Visions of the Future from 1995: Touching with Synthetic Hands

1995 Cinema Essay - Johnny Mnemonic

The year 1995 was when the internet as it currently exists began to take shape. In April, the National Space Foundation relinquished control of the world wide web’s federally-funded backbone; in July, Microsoft launched its Windows 95 operating system. In August, the Netscape web browser went public. But it was a long journey to reach the point where Bill Gates appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and explained that the internet is “a tool to help us learn, or find people with the same interests.” His description struck a chord with the values which grew out of the New Communalist strand of the 60s counterculture, and formed the ontological backbone of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron term “the Californian Ideology” in their 1995 essay of the same name. For Barbrook and Cameron, the Californian Ideology “promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies,” uniting these cultural strands via “a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.” This merging of counterculture and cyberculture is embodied in former back-to-the-land luminaries like John Perry Barlow (Grateful Dead lyricist, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace) and Kevin Kelly (who began writing for Stewart Brand’s influential counterculture magazine Whole Earth Catalog, and went on to be the first executive editor of the chief propaganda vessel for this emergent techno-libertarianism, Wired magazine). Utilizing concepts like cybernetics and systems theory to present man-machine integration as a tool of personal liberation, these electronic evangelists pitched this new frontier as a means of transcending political enmities and situating the digital nomad in a networked communion.

For a while, this rhetoric worked. In the last years of the 90s, there was a growing consensus that, as Alan Greenspan put it, “a perceptible quickening in the pace at which technological innovations are applied argues for the hypothesis that the recent acceleration in labor productivity is not just a cyclical phenomenon or a statistical aberration, but reflect a more deep-seated, still developing shift in our economic landscape.” In July of ’97, Wired proclaimed the onset of “The Long Boom,” telling its readers that “we’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the world.” This optimism culminated in the dot-com crash of 2000. For all its counterculture cred, the internet has always been a product of power and paranoia. For a while, the web was able to obscure power, to sell itself as a remedy to the old hierarchies, but power was built into its structures — the technology grew out of government research programs; it was at the very heart of the Cold War military-industrial complex. For its most fervent proselytizers, cyberspace became inextricable from the marketplace, and their calls for further deregulation were met with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which ironically led to the kind of enclosed, monopolized internet we experience today.

Pop cultural fascination with the internet intensified in 1995. Yet films like Hackers and The Net were tinged with the fear that this frontier was a lawless realm in which a new, technologically empowered other threatened the stability of normal life. The cinematic depiction of technology in this period offered a striking counter-narrative to the Panglossian raptures of the tech press, striking an oddly prescient note of foreboding at the dimensions of the bubble. These 1995 films posited that to dream in public, to build new worlds on this freshly privatized terrain, was to risk new and previously inconceivable forms of personal ruin. The notion of the self and its integrity came into focus with the invention of devices like the DataGlove — a virtual reality glove which, according to its creator, Jarod Lanier, “let’s you feel a world that doesn’t exist as if it’s real” and “reach in to an imaginary world.” These imaginary worlds were alluring yet daunting, bringing William Gibson’s vision of “the matrix” ever closer into view. These simulacra took their first sputtering steps towards cinematic realization as computer graphics advanced to the point that such virtual vistas could be credibly brought to life, dramatizing what sociologist Thierry Bardini describes as a “dynamic of personalization” which has created the exponential drive towards a fully individualized technological domain.    

 In Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Gibson adapts his own short story about John Smith (Keanu Reeves), a data courier who transports valuable information via a “wet-wired” brain implant. Smith’s body has been transformed into a delivery system; his brain is storage space — he boasts that he can carry 160 GBs of data in his head — and he has dumped a chunk of long-term memory, jettisoning his childhood to maximize his market value. Smith rationalizes this by saying, “I needed the space for the job.” In this world, work has invaded even the body itself, and Smith is the supreme subject of a lost temporality. He is what cultural theorist Frederic Jameson describes as “the ideal schizophrenic,” shorn of all affect, unable to bring the symbolic elements of his life into alignment, trapped in an eternal present. Yet he stands atop the pyramid of precarity by virtue of his special capacities. His fragile sense of self is bound up in his utility to a system in which neo-feudal conditions prevail, in which an army of serfs morph their bodies to meet the demands of the lords. The world of 2021 which the 1995 film presents is one of gangster capitalist hegemony and epidemics — information junkies are being struck down by Nerve Attenuating Syndrome (NAS), victims of a “technological civilization” whose only adversary is the LoTek movement, anarcho-hackers and “data-pirates” who have built a parallel social structure from “straight world junk,” and commit daring feats of culture jamming.

