I HAVE just finished watching Cruel Summer, the US hit TV drama released last spring that has since taken the world by storm.
The show is set in a Texas town during the early 1990s and follows the misadventures of two teenage girls whose backstabbing, conniving and deceit would rival the machinations of Alexis Carrington.
One contemporary feature that plays into the plot is the advent of the internet and online chatrooms. Each episode is preceded by a screeching modem and phantom generated words typed onto a monochromatic screen.
I distinctly remember, from the early 1990s, tapping words into a clunky desktop and wondering whether an alien life form would respond from the other side of the galaxy. Apparently the sound of a dial-up connection between two computers comprises its own language. These mechanics would have been lost on most of us teens at the time, as the sole purpose, outside of any fascination with the technology, was to see if anybody would answer.
In Cruel Summer, one girl discovers a chatroom where she can vent her frustrations and wallow in her victimhood. The chatroom, like the 8-track cassette and fax machine (despite recent nostalgic attempts at resurrection), remains firmly relegated to obsolescence by superior technologies such as mobile messaging platforms and chatbot driven pop-ups. You can read a comprehensive discussion on the history of the chatroom here if that sort of thing piques your interest.
The chatroom has developed a bad reputation (being used for nefarious purposes by online predators, cyber-bullies, hackers and scammers) and has since been replaced with predictive chatbots on many websites so that it’s impossible to tell now whether you are communicating with a sentient being or a computer programme.
In the 1990s going online was a novelty rather than a part of daily existence. It has since been posited that too much time spent online causes severe negative effects on the brains and attention spans of children, as a 2015 TCW article addressed in its discussion of how high-powered Silicon Valley executive were limiting their kids’ computer use due not only to safety concerns but also for cognitive developmental reasons.
In the space of about seven years since that article, we have morphed into a society which no longer cares about the dangers to children of too much screen time, having cruelly replaced classroom interaction with ‘online learning’.
This damaging progression to virtual classrooms is a result of the process initiated even before the onset of Covid called ‘uberisation’ which, whether by chance or design, saw businesses engaged in so-called disruptive technologies to create a seismic shift towards digitisation in almost every aspect of life.
According to this article the pandemic response has accelerated that movement and crystalised its outcomes.
It says: ‘The government, health, education and defence sectors have long been prime targets for “digital disruption”.
‘All these transformations will follow a similar model: using automated platforms to gather and analyse data via online surveillance, then using it to predict and intervene in human behaviour.
‘The next phase is what we might call the “uberisation of everything”: replacing existing institutions and processes of government with computational code, in the same way Uber replaced government-regulated taxi systems with a smartphone app.’
The piece further notes that the success of ‘uberisation’ is contingent on mass surveillance of the population, which it predicts ‘will get more intense and pervasive’.
The term ‘uberisation’ recalls the plight of London’s cabbies, currently an endangered species due to such factors as ill-conceived policies, environmental diktats and Uber’s rapid ingestion of market share.
Uber as a tracked, monitored and cashless alternative to the black cab fits well into a Covid era surveillance model, not to mention the goldmine of personal data that company must possess on the urban populations it serves. All this emergent technology can never replicate the original versions of services which it tries to copy. ‘The Knowledge’ (requiring drivers of black cabs to memorise every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross), dates back to the mid-19th century and is part of London’s rich history. There are also safety issues with Uber according to a report published in 2016 by the Policy Exchange. Incidents are eight times more likely in an Uber than in a black cab.
Paradoxically, digitisation supported by high-tech surveillance results in fewer and lower quality available options. In the same way that an MP3 file will never sound as good as the original vinyl recording, and a machine-woven article cannot match the quality of handmade (as argued by the original 19th century Luddites, weavers who smashed the mechanised looms threatening their livelihoods) today’s predictive chatbots cannot replace the connective quality from those first conversations tapped out in block letters over an expectant green screen.
Having said that, you could never really be sure of what exactly was at the other end of that screaming modem – was it human, or an extraterrestrial life form?