Science fiction movies, at least in their Hollywood variant, have been inadequate in addressing some of the most pressing technological concerns of our times. In this essay we take a break from direct politics, and use a cultural angle to reflect on the inherent narrative obstacles the genre faces in addressing themes like robotization, besides self-censorship due to corporate pressure.
Let us start with a disclaimer: although not unfamiliar, I’m not a die-hard science fiction follower. There are obvious exceptions to my claim, but those are exceptions that prove the rule. My point is that in general, blockbuster science fiction movies are unfit for addressing the true dread of some technological developments. This matters, since fiction is one of the main sources of social imaginaries. In what follows, we will focus on the obstacles that science fiction faces. While my argument goes for many problems, I will focus on the case I know best: the potential massive social dislocation as a consequence of replacing human labor with robots and artificial intelligence. While a robotized economy poses a host of problems (questions of privacy, dependence, concentration of power, etc.), the most obvious and direct one is massive unemployment.
Sure, there are many dystopian movies that contrast humanity with robots. But let us bring into memory the following blockbuster science fiction movies that explicitly problematized the topic of robots:
X-Men: Days of future past
What all four have in common, is that the main threat of robots comes from violent conflict or attempts to dominate humans. Only I-Robot includes a single scene in which Will Smith questions the loss of a robot replacing a crafter, but the movie quickly moves on to the topic of urban warfare. In X-Men and the Matrix, the people are actually enslaved or used by the robots, an inversion of the concrete challenge that automatization poses to our capitalist economy. Unsurprisingly, the solution to dealing with robots is some form of warfare, in two instances even including impossible (thus politically impotent!) feats such as time travel.
Why? Why does mainstream science fiction fail in preparing audience for the immediate dangers that would happen long before warfare? One analytically less interesting reason relates to political economy and corporate self-censorship. Science fiction series like Star Wars or Avengers are owned by companies like Disney, who have no interest in pointing out the Achilles heel of capitalism. In general, the technology sector is pro technology (duh), and thus a large part of the audience of science fiction is more interested in the positive aspects of technology.
Yet some reasons have to do with the genre itself. Although science fiction movies take place in the future, they try to relate to contemporary issues to engage their audience. Think of Disney’s milking of race and gender issues for commercial gain. To achieve this, they must project those contemporary issues (and all related elements) into the futures, which means that those elements of society must be constant. Since those social circumstances must remain intact, science fiction cannot fully display how science would disrupt those very social circumstances. Take Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) as example. There is a ridiculous scene where the heroes and their ‘cute’ robot friends start a riot on a miners colony. In the mine, both robots and humanoids are exploited as slaves side by side. This begs the obvious questions why you would go through the trouble of enslaving people if you have robots, but the movie cannot both problematize robots and recreate the exploitation-slavery-riot drama at the same time. Our need for projecting today’s drama into the future inhibits science fiction from showing us future drama.
There are also narrative reasons for these blind spots. Science fiction, like most stories, generally narrates the journey of a hero that overcomes obstacles. In human culture, we are used to these heroes fitting certain archetypes, such as the thief, wizard, knight, etc. To relate to these archetypes, the future can never be too different. Consider for example the role of a ‘Knight’ hero in Star Wars or a universe like Warhammer. In the latter the protagonists wear impossible strong armor that allows hand-to-hand combat to even be a possibility. In Star Wars, the whole concept of the Jedi Knights depends on the use of laser weapons which shoot slow and can be reflected. If a single person in the far future had an AK-47, the knights would die instantly! On a larger scale, the narrative needs to present audiences with a danger that the heroes can (physically) fight. Structural social problems don’t fit this description. Relatable Heroes thus never face the full social or technological horror the future could bring.
Related to this, some problems better fit dramatic action than others. While it is possible to address economic issues in a movie, war is so much more interesting and profitable. This is why I-robot starts with an interesting critique of robots, but pivots to a flat civil war story. Sometimes this requires obscuring the economy completely. Did you ever wonder what ordinary people actually do for a living in fully automatized nano-future of Star Trek, besides walking around in the background?
I know what you are thinking: but what about Black Mirror!? Well this is the exception that proofs the rule. Black Mirror does present audiences with all kinds of societal horrors does could realistically follow from current technological developments. But Black mirror needs to break many narrative ‘rules’ to do so. The average episode is not a ‘hero’s journey’ but a nightmare in which things slowly get worse and in the best case end with the protagonists escaping further escalation. While technologically often more similar to our times (no time travel, etc.), it is socially more alien, which would disqualify it from being a blockbuster science fiction movie.
If my analysis is even half-correct, Science fiction faces serious limitations in shaping public imaginaries and debates on issues that actually matter for real-life politics (not time-traveling robots or macro-simulation-nonsense). This is not new, science fiction has always been prone to projecting current social relations (work relations, family structure, etc.) into the future. This is pity, since science fiction could be a powerful tool for challenging imaginaries. Can this narrative be changed?
What we need to do is first of all taking the social consequences of technology more serious. If we just reflect on the social impact of smartphones in the past ten years, what would the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence do? Series like Black Mirror shows that this is possible, if certain narrative habits are sacrificed. Second, Science Fiction should give a fuller and more honest account of societal context. We must keep in mind that different societies create different technologies. Capitalist societies create capitalist technologies. If a science fiction universe includes technologies that would be obviously disruptive to such a social order, it should be transparent in portraying a different economic background (for example communism) against which the hero drama plays out. Lastly, we might need to ditch the aforementioned heroes altogether, or at least in their most popular archetypes. Maybe we should have more politician or community-organizer heroes (for older readers: think A-Team), since dealing with the real future threats requires both collective mobilization and solutions.