades. San Francisco’s LSD-powered Summer of Love plays a big part in his story, and we also hear about his very early interest in computers, video games, and hackers, as well as his influence on Steve Jobs. But We Are as Gods takes care to emphasize Brand’s longstanding commitment to the environmental movement, all the better to share his latest passion: “de-extinction,” specifically his involvement with a group hoping to bring woolly mammoths back to life on a remote nature preserve in Siberia.
The documentary makes a case for the eccentric scheme fitting into the philosophy of Brand’s Long Now Foundation, which advocates taking a long-term view of the next 10,000 years. And maybe the presence of mammoths could help circumvent climate change, as the de-extinction group claims. But there’s an undeniable hint of danger there, too, especially for anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park — yet another one of those sci-fi films that carries a warning about taking technology too far.
Cheryl Eddy has worked at io9 since 2014, writing about science fiction, fantasy, and horror pop culture. Prior to that she was the Arts and Entertainment Editor at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She holds an MA in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State University.