We Are Moving Stories

Carmela Branowska from the We Are Moving Stories film network, interviews Jordan Brown about his new documentary, Stare Into The Lights My Pretties.

Congratulations! Why did you make your film?

Thank you! The germ of the film started in 2009. Back then, smartphones were relatively new. Facebook was only really beginning to take off. YouTube started to become a thing. Google began scanning out-of-print books to amass, for itself, the largest digital repository of books online, to essentially privatise that information and sell advertising. Google had also normalised a surveillance culture by driving around creepy cars that photographed your house and published the pictures online without your permission, while also secretly vacuuming up your wi-fi connection and reading your e-mail.

Workers in Apple factories assembling iPhones were committing suicide so much that the company put up big nets to catch them and send them back to work, such is the machinations for a conglomerate bottom line. Data mining was also becoming a big thing, and companies like Narus were revealed to be at the forefront of mass surveillance for governments, with Orwellian titles like “Total Information Awareness.” Yes, really. Many years later, this was all revealed to be much worse than ever anticipated with the so-called ‘Snowden documents,’ but even back then, in 2009, I could see a convergence of serious personal, societal and political implications stemming from digital technologies, at a time when there was, and I think there still is, a vast imbalance in general discourse about technology and its effects on people, and society.

We’re constantly awash in unchallenged messages about technology that spout the so-called “wonders of progress” and the “great levelling,” that the Internet is “not like the old society with the gatekeepers that are controlling the flows of information; that this time we’re free.” But I think this is a serious fallacy. What we’re actually living through is a concentration of corporate and state power that old media empires could only dream of. Right now, there are a couple of huge corporations that have tremendous unquestioned control over our lives and over the way society is organised and functions, with insights into our lives, and influence over our behaviour on a scale never before possible. For example, of the 3.8 billion people online, over two billion of them are using Facebook almost every day. Each one of the big four technology corporations (Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft) have individual annual GDPs larger than some entire countries. The userbase of Facebook is larger than the entire population of the United States, China and Brazil, combined. Businesses claim they could not function today without Facebook or Instagram, a claim that many of us would make of our personal lives as well.

At the same time, there is not only this convergence of corporate and state power, but a social dependency on this arrangement, which is very concerning and dangerous. Perhaps even more so because we’ve been groomed to consider it a good thing even.

The Internet is often heralded as a big “win” for democracy, that it has “levelled the playing field.” And while it is true that today we all have much more access to certain kinds of information, unfortunately we’re generally not seeing more informed democratic societies emerging from this. Perhaps we’re even instead seeing the opposite: increasingly fascistic social constructions rearing their ugly heads again, often with technology corporations at the core. And, yes, we’re awash in spectacle and soundbites and viral videos and Google searches, but information about what governments and corporations are doing seems more washed out and untouchable like never before. Laws are even passed in places like Britain and Australia, that prevent the reporting of certain technical government operations, which often involve exposing serious and systemic human rights abuses (think Manus Island). Meanwhile, literally the first usages of “mandatory data retention” (a euphemism for mass surveillance) in the name of “fighting terrorism,” are used to target journalists and whistleblowers.

Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, concedes that his creation is now the “largest surveillance network ever invented” for these purposes.

My point with all this is that the social control that emerges from this giant global megamachine-of-screens is powerful, intrusive, and has serious consequences in the real world, which we are living through right now.

The film is interested in looking at some of these effects, how they came to be, how they interplay, and then considers some extrapolations from there. For instance politically, we can already see concerning trends. Activists in the UK being pre-emptively detained—that is, before even acting—based on data gleaned from their mobile phones or e-mails, for instance. Or protestors being rounded up and tortured after the so-called “Facebook and Twitter” revolutions in the Middle East, thanks to unprecedented data from Facebook, Twitter, and other culpable corporations such as Verizon (Vodaphone). Or how fracking companies are using online data to ban protests. Or companies like Cambridge Analytica using big data profiling and targeted social engineering to manipulate referendums like Brexit in favour of the interests of illusive billionaires like Robert Mercer, or to have figureheads like Donald Trump elected.

It’s like what Chris Hedges calls “Inverted Totalitarianism.” Technocracy is the new democracy.

So I decided with this film, even back in 2009, that a polemic was necessary, that I had to dive in and take a hard look at what I think is actually happening: What does it mean when Google essentially controls the world’s information? What are the implications to privacy, autonomy? Memory? What sort of Ministry of Truth style world actually exists and would be perpetuated by these huge companies having extensive influence over the information streams that billions of people access every day? How did we sleepwalk into this culture where we’re all essentially zombies glued to a screen for 11+ hours a day? Who or what benefits from that? And what perpetuates the cycle of dependence and addiction to these technologies and to the technoculture itself? What kind of world is this? And is it what we want?

Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?

Have you ever caught yourself in “the zone” endlessly scrolling through Facebook, or playing Candy Crush; or spent hours Googling away fleeting curiosities? Are you checking your phone first thing in the morning and last thing before bed? How much do you unknowingly need that social-validation dopamine-rush from the Likes or comments on Instagram? Do you get lost in the real world without GPS directions from your phone? Why is it that thinking about going on holiday with friends leads to ads for travel appearing on Facebook?

