Style: Review + Editorial Comment
Author: Nikhilesh Dholakia
Bio: Professor Emeritus, University of Rhode Island
IntroductionThe pandemic crisis of 2020 brings to mind multiple facets of the movie ‘Elysium’. Although the reviews of the movie were in the mid-range – neither gloriously celebratory nor atrociously bad – the present moment demands a relook at the multiple novel aspects of the future that the film imagined. For those who have not seen the film, or whose memory of it is hazy, let us start with a summary of the plot.
The Plot of Elysium
In the year 2154, planet Earth is nearly ruined and humanity is divided sharply – even more so than in 2020. The ultrarich live aboard a luxurious orbiting space station called Elysium, with amenities comparable to the most opulent gated communities of 2020. The vast majority, the rest, are reduced to a wretched humanity, living a hardscrabble existence in Earth's ruins.
The luxurious space station Elysium is technologically advanced. It has devices such as Med-Bays that can cure all diseases, reverse the aging process, and regenerate body parts. By contrast, the planet Earth, hundreds of miles below Elysium, is a writhing and smoldering cauldron of disease and deprivation. Suffering residents of planet Earth want Elysian technology to cure their illnesses. The curative-restorative technologies, however, are only available to citizens of Elysium. Jodie Foster, playing the role of Defense Secretary, the stern protector of the privileges of the residents of Elysium, takes all actions to guard the technologies of the space station, to preserve the pampered lifestyle of Elysium's citizens, and to prevent the leakage of the fantastic Elysian technologies to Earth.
Matt Damon, playing a brash character called Max, exposed to deadly massive radiation poisoning, and also moved by the disease and suffering of a friend’s daughter on Earth, agrees to undertake a dangerous mission that could access the medical technologies of Elysium and bring equality to the population of Earth. The mission is to jack into the central computer on Elysium, and reprogram it to recharacterize all the residents of Earth as citizens of Elysium.
There are many plot twists and turns, severe and savage battles, but ultimately Max manages to jack into the computer at Elysium, and reprograms it, even as this act kills him. The impact of reprogramming is instantaneous. The robotic entities, earlier used by their masters in Elysium to suppress and contain the population of Earth, now automatically turn into helpers and saviors of all – including residents of Earth, now granted Elysian citizenship and privileges. Hundreds of Med-Bays are dispatched to relieve the suffering on Earth.
We do not have to wait till 2154; many of the conditions of the movie Elysium started appearing in 2020, and accelerated suddenly with the appearance of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the luxurious space colony, separated and insulated from a wretched Earth, is still not a reality, major entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are working with technologies and systems that would create such escape abodes in outer space. In the meanwhile, luxury quarantine in 2020 takes the forms of private planes, private or access-controlled islands, fantastically equipped and opulent survival bunkers, and more.
The Med-Bays are not here yet, but the medical-technological research frameworks for reversing aging, restoring lost senses and organs, rebuilding body parts, sentient prosthetics, and other steps toward – Singularity? Convergence? Tran-Posthumans? – are already in place. We can expect to see major acceleration in these.
The robotic police is not here yet, but a robotic dog is patrolling the parks in Singapore, warning folks to keep the 6-feet/2-meter distance from each other. And of course, drones that could kill and contain troublemakers are ready – used to combat terrorism so far, but fully capable of doing anything that they are commanded to do. More mundanely, hypersurveillance – so far used to nudge customers to buy promoted brands (except in China and a few places, where it also assigns social scores and categorizes people) – is evolving rapidly into ways to classify and trace individuals and their contact networks.
There are discussions afoot on developing privilege and certification cards of various kinds: cured, immune, asymptomatic, symptomatic, vulnerable, indispensable, super-privileged, essential-and-protection-worthy, essential-but-disposable, etc.
The big political-philosophical questions that are emerging are obvious: Will we move toward a world that has privileged Elysians, with fantastic technologies and massive robotic power, escaping from and seeking to keep under control the seething, suffering masses? Or, will brave heroes emerge to jack into cyber-networks of privilege, and push the buttons to declare all of us as card-carrying folks with equal access to curative, restorative, salubrious, caring, income-providing transhuman technologies?
2. Post-Pandemic: "Screen New Deal" instead of "Green New Deal"?
The critique Naomi Klein offers is insightful. What is needed, to go beyond critique, are ways to bring the entire technology cycle, from creation to deployment, under democratic cooperative control. Naomi Klein hints at this... A lot of intense work is needed.
Excerpts [of Naomi Klein essay]:
... pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fuelled future was being sold to us in the name of friction-free convenience and personalisation. But many of us had concerns... That was the ancient past, also known as February . Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe... At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies...
... we [are made to?] face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both. The refusal to transfer anything like the needed resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now slamming headlong into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals and transit are facing existential questions about their futures. If tech companies win their ferocious lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G and driverless vehicles – their Screen New Deal – there simply won’t be any money left over for urgent public priorities, never mind the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs...
Tech provides us with powerful tools, but not every solution is technological. And the trouble with outsourcing key decisions about how to “reimagine” our states and cities to men such as Bill Gates and [Eric] Schmidt [ex-Google CEO] is that they have spent their lives demonstrating the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot fix.
For them, and many others in Silicon Valley, the pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not just the gratitude, but the deference and power that they feel has been unjustly denied.