Naturalising New Media: Cultural Representations of the Digital World

This week’s meLecture takes us into Module 3: ‘Mediating New Media’. The videos survey representations of digital media across a number of genres, but I thought film deserved some further reflection here… I’m currently typing this post while watching Aaron Eckhart have his emails, bank account, mobile phone access, and other facets of his digital identity completely erased by what seems to be some malicious organisation. Right now he’s telling his young daughter to ‘keep your head down – they can’t identify you if they can’t get a full profile’. Now he’s walking across the foyer using a small piece of paper to disguise his face amidst the surveillance devices surrounding them…

Seriously, you can’t avoid this topic – or perhaps more appropriately, you can’t hide from it. When I hired the 2012 film The Expatriate (or Erased, to use the American title), the DVD cover could/should have been enough to signal that Eckhart’s rugged looks might come into conflict with digital media, and that the (mis)uses to which technology can be put might play some role in the thriller’s plot. Nonetheless, some encounters with such representations can be considerably more unexpected…

In apparent sharp contrast to The Expatriate, last night’s movie was the children’s animation The Lorax (2012), a Dr. Seuss story about a society that is bereft of trees (and the animals who once lived in/among them) due to humans’ destructive treatment of nature. The citizens of Thneedville now live in total ignorance under the control of a tyrant, Mr O’Hare, who sells them breathable air for massive profits. After watching the film’s first few minutes – or even just from watching the trailer – we all know what the resolution of this narrative will be (not that this makes it a bad movie, it’s actually really good); nonetheless, the presence of camera surveillance part way through the story is unexpected.

O’Hare has created a veritable Surveillance Society in order to monitor the movements of all, ensuring that nobody leaves ‘his’ pristine, industrialised city to discover there are options other than buying oxygen from him. In addition to Thneedville’s pervasive CCTV cameras, the film’s young protagonist is surveyed by a robotic cat, which (in addition to fake trees having consumer fashion item status) suggests that technology has literally replaced the ‘dirty’ and ‘disorganised’ natural world. Social order and the protection of the innocent is not even an excuse – much less the reason – for the widespread invasion of privacy in The Lorax; surveillance is simply a tool of excessive, rampant, evil capitalism. Somewhat simplistic, one might say, no matter how much you hate the cameras…

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