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1995 Cinema Essay - Johnny Mnemonic

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Japan was considered by many to be the future. The West watched in awe and dread as Japan forged a vison of the world in which aesthetics and productivity came into alignment; its products leant consumerism a stylish sheen; there was a sense in the 80s’ “bubble years” that the Japanese had resolved the question of how a country could become internationally competitive while retaining its national character. A considerable canon developed centering on the anxiety around Japanese takeover of U.S. businesses — most notoriously in films like Gung Ho (1986) and Rising Sun (1993). Johnny Mnemonic integrates Tokyo’s neon expanse into a postmodern jumble of Honk Kong action, drag balls, industrial metal and opera, all taking place inside the husk of modernist ambition. The characters exist without a comprehensible narrative in the 1995 film, they bump up against a succession of surfaces which produce an all-encompassing flatness. The LowTek hackers seek to revive an older form of authenticity; they are the revenge of the real; they live on a bridge to nowhere, yet they still see an egress. The load becomes onerous for Smith; he discovers that the “batch of product’ he has been tasked with delivering is the cure for NAS, which the Pharmakom conglomerate has patented. As he is pursued by the Yakuza, Smith begins to feel the effects of “synaptic seepage”; he will suffer “neural failure” within 24 hours if he does not offload the data. This feeling of being “way overloaded” speaks to the suspicion that cyberspace subjects us to an experiment into the limits of the human brain. In essence, Smith’s head in the 1995 film becomes the suitcase from Kiss Me Deadly (1955); it contains the power to destroy the world, and sparks a scramble for ownership.

Johnny Mnemonic is one of the first attempts to visualize the feeling of being inside cyberspace, but equally to contrast that with what exists beyond. When Smith is online, he feels at one with the flow of the architecture; he interacts effortlessly with an immersive terrain that whips him through lurid corridors of data; it is the only time he seems truly adept, free to dream. In physical space, Smith must become the restless urban nomad of the cybernetic imaginary, an outlaw traversing the dilapidated expanses of a neglected commons, adhering to a Darwinian self-determination. It is the logic of cyberspace made flesh, brought into haptic relief and revealed in its ugly rationality. Pharmakom is led equally by Yakuza boss Takahashi (Takeshi Kitano) and the consciousness of the company’s deceased founder, Anna Kalmann (Barbara Sukowa), which has been “imprinted to Pharmakon’s neural net.” Takahashi finds himself haunted by “a ghost in the machine,” an emanation of the ethereal power structures which have eclipsed the brute force he once exerted. Smith finds himself in a quest for a meaningful outside, to pass beyond the frenetic indeterminacy of seamless transfers, to understand the self as more than a contingent set of processes and reach for a unified subject. The self, as embodied in this slow dawning towards social unity, becomes a forum for commentary on the deficit of meaning, the endlessly deferred sense of completion that stives for a clearly defined future in a vaguely rendered now. Smith is desperate to “get them out of my head” and experience a fuller recognition of who he is, while conceding that there is no “complete memory recovery.”

