Miya Mizuno / FX

Alex Garland’s new show wants you to be scared of tech again

The real enemy is complacency.

Kris Naudus, @krisnaudus
February 18, 2020
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    Back in the '90s, when the internet first entered our collective consciousness, Hollywood responded by releasing a slate of techno thrillers that warned of all the horrible things computers could do to us. Perhaps our existence could be erased like Sandra Bullock's in The Net, or maybe our entire species would be enslaved like in The Matrix. Now, the media is seemingly dominated by the brilliant-but-inept tech bros of shows like Silicon Valley, or friendly hackers like Abby on NCIS. Ex Machina and Annihilation director Alex Garland's new show Devs argues that maybe we had it right the first time: We should be afraid. We should be very afraid.

    Devs, a limited series that premieres March 5th on Hulu, tells the story of fictional quantum computing company Amaya. It's a pretty typical tech giant, complete with shuttle buses taking employees to a campus deep in the woods. Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) works in encryption, while her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) specializes in life simulations. Katie (Alison Pill), Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) all work in the secretive "Devs" division, whose exact nature is revealed to us over the course of eight episodes. And then there's Forest (Nick Offerman), the soft-spoken CEO, whose grief over a lost child is so great he not only named the company after her, but he built a giant statue of her in the middle of the corporate campus.

    Nick Offerman as Forest

    Nick Offerman as Forest (Miya Mizuno / FX)

    Devs doesn't frame any of these people as being particularly remarkable. We're never treated to a montage of the staff working all-nighters fueled by nachos and Red Bull. They don't walk up to a chalkboard full of equations and write down an answer others have been seeking for months. Our young prodigy, Lyndon, isn't even that young — he's 19, and we're never given some exposition about how he was recruited as a child or some other clichéd nonsense. Even Forest escapes any kind of hagiography, with his origins in tech and the rise of the company kept completely out of the narrative. The past doesn't matter; nothing really matters except what they do now.

    And everything they're doing now revolves around the quantum computer and the predictive code that runs on it.

    The system is hidden inside a bunker situated in the middle of a forest. To reach the office you must cross a gold-lined vacuum chamber inside an electromagnetically-supported clear cube. The quantum computer is a delicate structure of metal fittings and wires inside a glass case, reminiscent of an old pendulum clock underneath a glass dome. The characters are often shown pondering it in silence. The camera occasionally approaches it as if it's a character itself, implying the sense of something happening.

    Stephen McKinley Henderson as Stewart

    Stephen McKinley Henderson as Stewart (Kurt Iswarienko / FX)

    The techno thrillers of the '90s (I once saw them referred to as "techsploitation" movies, which seemed apt) leaned on how little we knew about the internet back then. We lacked the knowledge to question what they showed us, and fear of the unknown is an easy well for filmmakers to draw upon. Now we all carry supercomputers in our pockets. Plus, many of us know someone who works in IT or CS, so it's less mysterious now. It's just so ordinary these days. We're not scared of tech anymore.

    A show like Black Mirror can scream "technology is bad" all it wants, but in most episodes, the problem isn't the tech itself. It's more how it's used and how it affects people. A mother monitors her daughter's every action via a cranial implant. Two heterosexual men discover mutual attraction through VR. A woman becomes obsessed with her social standing, expressed in a literal score. As best evidenced by the happy ending of 'San Junipero,' it's not the technology itself that is good or evil, but what you choose to do with it.

    Karl Glusman as Sergei and Nick Offerman as Forest (Raymond Liu / FX)

    Raymond Liu / FX
    Image credit: Raymond Liu / FX

    And too often that's what tech firms in our current reality seem to have decided. Facebook and Twitter aren't inherently bad, but sometimes bad people might use them to do bad things. And we, the consumers, seem to shrug our collective shoulders when the implications of our technology use is brought up. Maybe the people who build our phones and computers are mistreated, and maybe we've allowed these companies almost unlimited access to our data, but as Garland himself pointed out back in October, "nobody in reality changes their behavior; they just carry on." Because we know our alternative would be to go off the grid entirely, and who wants to leave behind their friends, family and favorite Netflix shows?

    The Devs system is the end result of all this surrender. Even though they are the architects of this computer, the employees are overtaken by its predictive power. When Sergei first realizes the scope of Devs, he throws up. And Katie isn't even surprised (or concerned) by his reaction. Her entire character comes across as a flat, matter-of-fact ice queen. And it's not because she's an underdeveloped stereotype; it's because she lives in a deterministic universe and has given up. The system knows all; Katie and the others are just doing what they're supposed to do. The eventual perfection of the Devs system is inevitable, and they've become so dedicated to that purpose, so caught in its inevitable pull, that they're even willing to kill for it.

    Devs

    Sonoya Mizuno as Lily (Miya Mizuno / FX)

    And of course, that's where Lily enters. Lily is not an uber-elite programmer with l33t hacking skills. When Sergei dies of apparent suicide, she just wants to know what happened to her boyfriend. She's not willing to just give in, and we're told that's what makes her special. Her willingness to push back even as the Devs team has given in to its creation, and her anger about how little control she has over her life now, become her best weapons against not an evil corporation or its evil technology, but the malaise it inspires.

    Alex Garland's frustration with our collective inability to feel anything about technology anymore is palpable, but with Devs he reminds us that by feeling anything, we're already fighting back. The best weapon in this battle is rage. But first we have to recognize the threat, and for that, we need to be afraid.

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