Dystopia Now: Techno-Paranoia in Modern Storytelling


In the near future, perhaps seconds from now, you will engage common technologies that offer you the power to manipulate memory, travel through time, disregard all ethical boundaries and mortal limitations; and in the same breath ask, “Siri, where’s the nearest weed dispensary?” A simple command to a fledgling A.I. and soon you’re hysterically lost, running low on water and self-esteem, circling a strip mall, convinced that ‘she’ willfully mislead you because you called her an idiot that one time for not knowing the difference between a loquat and a kumquat. It’s hard to find good A.I. these days.

Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her' (2013)
Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’ (2013)

It’s 2016 and millions of people are droning about in uniform khakis, but still waiting on their jetpacks. Generally speaking, I don’t busy myself with futuristic techno-prophecies so much as I do with my shitty iPhone. My ‘smart phone’ may not literally be out to destroy me, but its salience absolutely insults my fair-weather Luddism.

Paranoia surrounding new technologies and their unintended consequences is as universal as fear itself.

Throughout the last century, the ‘sci-fi techno-thriller’ genre has been defined by futurism, and otherworldliness. In the context of entertainment media, these narratives have largely played out in far-off futures—think Blade Runner (1982) or The Matrix (1999). However, the storytelling of today, has shifted to exploring techno-paranoia and the dystopian present.

Werner Herzog’s Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (2016), a documentary exploring the deeply transformative Internet age, is terrifying; quite like The Inside Job (2010) and Time to Choose (2016). These documentaries describe how undefined accountability and the mechanization of progress have irreparably shifted our planet, our systems and ourselves.

'Westworld' (2016) | HBO
‘Westworld’ | HBO

This October’s harvest of techno paranoia just might resemble your recent trip to Joshua Tree. HBO’s new sci-fi western series, Westworld, is a dramatic thriller about a state-of-the-art amusement park “hosted” by android prostitutes and gunslingers. In their pursuit of pleasure, “Guests” of the experience are assured that no harm can come to them while they sin their way through the frontier. The HBO series looks to be significantly more intimate and unsettling than Michael Crichton’s original 1973 Westworld—a pioneering feature in its own right. In the 1970’s, the thrilling implementation of 2D raster graphics was perhaps the equivalent of test-driving a Tesla. Peel off that Patagonia and slip into some chaps, Westworld is coming.

'Black Mirror' | Netflix, Channel 4
‘Black Mirror’ | Netflix / Channel 4

Also this October, Netflix will release Season 3 of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s approach to techno-paranoia through a satirical, cyborg lens.  The new plotlines have been withheld, but previous seasons have illustrated how damning technological advancements can be when played out across the human body. The show has presented memory storage implants (“Grains”) alongside vintage cars and Norwegian minimalism. As well as, cyborg vision (“Z-Eye”) alongside mock-neck merino wools and log cabins. The Lobster (2015) comes to mind; a feature-length film with Colin Farrell about a societal mandate to find love through speed dating or find yourself filed in a bestiary. I like to think that the late Rod Serling, creator and host of the “The Twilight Zone,” would have approved of these new messages.

In the past, the sci-fi genre has been used to illustrate our fear of the future of technology. However, contemporary techno paranoia is a lot less Total Recall (1990) and a lot more Samsung recall.

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