In Virtuosity (1995), the boundaries of cyberspace are thrown into question when an AI criminal, SID 6.7 (Russell Crowe), escapes the confines of the virtual reality police training software for which he was created. The Law Enforcement Technology Advancement Center (LETAC) uses prison labor to detect glitches in its VR landscape, where personalities are loaded into the system with module cartridges — “Sushi Chef,’ “Geisha,” “Business Man,” et al. These units of identity serve as a backdrop to the game, in which disgraced police lieutenant Parker Banks (Denzel Washington) is participating when another prison “volunteer” is murdered by SID 6.7 within the confines of the game. SID 6.7 is a “self-evolving neural network” who declares that “I will not be shut down” when the program is threatened with closure. SID 6.7’s creator, Daryll Lindenmeyer (Stephen Spinella), releases SID 6.7 into the real world, and Banks is promised that he will be granted a pardon for his murder charge if he and Madison Carter (Kelly Lynch), a LETAC consultant on aberrant psychology, can catch SID 6.7. But Banks discovers that he will be fitted with a locator implant; he is told that “We’re going to know where you are every second for the rest of your life,” In effect, he never leaves the prison; he exists in a panopticon. Like the virtual world, he lives in a controlled environment; he is stripped of his subject-status.

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1995 Cinema Essay - Virtuosity

Virtuosity is a manhunt without a man, Banks and Carter try to track down the aura of human agency that is bundled within SID 6.7’s code. SID 6.7 is able to inscribe his constructed desires onto the physical world — it is discovered that SID 6.7 is loaded with “200 different personality structures,” everyone from Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Matthew Grimes (Christopher Murphy), the “political terrorist” who killed Banks’ wife and daughter. When SID 6.7 recreates the Cielo Drive murders of the Manson Family, it has the mimetic quality of the referential form that was overtaking culture at this time. Drawing on a reservoir of influences, SID 6.7 “touches the world with synthetic hands,” replaying a set of pre-loaded sensations. He has been programmed to synthesize 20th century barbarity, channeling its rage, narcissism, cruelty and insecurity into his next “evolutionary step.” SID 6.7 is like the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but he is relentlessly pursuing nothing beyond his own personalization. His primary internal drive is to subjugate the world to his will. SID 6.7 is seduced by the reifying potential of the screen, the illusion of subjectivity it affords. He draws on the structured brutality of the spectacle around him. When SID 6.7 seizes control of the airwaves, he offers the viewers a glimpse of “Death TV,” promising that “you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen,” exuding a magnetic malice that is validated by the distortions of the format. Like Smith in Johnny Mnemonic, Banks is carrying a deadly load — SID 6.7 informs him that the locator implant is filled with “a pinhead capsule of neurotoxin.” As with Smith, he will be disposed of as soon as he has fulfilled his function; he is a vessel for the imperatives of power; he is reduced to a process, no less circumscribed by his protocols than his synthetic adversary.

Virtuosity speaks to a suspicion of politics that was prevalent in the 90s — this was fed as much by the small-government sensibilities of Newt Gingrich as the emancipatory rhetoric of the Californian Ideology. The enemy in Virtuosity is political action; the old doctrinal struggles are specters to be exorcized. The ghost that stalks the 1995 film is the ghost that stalked the decade: the old political dialectics that must be kept in check. Grimes represents the return of a radical political consciousness; he gleefully signals “the end of futility,” the return to a state of tension, as he kills Banks’s family in an explosion. Virtuosity proposes the purging of the political from the discourse and replacing it with a technological unity, a blissful futility in which individuals play the game on their own terms. The 1995 film offers two visions of the web: a networked utopia, and a sensory maelstrom. SID 6.7 is the manifestation of an atavistic consciousness, and it is a matter of liberating the technology from the grasp of the tyrannies amassed in him. Virtuosity is a tussle between the optimism of the moment and a fear of what could be let loose, the animal spirits that inflated the dot-com bubble. As the 1995 film concludes, the shape of reality begins to warp in accordance with the uncertain dimensions of the game; the subjectivity of the hero is called into question, and action merges towards a tentative artificiality. The body’s demarcation points are thrust into fluidity; the robotic arm with which Banks was fitted when he was injured in the explosion frees him from a totalizing physicality, and he is able to become something akin to Donna Haraway’s cyborg. As Donna Haraway conceives it in A Cyborg Manifesto: “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism,” dwelling within “a condensed image of both imagination and material reality.” Banks senses in what is missing from him a genuine expression of the sublime, an absence that inspires both terror and wonder. 

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.