about 6 years on 2011-01-15

[LETTER] BLADE RUNNER AND SCIENCE FICTION AS COMMENTARY ON THE TECH AT TIME OF CREATION


i have been sick for a few days so i re-watched blade runner at one point to pass the time.... it is excellent, highly worth re-watching if you haven't seen it in a while - i personally think that science fiction is more of a a conversation about the technology people see around them in their present time than anything else. it is an exercise in taking present trends that people see in their own time and drawing them out on super-linear/exponential curve into the future. so, blade runner as a movie (forget do androids dream of electric sheep) i see mostly as a study in what people saw in technology in their own time more than anything else. this is especially true in the details/set design/off the main plot line - which frequently end up being more sweeping/philosophical.

this has been said before/it isn't an original take, but it really struck me watching blade-runner how people must have generally thought of technology in the early 1980s on a few fronts:

1.first, and far most shockingly, the lack of "cell phones" and time implications of not having them is shocking.
in the movie they use video-based pay phones, but don't have any wireless devices. superficially, it is surprising/amazing they missed that/so amazing that maybe it was a dramatic decision (though one people in 1982 were willing to accept) -- but what is so interesting is that so much of the plot of the movie couldn't have happened/wouldn't have been as elegant with cell phones in the mix.

without cell phones / instant wireless communication at their fingertips the movie paints a picture of a world which seems intensely lonely, a world in which the characters don't have backup/aren't playing on teams but are individuals, and a world in which there is intense drama in asynchronous information. the pace is also significantly slower because they can't easily be updating each other all the time.... a few quick examples:

* one of the replicants talks about how they will get in contact with her friends 'in the morning' rather than letting them know where she is now/immediately... and strangers are willing to help each other out personally on an extended horizon because they can't just be instantly re-routed to friends or family.

* deckard has several extended interactions with the replicants/fighting them in drawn out slow scenes with a lot of tension and suspense, because he can't just ask for backup

* the interactions with people are gritty/in real life streets / when deckard needs information he needs to go to the streets, he doesn't just look it up... rather than just going to the streets for the type of information that requires explicit confrontation because people are unwilling to give it up without physical force.

writing this it sounds a little superficial, but watch the movie again and it will blow your mind. you couldn't possibly re-make blade-runner today/make a science fiction movie and ignore/un-assume perfect instant wireless communication -- and because of that assumption the entire pace and dynamic of interactions has to be different... we are all on teams / constantly supported by other people and information, in a way that they just weren't envisioning in 1982 (and i guess fundamentally didn't feel in 1982).

2. second, computers and computer interaction as a clearly divided 'other' from normal life.
computers/digital interfaces are everywhere in our lives... we assume ubiquity and continuous interaction with machines now in a way that they just don't depict in blade runner. the 'computers' they have are large devices with small screens. deckard does seem to have a few, but his primary interaction with them is bracketed off from the rest of his life/interactions in the movie.

so, in the big computer scene when he is voice command panning around a physical photo he input, the interactions with the machine are totally bracket from the rest of his life. he appears to have a separate computer room, rather than being surrounded by machines. the computer takes physical media input, and when he is done with the machine it spits back out physical media for his use in the rest of his life..., and of course he interacts with the computer in highly stilted voice commands with very little intelligence -- as though all the computer can do is follow exact commands rather than search or look for patterns, etc.

the same thing goes for the 'machine'/'computer' used to test whether a person is replicant or human.... it is the size of a briefcase/ it is a separate 'other' experience from the rest of the interactions people have. you explicitly 'turn on'/enter computer mode and exit computer mode rather than it being integrated into the experience of life.

watching the movie it feels very strange / out of place to be interacting with machines in this way.

3. third, general lack of search/social/internet
none of what we think of as the internet exists in blade-runner world. it is just flat absent. this is just shocking to see something futuristic without any comprehension/discussion of a connected world in terms of people/information/or anything else.

this is a bit rambling, but the upshot, if you haven't seen blade runner in a while re-watch it and think about what 1982 must have felt like. the it wasn't that long ago in chronological time, but the world was very very different... and looking at their vision of 2019, on many aspects of physical computing and technology the world they saw ahead was pitifully behind, even if we are very far off from replicants, flying cars, and the space travel that underpin the story... also consider how much the world has changed, and what we have ?lost? in terms of personal agency & interactions that just can't happen now the way they do in blade runner, and the way one can assume they did in 1982.


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