Perhaps you really want to leave Facebook but you can’t, it keeps signing you back in. Your boyfriend is addicted to playing World of Warcraft so much that he loses his job. Your girlfriend is getting ads from Target for baby products before she even knows she’s pregnant. You can’t even read a book anymore without thinking about checking your e-mail or looking up some phrase on Wikipedia, or wanting to do something else. Like binge-watching an entire series of TV in one sitting.

I know these may sound like extreme examples to some people, but they’re based on real events and trends playing out in the world right now. Perhaps we can even see glimpses of these examples in ourselves to certain extents already.

But I also don’t want you to feel too bad personally. What I’m trying to do is argue that this type of addiction is by design. Technology companies drive and build purposefully for this kind of rapacious engagement, to keep us coming back to their portals, salivating like Pavlov’s Dog for more content and for the next new shiny device. And if they keep us engaged as long as possible with the world of screens, so much the better for them, as it means huge profits from not only the devices and content, but most of all, the data and insights they derive from our online behaviours. This gives them huge psychological leverage over our lives, which is of course used for targeted advertising and other forms of manipulation and influence over our perception and experience of the world. To keep us engaged with the screen, to keep us coming back, tethered to the gadgets, to build that absolute dependence on technology until it engulfs our whole lives, communities, and indeed societies. So it’s like a vicious circle. How does all this happen? Why? And why do we love it? Why do we keep coming back like good little slaves? Do we even know we’re slaves to this system?

TLDR: If you’re using or have ever used a screen, I think you should watch this film.

How do personal and universal themes work in your film?

I think there are very important interplays between the personal and larger social scale. It’s a very important question with a lot of complex answers.

One example, for example, there’s a concept explored in the film called the Filter Bubble. It’s essentially shorthand for the way in which algorithms are constantly watching and analysing your behaviour online in order to tailor your experience of the world; to filter the world down into your own unique bubble of information. For instance, what appears in my Facebook feed will be very very different from what appears in yours. Your Google results are specifically edited for you. I see one thing, you may see another. The same is true for your Netflix queue, your Amazon picks, your Yahoo News page. The same is true for all the advertisements that you’re completely awash in online. Even if you use ad-blockers. All of these information streams have been specifically tailored and edited individually, for each of us.

There are serious consequences on the larger social scale of this sort of manipulation. For one thing, on a personal level, we can more easily become insular people, atomised. We can become distrusting of others and intolerant of other points of view or information that challenges our own little bubble. Society then becomes increasingly polarised, factional. As we see. Meanwhile, technology companies have an insight into and control over our lives with scientific precision in a way that’s never been possible before. And that’s a huge power that I don’t think we fully realise that they have. Do we realise what is possible with such a power? And what is being done right now with that? Can we even see that anymore, let alone as a negative impact?

There is also the problem of the loss of a collective narrative. I mean, if we can’t even agree on what is real and happening in the world as a society, because each of our individual experiences are now so customised and individualised, how can we have the larger coherent conversations necessary to wade through all the extremely pressing social problems that exist right now, let alone work to solve them together, effectively?

How can we even have a meaningful dialogue in a sea of distractions? How can we organise and return to the notion of a real community when the screen has totally co-opted, subsumed, and replaced with a toxic mimic, critical aspects of human experience?

With the screen, we’re essentially reduced down to good little consumers, endlessly chasing ratings and feedback. Who benefits from that?

And that’s the other problem too that exists with this kind of hyper-individualism: We’re witnessing an unprecedented decline in empathy at a time of rising economic disparity and inequality; at a time when we need empathy and social engagement the most. But what we’re increasingly seeing is the opposite. For the most part, there’s a mass withdrawal into the world of the screen, into a world of distraction and sugar treats in the form of “likes,” viral videos, soundbites, memes. Let’s just go shopping again, you know?

I think that’s problematic and horrible for many reasons. The height of narcissism and a destructive culture, for one.

So with the film, I try to argue that I think we need to turn the screens off and return to the real world, but we also need to turn off the larger social structures that give rise to and emerge from these technologies, this toxic way of life. That may be what seems like a big ask, but literally, the world is at stake. We have to do this. And that’s not just chucking out an alarmist cliché. I hope the film shows you just how the world is in draw-down because of these technologies. And from there it follows that without a world, there’s no technology, there’s no society, there’s no you. There’s nothing. This means that, like our lives depend on it, we have to decisively change and we have to act. Withdrawal into the screen is a dead future on all fronts.

What type of feedback have you received so far?

The vast majority of feedback so far has been a wonderful outpouring of people’s stories dealing with overcoming their addiction to their devices, or even beginning to question their relationship to their shiny little pocket oracle, which is great. Others talk about the distraction, the scatterbrain-type thinking they’ve encouraged and strengthened because of the screen, and how they can see that playing out in wider social interactions or influencing other areas of their life.

