"Technology is Another Version of Communism or Aliens or a Large Praying Mantis"

Does science fiction appeal mainly to audiences who are ignorant about how technology works? That seems to be the message from creators of some of TV's most innovative science fiction, who talked to Variety about why viewers are hot for tech-centric shows. Some of last seasons's best new shows were about technology run amok (Chuck, Sarah Connor Chronicles); next season's Battlestar spinoff Caprica, plus JJ Abrams' Fringe and Ron Moore's Virtuality promise more. Though scifi has historically been deemed the purview of techie geeks, creators from many of these shows agreed that people are fascinated by them because they find technology (and especially computers) terrifyingly incomprehensible.

From Variety:

"We're getting to that place where the symbiotic relationship between who we are and what we create is interwoven," "Sarah Connor" showrunner Josh Friedman says. "That's always something movies have warned against: an overly significant dependence on technology." . . .

"We're tapping into anxiety about objects that are around us every day and could be dangerous but are, for the most part, helping us," says "Terminator" exec producer James Middleton. "We don't understand how a computer works or how the Internet works. We just use it and somehow trust in it, and that engenders fear."

Adds Friedman: "Technology is another version of Communism or aliens or a large praying mantis stomping down Fifth Avenue. It's a response to our sense of being out of control."

I think they're both correct here. People view computers as a force of nature, or (at least in the west) as some incomprehensible ideology like communism. But unlike aliens, or giant praying mantises, high tech items are things that people deal with every day. And unlike communism, a computer is something you can touch and take apart — it isn't an ideology, or a set of fungible beliefs attributed to a shadowy enemy.

And moreover, I think probably there are a lot of people watching these shows who actually do understand how computers work to varying degrees. Maybe they can't build Skynet, but they can slap together a blog or a wifi network.

So clearly something more is going on here. Audiences aren't flocking to tech-oriented scifi shows for the exact same reasons they watch giant monster movies and alien invasion flicks. Sure all these shows are escapist fantasy, but there are degrees of escapism. It's harder to escape thinking about reality completely when you're watching Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is set in a fairly realistic urban present, full of gangs and crappy high schools. Maybe the Nerd Herd antics in Chuck are too glib to be true, but they are an effort at realism.

Ultimately what's intriguing about the rise of popular techie science fiction is that the Big Bads and our Cool Good Guy Stuff in these shows are not the stuff of pure speculation. Sure, nobody has built A.I. yet, and nobody has downloaded a computer into her brain. But we are working on technologies that could get there. And that's certainly not the case with those giant praying mantises or aliens.

If the high tech in today's scifi can be compared to any previous generation's bugaboo, I'd have to say it would be communism. First of all, communism has been a very real force in the political world, changing both societies and physical spaces. And second, communism remains, like the guts of your iPod, only partly understood by people who have never lived under it.

So technology IS another version of communism, as Friedman argued in Variety. Of course in communist countries, technology is viewed as another version of capitalism. Maybe that's why technology is such a popular topic: it can mean almost anything, depending on how you look at it. Is that a way of saying that we are all ignorant about what technology really does? Or does it just mean that we can understand the reality of what our machines do, while still appreciating their symbolic potential?

TV Writers Embrace Technology [Variety]