From Alphaville to Robocop, science fiction has the measure of smart cities, says Tim Maughan.
In a recent article on the continuing civil unrest in Turkey, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argues that the science fiction metaphors the media so frequently turn to are outdated. “Nineteen Eighty-Four had finally arrived, it was said - just off by 30 years or so. But this is the wrong way to understand what’s happening,” she argues. “Deep and pervasive surveillance is real. It is likely worse than what we know, and is becoming more pervasive by the day. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has very little to do with it… And these metaphors aren’t just wrong—they can be profoundly misleading,” she continues. “We need to update our nightmares.”
Nestled within a powerful, fascinating, and often disturbing glimpse into the front-lines of protest in Turkey, it is a compelling argument - the idea that science fiction’s dystopian projections may in fact pose more of a danger than a warning, a misleading signpost that lures us away from the horrors of our cold reality. It’s also an argument that - if taken to its logical conclusion - undermines one of science fiction’s core purposes as a tool for social and political awareness and debate, and leaves it with little more than a legacy of escapism. Science fiction can never truly predict the future with any concrete accuracy, so is its commentary destined to be nothing more than dangerous, misleading rhetoric?
Tufekci’s point about the nature of our surveillance society and how it differs from the model described in Orwell’s much cited classic is undoubtedly accurate; as watched over as we are, the nature of our own, very real, multiple Big Brothers is far more complex, decentralised, and arguably sinister than anything outlined in the book. But her argument misses a larger, more ambiguous point; science fiction never set out to provide detailed critiques or accurate warnings; its role has always been to stimulate broader thought and engage wider concerns. At its best and most honest, it doesn’t pretend to make those accurate predictions, being content with reflecting on its time-capsuled present rather than stabbing wildly at ephemeral, unknowable futures.
Certainly this is the case with 1984 which, when written in 1949, was actually centered around Orwell’s experience of watching the BBC being transformed into a propaganda machine during the second world war.
It’s an interesting thought exercise, and one that struck me recently as I found myself - in the space of just a few days - watching three separate science fiction movies spanning half a century, all separated by twenty years but sharing similar themes, and wondering if they still served any useful purpose as metaphors for where we are now.
Jean-Luc Goddard’s experimental masterpiece Alphaville (1965, pictured above), an at-the-time unique and groundbreaking blend of film noir and brooding urban dystopia that provided a standard formula for science fiction filmmaking in the decades to follow. The movie follows Lemmy Caution, a mysterious, hard-boiled secret agent, as he explores the titular city and attempts to find the truth behind its strange inhabitants and the dictatorial central computer Alpha 60. Famed for its striking visual style and use of 1960s Paris - filmed without artificial lighting, special effects, or specially created sets - to create a futuristic cityscape, Alphaville’s often surreal and disjointed narrative feels strangely prescient at times. As we follow Caution through the dimly lit streets we discover that the city has been broken into easily manageable zones, that he is monitored and tracked wherever he goes, and that everything, all the city’s data in effect, flows back to the centrally located digital overseer Alpha 60.
Despite being filmed a good 40 years before the term was ever coined, with these elements Alphaville seems to present a depiction of a contemporary “smart city”, the tech industry buzzword-turned-urban policy that bundles together networking, big data, and pervasive, ubiquitous monitoring to form a supposedly revolutionary system for centrally managing urban environments. Heralded as a panacea for the complex problem modern cities are too often labelled as, the smart city promises to bring rationality, efficiency, and logic to the chaotic sprawl. Despite its age and lack of technical details, Goddard’s Alphaville - a critique and commentary on the oppression of technocratic, rationalist modernity - often feels as though it could have been made now to illustrate some of the smart-city concept’s most damning and frequent criticisms. Without any understanding of network technology, ubiquitous sensors, data mining or even - at a basic level - computers themselves, Goddard depicts a city where digital over-rationalisation has created a colourless city populated by passive, restricted citizens, where conflict and dissent are mechanically crushed - the worst case scenarios outlined by contemporary smart-city critics such as Adam Greenfield and Stephen Graham.