One example, for instance, is a story I heard about a person who started watching movies and television at 1.5x speed. It changed his brain so much that real life seemed boring and slow in comparison, that conversations were now so boring and slow that he wanted to ‘fast forward’ to just get to the ‘good bits,’ as in a desire to almost ‘précis’ everything, to reduce life to a soundbite or the punchline, instead of moments of cohesive narrative with a beginning, middle and end. This to me essentially epitomises the whole technic of the screen—it’s all about me, and the spectacle of right now; nevermind the past or the future, nevermind meaning or purpose or depth or consequences or anything else frankly, it’s all about having a spectacular sensational time right now, whatever that is, who cares, pass the cocaine! And then on to the next and the next and the next.

There’s also this thing called ‘phantom pocket syndrome’ where people are checking their phone so much throughout the day that sometimes they think they feel their phone ping or vibrate in their pocket, so they check it, but really it didn’t ping, there’s no message, it’s just a hallucination, a wish, a nervous tick. It’s a manifestation of the addiction to being attuned to constant pings and notifications from the screen. These people described feeling unnerved when they think their phone went off but it actually didn’t. Others describe feeling disconcerted when their phone is more than arms reach away from them. One girl said she felt shaky, another like they had ‘lost a limb.’

I’ve heard others reflect about their ‘social media’ usage (and I put ‘social media’ in scare quotes because it’s really anti-social media, in the way that Sherry Turkle may describe it as how we’re Alone Together—out on the Internet ‘together,’ but in fact we’re isolated with our screen, alone, in the moments we’re tethered to the screen). People recounting stories from those experiences receiving creepily targeted ads, or feeling jealous or depressed by watching the glossy performances of others’ lives played back through the Filter Bubble of the screen, endlessly scrolling. That pretty much sums up Instagram in once sentence.

Others have told me just how much they dislike having their phone with them all the time or how they want to quit Facebook but they can’t because they need it for work, or they need it for school, or a myriad of other excuses; or they feel they can’t escape because their friends are all there and so on—all a measure of just how much these corporate platforms have really captured almost all of our cultural, social, political and institutional interactions. Pretty much every aspect of our lives from wake to sleep.

So all sorts of this kind of feedback. But so far, the vast majority of viewers have seen these effects as negative and have wanted to do something to change it, which is great.

I feel like these issues generally effect us all, no matter our screen time or usage, or which devices we have or don’t have. We’re all embedded in this larger culture of pervasive digital technologies, and that’s the common thread to all these stories: How we’ve been enticed to accept this in slow incremental stages; how we’ve been worn down to accept technologies constantly pushing back against our boundaries (privacy for example); and not only that, to become to be enthralled by this encroachment, to love it, to end up like screen zombies, dead and ready to give away the last of our privacy and the insights into our minds and personality completely to Google, just how Ray Kurzweil would want it (and profit from it).

So it’s great to see people not only wanting to reject all of this, but putting it into action in their own lives and also looking to the larger social scale.

Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?

Yes, it was surprising. I was almost expecting this documentary to fall on deaf ears, especially given the seemingly shallow political culture of our time represented through new media. But how wrong I was! I’m extremely heartened to know that even underneath the tremendous weight of the machines, that some people are still present in their humanity; that it hasn’t completely crushed all of our souls yet. And better still, that some are willing to return to the real world and fight back. This did challenge my preconceptions, and gives me strength and encouragement that we don’t have to live this way and that another world is possible.

What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?

My dream is that this film will help us to return to the real world and fight for what is important. Because life is not a computer game, and the huge challenges and problems we’re facing globally are real, and I think cannot be solved in the fast, distracting world of the screens. Not only do we need to summon some serious contemplativeness, we actually have to be inspired to get to work.

I want this film to begin to open up those questions for people, just as it did for me, and to be a catalyst for the journey to seriously change, along with all the other really great work out there. Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, for example. Or Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change. Derrick Jensen’s Welcome To The Machine.

In the words of Lewis Mumford, “The institutions that now have their hold upon us are even more compulsive and even more effective than ever before if we don’t care, if we drop out, if we lose ourselves in insane fantasy. We lose our possibility of restoring our own autonomy, of taking charge of our life. Because this requires greater energy, greater effort, than that which is required to live through the daily life of a machine worker. We have to become fully activated human beings, every part of us, tremendously alive and ready to take charge, and this can’t be done by people who are in escape, people who have formed the habit of total rejection. We must know what we want, not just what we don’t want.”

I really like that quote, and I hope the film has the same sort of spirit to it.

What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?

There’s a famous poem by Martin Niemöller called First They Came which deals with the cowardly culture of self-interest and the chilling effect that dominated Germany following the Nazis’ rise to power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It’s chilling for many reasons, but I bring it up here because of its pertinent analogy: Considering the creep of the technoculture, when the megamachine comes for you and your loved ones, what will you do? Will you speak out? Why or why not?

Better yet, will you organise to stop them? Why or why not?

is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. She is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of We Are Moving Stories, an independent platform that supports powerful conversations about documentary and is the world's largest online community for new voices in film. She was the first Australian journalist and filmmaker to win a Rory Peck Award and has also been recognised with a Walkley Award. She holds a Graduate Diploma in Documentary from VCA School of Film and Television, and an MA from the University of Melbourne where she is currently researching a PhD on the relationship between human rights, conflict and media.