Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema

Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema coverPublished by Palgrave-Macmillan, July 2nd. Order from the publisher or Amazon today!

Reviewed 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 is a lively and wide-ranging account of how cinema has engaged with the Internet age, and with how we have imagined ourselves and our interactions with digital technologies over the last three decades.”

– Lisa Purse, Associate Professor of Film, University of Reading, UK and author of Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema

“Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Culture is a vibrant and erudite text that offers the first book-length study of how the Internet, and computers/computing more generally, have been represented in film—with a specific focus on cinema from the 1990s onwards. It offers a perspicacious analysis of how the language that we use to describe the Internet determines our understanding of it, while also engaging with a wide body of popular, but critically overlooked films that deal with surveillance in the contemporary era, including Swordfish, Sneakers, and Enemy of the State. But this book is not just a timely analysis of films about or featuring the Internet; through the provocative concept of the machinic audience, it also considers how we view films today, while simultaneously offering an exciting framework through which we can understand Internet culture more widely.”

– William Brown, Senior Lecturer in Film, University of Roehampton, UK and author of Supercinema: Film Philosophy for the Digital Age

This collection of essays tracks the history of the Internet through the last 30 years of popular films, exploring how the Internet is, at once, the most terrifying and most beautiful invention of the 20th century.  In it, I close-read films like The Net, Hackers and The Matrix trilogy, along with more recent works such as Tron: Legacy, The Amazing Spiderman, Iron Man 3 and Avatar. Themes include: the history of the internet and its shift from FTP to browser to dense interconnected devices; the internet as suburban intruder in film; how the internet is bridging the uncanny valley ; the internet, movies and apocalypse; how the internet has moved from global village to global city; the military Internet; surveillance and how to police Web 2.0.

Expanded Description of Project: CLICK HERE

A number of the chapters are expanded versions of papers I’ve given at conferences over the past two or three years.

Chapter Descriptions

Click on the hyperlinked titles to read earlier versions of the chapters given as conference papers

Ch. 1: The Cables under, in, and around Our Homes: “The Net” as Viral Suburban Intruder

As reflected by The Net and Hackers and, to a lesser degree, The Lawnmower Man and Ghost in the Machine, the populous explosion of the GUI browser Internet in the mid-1990s disturbed the innate conservatism of the suburban home. The threat of strangers hacking into private bedrooms and offices via the integrated device of the home computer mirrored much of the already present viral rhetoric surrounding illness and, specifically, AIDS. Drawing heavily on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Michel Foucault’s explanation of heterotopias, the chapter contextualizes the era’s specific concerns around Internet pornography and virtual deviancy as a way of explaining how the contemporary Internet user has “cured” him/herself.

Ch. 2: The Evolution of the Web Browser: The Global Village Outgrown

As Internet interfaces have evolved from text-based command lines to GUI, HTML markup-dependant web browsers to the CMS-run browser webspaces a contemporary Internet user utilizes, the individual human body has stopped being the structuring element of these virtual spaces; instead, the vocabulary and understanding of virtual space has morphed into a dense and urban one much closer to expansive and organic cities than global villages. The chapter combines Donald Norman’s theories on interface design with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work in A Thousand Plateaus in order to chronologically restructure the changes in organism–BwO relationships as reflected first in TRON and War Games through The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor up until the recent TRON: Legacy.

Ch. 3: Avatar in the Uncanny Valley: The Na’vi and Us, the Machinic Audience

The audience of Avatar is confronted with a posthuman cinema that highlights the end of human exceptionalism in both its plot and the digital tools/techniques (the Cameron-invented SimulCam, specifically) used to create the movie. Using Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition along with Lisa Purse’s and William Brown’s work in digital film theory, this chapter explains how the Uncanny Valley as well as Jean Baudrillard’s critiques in Simulation and Simulacra belong to an Internet usage long in the past. With analysis of Surrogates as further evidence, the instantly digitized bodies expressed within Avatar are an optimistic reflection of the increased technologizing of a modern movie audience that then generates the visual and semantic language(s) that a machinic audience demands.

Ch. 4: Hacking against the Apocalypse: Tony Stark and the Remilitarized Internet

Beginning with Manuel De Landa’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, this chapter considers the Internet’s history as a military technology and how the “citizen user” was at the front lines of hacking and shaping contemporary home computing and the Internet. War Games (1983) constructs its hacker protagonist, David Lightman, as saviour from the coming machine/Internet controlled apocalypse; likewise, in reaction to the Y2K scare, Neo in The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) is a hacker created to fight against a machine-led human catastrophe. However, after the Y2K non-catastrophe, users/audience members began to trust the Internet more, working/hacking co-operatively, living in tandem in movies like The Core (2003) and Swordfish (2001). Yet, the pervasiveness of the Internet in private and public infrastructures has made it, once again, a valuable military technology. As encouraged by Tony Stark’s Iron Man, the figure of the hacker presented in the three Iron Man (2008, 2010, 2013) films is an outdated model that encourages nationalism and simplified/physical post-human evolutions in a globalized and virtual world that has moved beyond the borders of both countries and flesh.

Ch. 5: With a Great Data Plan Comes Great Responsibility: The Enmeshed Web 2.0 Internet User

If a portable and extremely dense Web 2.0 Internet has made it possible/necessary to monitor virtual (personal and social) violence, this chapter asks what sort of cinematic role models might be best emulated as a potential policing/surveilling authority of a mixed-reality contemporary world. Batman and Iron Man are discarded as too centralized and individual; as reflected by the pessimistic film narratives offeardotcom, Untraceable, and Firewall,the digital Synopticon Thomas Mathiesen proposes is also dismissed because the average Web 2.0 user is too voyeuristically dehumanized to handle the responsibility. Yet, Marc Webb’s reboot The Amazing Spiderman,in conversation with Vivian Sobchack’s cineaesthetic subject, provides a solution by structuring its heroic user as symbiotically tethered and intimately enhanced by his Internet-enabled technologies.

Ch. 6: Don’t Shoot the (Instant) Messenger: The Efficient Virtual Body Learns

Beginning with Antitrust’s arguments around a contemporary digital ontology as it relates to capitalistic property/product, this chapter uses the automatic learning in Johnny Mnemonic,The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,and The Matrix to explore how an Internet user’s memory and knowledge built around Jacques Ellul’s overwhelming “technique” potentially reduces him/her to walking hard drives. The solution to this reduction, made in part by comparing 1990’s Total Recall to the 2012 version by the same title, is a self-aware combination of Alison Landsberg’s prosthetic memory and N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of “narrative” wherein the Internet-using machinic audience member balances his/her extreme access to digital information with his/her own specific embodied experiences to come to knowledge and intelligence.

Ch. 7: The Reel/Real Internet: Beyond Genre and the Often Vulnerable Virtual Family

The majority of films in the first two eras of the Internet foreground the technology and its users as science fiction and therefore strange and impossibly futuristic. Disclosure and You’ve Got Mail are outliers in that they largely normalized the Internet with relatively naturalistic portrayals of the Internet and its usage. However, once shifted away from the distancing of overt genre, both films fracture the traditional family via the vulnerable female Internet user, a treatment that echoes loudly in 2009’s Trust. However, You and Me and Everyone We Know and The Social Network provide useful and optimistic counterpoints as their cinematic self-aware Internet users enhance/expand their intimate relationships into richly dense digital ecosystems that form new networks of families.