In many ways you couldn’t find a movie more different from Alphaville in tone and approach than Paul Verhoeven’s brash 1987 action-satire Robocop, but that’s what I found myself watching just a few days later, surprised at how the two movies seemed to share common themes and concerns. Verhoeven’s story centres around Alex Murphy, a murdered cop who finds himself resurrected as a cybernetic killing machine by multinational corporation OCP and unleashed to clean up the notoriously lawless streets of crumbling, post-industrial Detroit. For every frame of dimly shot, naturally lit Paris that Goddard gives us, Verhoeven splatters Detroit (actually Pittsburgh, but doing a more than convincing impression of the motor-city) with his trademark cartoon gore, hyper-violence, and technicolor neon-shaded industrial decay. If Alphaville is science fiction as French existentialism, then Robocop is sci-fi as explosive comic-book satire, far more Judge Dredd than John Paul-Sartre, and while both might take aim at strains of controlling fascism, Verhoeven’s target is less the legacy of 1940s European modernity than the hyperreal postmodernity of 1980s US consumerism. And wow, does he gleefully take aim. Close to 20 years old now, Robocop’s joyful rampage through Reagan-era America’s poverty-stricken back alleys, blood-soaked boardroom battlefields, and ad-interrupted TV newsrooms somehow still feels not just crisp and fresh, but tragically prescient.
Robocop doesn’t look at issues of centralised, networked management, yet its whole set-up is concerned with the corporate control of public spaces. OCP, the movie’s unashamedly villainous corporation, publicly claims that Robocop exists to help the underfunded police force rid Detroit of crime and liberate the city’s population. In fact, OCP is set on gentrification: It plans to clear Downtown of undesirable elements so a vast swathe of the city can be bulldozed and redeveloped as the futuristic “Delta City”, combining desirable real estate with unregulated, free-enterprise zoning. Verhoeven’s intention here – with his backstabbing, cocaine-snorting, power-suit wearing caricatures – was more to satirise the corrupt, morally bankrupt excesses of Eighties corporate culture, than worry at the future of urban development. But one early scene even features a model of the proposed Delta City development that’s eerily reminiscent of recent smart-city concept art, along with a poster for the project that boasts “the future has a silver lining”. It’s one of the movies most memorable scenes in fact, where a demo of the ED-209 robot (pictured above) goes disastrously wrong in the most gory of ways, blowing a junior executive to pieces and hurling his corpse onto the aforementioned model, crushing its pristine white skyscrapers and sending rivers of blood through the miniature streets.
It’s a brilliantly bombastic and playful piece of imagery, typically angry and unsubtle for Verhoeven, but it feels disconcertingly prescient when held up against certain modern, real-world examples. Stories of violent slum-clearances paving the way for gentrification are frequent and terrifying, and usually originate in so-called “developing” countries, their victims effectively othered by geographical distance and cultural dissonance. What Robocop does is transplant this horror onto the US mainland - into the heart of one of the nation’s once great cities - the “what if it happened here, to us?” trick so often played by science fiction. The true discomfort for 2014 US audiences should come, however, when they realise that Robocop no longer just a metaphor.
Most American movie watchers probably don’t have any idea where Camden, New Jersey is, let alone how disturbing its recent history has been. Just across the Delaware river from downtown Philadelphia, like Detroit it was a once thriving industrial centre - building ships rather than cars - and it seen its manufacturing base lose its relevance in the most catastrophic manner. America’s idolatry of the free market over social welfare has allowed it to slip into chaos. “In September, its last supermarket closed” writes Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi,
"and the city has been declared a ‘food desert’ by the USDA…[It] is a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map. That was three years ago, when new governor and presumptive future presidential candidate Chris Christie abruptly cut back on the state subsidies that kept Camden on life support. The move left the city almost completely ungoverned – over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it ‘put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,’ says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson."
