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Podcast script 20

 

 The script is offered to assist teachers with discussing SF as a valuable tool for social criticism.

 

 

Index:

Introduction
Surveillance and rights
The Listening
Eagle Eye
Ideas for the classroom
Resource list

 

Introduction

 

This script is derived from Podcast 21 from the mySF Project blog site.

 

Podcast 21 looks at a recent film, Eagle Eye, released in Australia in October of 2008.

 

 While the film has some problems and chuckles from the audience greeted some tense moments here and there when I watched it, it is clearly of use for the mySF Project as it slots happily into the Ghost in the Shell theme area looking at contemporary society’s uneasy relationships with technology. Eagle Eye is an easy choice for secondary students wondering how much of their lives will be watched … and controlled … by computers.  

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Surveillance and student rights

Last semester at my school a thin external hard drive and a pair of good headphones were lifted from the lab. Annoyed by the theft I suggested to the Principal that we use web cameras to monitor students in the lab. Quite correctly, the Principal said no such invasion of the students' privacy was allowed. More calm a few days later I understood that while students were monitored on the government bus services coming to school, the school itself should not follow the city's lead in mounting cameras and installing surveillance equipment.  

Local retailers sell motion-activated cameras for home use, callers to companies are warned their conversations are monitored and citizens understand that their movements can be recorded, not only by little beige cameras (the new gargoyles perched on building corners) but also by every transaction, every wave of a plastic card at a scanner, every time the mobile phone logs into the signals that envelop us in the airy, digital ether.  

It is not necessary to turn to Science Fiction texts to see individuals struggling in a world where every move is recorded, each whisper overheard. Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation of 1974  was made during the Wategate era, when new technologies caused growing concern over the violation of civil liberties. The Parallax View by Alan Pakula, also in 1974, pointed out the bombardment of visual images in a 'paranoid thriller' that saw conspiracies behind the great events of the world, mostly where shadowy figures destroyed individuals who dared to question.

Much more recently our students recognise a world so wired and paranoid that a global network of surveillance is used in the Bourne movies and one brilliant mastermind can control a government through its computer network in Die Hard 4. Again and again in these movies computers record, watch, link information and match patterns to identify citizens anywhere - in a train station, through a window or from fuzzy snapshots as in the enormously powerful visual data centre of the 2008 Bond film Quantum of Solace by Marc Forster.

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The Listening

Probably the most impressive of all these paranoid scenarios is Giacomo Martelli's The Listening. This excellent film might be a bit rough for some secondary students and its primary focus is quite different. It accepts electronic surveillance in the modern world and deals with real installations and their purposes, then criticises the role of private companies within this lucrative defence and intelligence world. This film is certainly not Science Fiction but here we see real technologies as they are now used and their terrible consequences for individuals. This film would be an excellent study for a senior secondary group, much more worthy than the popular but shallow Eagle Eye rooted in the Science Fiction genre.

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Eagle Eye

With its frequent chase scenes, high production values and large scale, it is suspected that Eagle Eye may be enjoyed by many students who are willing to suspend disbelief so far as to overlook the ridiculous storyline including the most convoluted  assassination of the American President.

Regardless of some stupid ideas there is much to recommend Eagle Eye by director DJ Caruso as a way of discussing contemporary perceptions of the relationship of technology  and individual privacy.

Eagle Eye could be used in conjunction with several short stories depicting  an artificial intelligence taking on human characteristics, such as the early 'True Love' by Isaac Asimov, or following visual texts like Colossus: the Forbin Project of 1966 by Dennis Feltham Jones, or 2001: A Space Odyssey made in 1968 by Stanley Kubrick.

Unlike Colossus and 2001, Eagle Eye depicts the world of pain entered by two relatively normal citizens who are swept into a conspiracy by an advanced computer determined to improve the world by killing the idiotic government leaders who ignore the best computer advice for political advantage.

Eagle Eye is much closer to Colossus than other texts as the vast, learning computer is designed to bring peace. When the computer system (personified with a female voice for a change) decides that peace must be found through wresting power from the government, innocent citizens are swept up into an intricate and most unlikely conspiracy.

Visually the defence computer derives with conscious homage to Kubrick's HAL computer with its great red, dispassionate eye. In Eagle Eye the computer has a blue and unblinking eye and it is matched with an excellent computer body based on the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory from the city of Hida in Japan.

While the computer's rationale for the conspiracy will be familiar to students from Colossus, or even through Gort, the great robot from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still made in 1951 by Robert Wise, it is the manifestation of the computer in the modern world that is of most interest in Eagle Eye.

Instead of just the unblinking eye of the personified computer plotting murder, the eyes of the networked computer in Eagle Eye are everywhere in our complex, technological society. As the male and female lead characters attempt to escape both the FBI and the computer they are observed and controlled in every transaction, through every street corner camera, by all phones - and so on through all possible demonstrations of digital convergence, reaching new heights when the computer breaks a power line to electrocute an innocent, and when it orchestrates an amazing fight-and-flight scene in a baggage handling system.

Of interest to teachers is the palpable expression in Eagle Eye of the extraordinary extent to which computer technologies have become both a foreground and a background to daily life. The mobile phone, the iPod and the street sign are all input and output mechanisms for the pervasive intelligence that controls and choreographs our daily lives.

In William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer of 1984 the same effect is found: as the protagonist walks along the street phones ring one after another. The phones both follow and precede the individual. The 'mind' behind the device can move with the individual and can predict individual behaviour. The computer knows our natures, fathoms our imaginations, moves us like puppets with as much effort as raising a boom gate in a car park, or spelling out commands through a traffic warning. Nothing is secret, every aspect of our interior and exterior lives is calculated, stored and used.

Eagle Eye is a text where the machine is most definitely outside of human nature. The film teaches the individual to beware of creating an intelligence it can not control but more than that, Eagle Eye picks up harmless little objects found everywhere and finds in them a part of the threatening Other that is the computer fated to battle humanity for control of the world.

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Ideas for the classroom

Eagle Eye is a minor text not well suited to a film study in itself as the characterisation is weak and there are holes in the plot in all directions, but it is useful for identifying the extent to which technology has already surrounded lives in the modern Western world. It is especially useful for pointing at the lives of the students and asking them to identify where computers have touched their lives, from their mobile technologies to the way they can be observed from all corners of the world … with the exception of the school.

Questions of individual freedom are obvious for Eagle Eye, as are discussions of the worth and potential threat of digital convergence. Is individual privacy too high a price to pay for security? Would the students be more or less secure if cameras were mounted in classrooms and the recreation areas?

A debate on the issues, research into privacy laws, or a creative response imagining a school under constant surveillance might be useful. At any rate, the two hour Eagle Eye could well lead to more interesting discussions where students have a stake in the scenario and a voice to effect future policy than was envisioned by the film's producers. At the very least, they will remember the protagonists running down city streets pursued by a discorporate Other peering out from every electronic device and speaking calmly through a thousand speakers. 

 

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Ends

MichaelS

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