Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema – Full Description

Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema coverReviewed by Grace Halden at Science Fiction Film and Television (Volume 8, Issue 3, Autumn 2015):

“The breadth of analysis here and the sheer volume of practical examples offered are a considerable strength in this piece of work. A text such as this cannot help but be broad when uniting the already enormous topics of ‘the Internet’ and ‘Popular Culture’; however, rather than feeling ‘light’ the abundance of sources at work in Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Culture helps to provide a rich vein of information.”

This book is interested in the explosive change that the still relatively new and constantly evolving Internet brings to its users’ value systems, especially as they relate to their own bodies and self identity and how those values are then problematized, celebrated or reinforced by popular films. This text is unique in its multi-disciplinary approach that expands across philosophy, computer science, English literature and film. It combines McLuhan’s understanding of the symbiotic relationship between user and technology with a deeper understanding of Internet technologies themselves (the science and shifts in its basic construction and application). From there, the text builds on Susan Sontag’s writings on illness, as well as Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s theories surrounding the Body without Organs and Faciality, alongside Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal and Manuel De Landa’s machinic phylum, exploring themes that include: the history of the internet and its shift from FTP, to browser, to dense interconnected devices; the internet as suburban intruder; how the Internet is bridging the uncanny valley by evolving its user towards a posthuman entity; hacking, machines and apocalypse; and how the internet has moved from global village to global city. Ultimately, this work aims to both reflect attitudes about Internet technologies as crystallized by the films as well as projecting forward into possible constructions of what value systems and ethics for future digital natives might be.

As imagined, this text is propelled along the following trajectory: the early understanding of the Internet and computers, as depicted in a film like the original The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), where it was a machine closely aligned with magic, foreign and largely beyond the average user’s comprehension. However, as the Internet began to expand into the 1980s as a technology still largely contained to wealthy institutions (American government, Colleges, large corporations), the average user became first more aware of it but, as reflected by films like War Games (1983) and TRON (1982), the technology itself was still crude and inflexible in its cold machine logic. At this point there is a clear barrier between user and technology, reinforced by the interfaces between the two, that breeds fears and discomfort. However, as home computers became cheaper and the first Graphic User Interface Internet browser, Mosiac (later Netscape), was released, the fears of Internet “infection,” mirroring the AIDS “crisis,” arose, scaring users with the Internet’s unfettered access to pornography and potentially upsetting/dissonant information and world-views, as exampled by a film like The Net (1995). While the Internet was still crude by today’s standards, its basic construction maintained the key division between human body/identity and digital avatars. As web design and interfaces became more complex, so too did the engagement of a user’s avatars in these digital spaces, blurring the lines of identity and requiring the sort of deeper immersion films like The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) encouraged. Still though, McLuhan’s notion of the “global village”, as encouraged by the Internet was largely reinforced by the still relatively basic webdesign of the early 2000s. With the shift to Web 2.0 where users created and maintained the bulk of the content on the web, in combination with web design moving towards Content Management Systems (CMS), the village changed into a dense urban space, as evidenced by the metaphoric imagery of films like TRON: Legacy (2009). During this time, the home computer became smaller, more portable, ultimately moving into handheld devices such as smartphones; with this shrinking, the barriers between the biological and the technological breakdown and the user and her/his technology meld, unify. The films of this period stop being ABOUT the Internet and instead include it casually, as a normalized form of dialogue or technological interaction; films like The Amazing Spiderman (2012) have the hero texting and Googling without any need to draw attention to the action or technology. This intimate relationship between technology and biology, Haraway’s cyborg or Hayles’ post-human, a full Body without Organs unified with its organism, manifests in Avatar (2009), the most “popular” (based on total box office) film of all time and leads the reader towards a new, evolved, machinic audience. Avatar is a film in which the protagonist chooses to live as his avatar, shedding the physical body entirely and living completely as his digital other. From this vantage point, this text looks to the future, to the machinic audience and to the complete dissolving of technological interfaces, into a space in which machines make films for other machines and a Facebook profile might come to life.