Technology is Scary  

Saturday, February 28, 2009

With any new technology of sufficient utility, there comes a sort of window of time, where the technology is popular enough to be almost ubiquitous, but new enough to be largely mysterious. During this window of time, there are typically three types of movie released related to that technology:

  • The Sci-Fi flick that takes the technology to a natural--albeit futuristic and entirely unrealistic--conclusions and sets some action around it.
  • The Suspense Thriller that uses the new technology in unrealistic ways to accomplish a fairly straightforward (but fresh and exciting because it's got new technology) suspense plot.
  • The Horror movie that suggests that the new technology is magical, incomprehensible, and evil.

Take the Internet, for example. In the first category, we have flicks like "The Matrix" and "Hackers;" in the second, "The Net;" and in the third, we have "Fear Dot Com" and its ilk. For video games, we have "The Last Starfighter," "Cloak & Dagger," and "Brainscan" (I think--haven't seen the last one). You get the idea. This phenomenon has led to some of our greatest artistic accomplishments, such as "976-EVIL," "Stay Tuned," and "One Missed Call." Recently we had "Eagle Eye" telling us of the dangers of surveillance technology, "Pulse" warning us of ghosts coming through the Wi-Fi, and the YouTube killer of "Untraceable" (who is still rated lower than Evolution of Dance).

Note that this isn't limited to movies, really. "Twilight Zone" had its share of ghostly telephones, bizarre TVs, and magical radios. Ray Bradbury has said that "Fahrenheit 451" is about how much he hates TV. "Cell" has cell phones killing people with stupid magic powers (I feel justified judging a book I haven't read since Stephen King felt justified writing about technology he's never used). Even Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," as I recall, starts with some descriptions of electrical experiments on dead animals. There's nothing one medium likes more than to decry another medium as evil, which is why we have so many books about how TV rots your brain and so many TV shows about the terrors of video games. Of course, TV Tropes has us covered.

Incidentally, I'd really like to know how far back this trope goes. I know Socrates thought writing would rot the brain, but did he tell stories about how it could steal your identity and make you the target of a trans-Grecian conspiracy? The first things Gutenberg printed on his press were a Bible and some porn, but mightn't the third thing have been a script about how ghosts can come through the movable type?

But there is a limit. Eventually, the time window closes. A tech-horror movie about TV just wouldn't work today. They're omnipresent and nonthreatening. Similarly, it would be ludicrous to make a tech-thriller about the telegraph, since it's woefully obsolete. Once the technology stops being either ubiquitous or new-and-mysterious, movies which hinge on those factors end up looking like the silly products of runaway Ludditism that they are.

So, with all this in mind, how the hell did we end up with "The Ring"? It's undoubtedly a tech-flick of the third type, with ghosts on videotape following the basic tropes of the genre. And yet, it was released in 2002, well into the age of DVDs, when videotapes were letting the door hit them in the copy-protection tab on the way out of our lives. How did that manage to get released, let alone get popular?

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