So if Christie won’t bail out Camden’s broke police force, what will be used instead to pick up the slack in restoring order to its streets? The answer comes as no surprise to Robocop viewers. “Energized county officials say they have a plan now for retaking Camden’s streets one impenetrable neighborhood at a time,” explains Taibbi. The scheme
"involves the use of space-age cameras and military-style surveillance, which ironically will turn this crumbling dead-poor dopescape of barred row homes and deserted factories into a high-end proving ground for futuristic crowd-control technology… One hundred and twenty-one cameras cover virtually every inch of sidewalk here, cameras that can spot a stash in a discarded pack of Newports from blocks away. Police have a giant 30-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol they can park in a neighborhood and essentially throw a net over six square blocks; the ungainly Japanese-robot-style device can read the heat signature of a dealer with a gun sitting in total darkness. There are 35 microphones planted around the city that can instantly detect the exact location of a gunshot down to a few meters (and just as instantly train cameras on escape routes)."
It is, truly, the core of Robocop’s premise being played out in the real world. A city that can no longer afford to pay its police force is becoming a testing ground for unregulated, oppressive, smart city technologies - a frightening reality that makes ‘lifehacker’ Brandon Tomlin’s recent suggestion that Google should buy Detroit, or Occupy Wall Street board member Justine Tunney’s petition to make Eric Schmidt CEO of America, feel like a little more than just sick jokes.
Which is why my third film of that week turned out to be a disappointment on so many levels. Instead of seizing on these real-life smart-city dystopias, risk-averse Hollywood’s inevitable reboot of Robocop (2014) instead turns its infra-red eyes to that other spectre of American techno-policy, drone strikes. Starting with a promising opening that shows squadrons of ED-209s on patrol in a US-occupied Tehran, the movie largely loses its political edge when the action returns to the US mainland - the drone commentary being limited to just this one sequence. Although it spells it out far more explicitly, the pristine nature of its CG effects and interface design feels less convincing and poignant than, say, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium’s (2013) take on drone footage and remote controlled warfare.
Instead, in true Hollywood reboot formula style, Robocop (2014) goes for a more personal angle. Back in ‘86, Robocop’s origins as Alex Murphy were covered up by OCP, but this time it’s common knowledge, with the courageous cop and his somewhat generic suburban family fully aware of the cyborgization process he’s undergoing. Well, not quite fully aware; in a couple of interesting plot devices we find out that Murphy’s reactions during combat are - unknown to him - actually controlled by software that gives him the false impression of autonomy, and when a crime database being downloaded directly into his brain proves too much for him to handle he’s drugged by OCP in a way that temporarily transforms him into the emotionless robot of the original film. They’re both interesting enough takes on the story - and again, strangely reminiscent of the subdued, emotionally oppressed population of Alphaville, and possibly a commentary on how network culture hijacks our self determination - but neither is really explored in any depth. Because this is a contemporary, low-risk Hollywood action movie, nothing is really explored in any depth, but there are some nice touches such as the updating of OCP’s board to slightly hipster, casually dressed, Apple-era tech industry execs obsessing over release dates and demographics. But Robocop (2014) makes too many mistakes to be truly interesting.
For a start, gender switching Murphy’s partner Lewis - played by Nancy Allen in 1986 - for Michael K. Williams from The Wire - doesn’t just deny the movie a particularly strong and memorable female character, it denies the movie basically any female characters beyond Murphy’s predictably weepy wife and his stern-faced and instantly forgettable police chief. But the movie’s biggest misjudgement is in playing the whole thing straight. With the possible exception of Samuel L. Jackson’s appearances as a Glen Beck-style right-wing TV pundit (pictured above) there’s barely any satire here, leaving the audience no choice but to laugh at the film’s over-the-top narrative rather than with it.
Which brings us, rather neatly, back to Tufekci’s original point. Are science fiction’s metaphors outdated? Are they misleading? Perhaps. Certainly Alphaville and the original Robocop are off the mark when it comes to factual details; but is that really the point? While it’s easy to pick them apart, it’s impossible to come away from them and not find yourself mulling over the issues they raise, to not be disconcerted by plausibility and familiarity of the scenarios they present, to not have them linger in the mind. As such, they reveal science fiction’s true power as metaphor rather than prediction; to spark thought and debate. Do our nightmares need updating? Almost certainly yes - but if the missed opportunity of Robocop (2014) is anything to go by, perhaps today’s lazy, reboot-obsessed Hollywood is not the place to be doing it.
Read Tim’s story “Ghost hardware” in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out now.
Also on the blog: Tom Hunter takes a tour of the surveillance state.