'Devs' Episode 3 offers a scary choice; prediction technology used for a company’s gain or state surveillance
‘Devs’ Alex Garland’s sci-fi/thriller miniseries, to quote a character from the show, is “transcendentally weird”. It explores determinism and fatalism, along with themes of technophobia. But the technophobia (which is dressed in the fictional setting’s technophilia) asks complex questions, that the show does not necessarily choose to answer. They are not rhetorical questions; just ones meant to make the viewers ponder. In episode 3 of the show, such a question arises as part of a conversation between Forest (Nick Offerman), the eccentric-looking, yet cold and calculating head of the quantum computing company called Amaya, and a nameless United States Senator (Janet Mock).
Some background: The development wing of the company, commonly referred to as the titular Devs, is developing a method to predict human behavior through quantum computing. This falls well in line with the show’s central theme of causal determinism. The technology -- in the episode, it successfully (through the examination of behavioral patterns) visualizes American playwright Arthur Miller and model Marilyn Monroe (they were married for a while) having sex -- has extraordinary ramifications. In one way, it can change everything about the world. In another, if Forest’s beliefs in fatalism and determinism are to be followed, it changes absolutely nothing because this result would, one way or the other, be inevitable.
You can consider its effects as self-fulfilling prophecies, but regardless of what philosophical doctrine you wish to follow, it is hard to disagree with the fact that this technology is unimaginably powerful and dangerous. In that context the following bit of the episode is important. The Senator asks Forest why the government shouldn’t intervene and have oversight on the technology Amaya is developing (even though she has no idea what it is).
In an attempt to make her case, she tells Forest, “People become scared of the tech companies. Really scared. AI is gonna create 60 percent unemployment. Instagram makes people feel like shit about their lives. Twitter makes them feel reviled. Facebook destroyed democracy. They use you. They need you. They don't like you anymore.”
Forest’s argument, on the other hand, is that she would use the technology for the NSA à la a mass surveillance tool. Her retort is a question asking, “We want your systems for America. Unless you think America is trivial too?” This classic patriotic jibe is obviously funny, but that’s where you begin questioning the deeper context of this exchange. For viewers who happen to live in a world that is controlled by either private surveillance by large corporations that mine data to sell ads, or by the government that surveils their most intimate moments with impunity, without any probable cause or warrants, this is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. Which is better?
There is no good answer to this question. While the private body’s head is not a capitalistic Silicon Valley man unlike most others -- his goal is not money anymore, rather, he has a more existential concern -- it is still an unconscionable idea to imagine a person wielding powers of such a degree. On the other hand, it is equally disgusting an idea to imagine the government being able to predict our every move, in addition to them keeping a watchful eye on every moment of our existence, every fraction of an action.
Does Garland choose to answer the question? Unlikely. He’s previously admitted to the fact that his works do not necessarily want to address the complex questions they ask. Nonetheless, it makes you think. And the more it makes you think, the more it becomes apparent that Garland’s motives here are not to create a hammy (and reductive) idea of technophobia. It is to draw our attention to the awesome powers technology can wield and it is to make us begrudgingly fear it. A fear you are unlikely to forget anytime soon. Garland’s exercise then is masterful.
‘Devs’ drops on FX on Hulu, every Thursday at 12 am.