Alex Garland’s Devs is focused around a very powerful technology company and its secretive development division. While the work being done there might be sci-fi in nature, the overarching lesson to be learned is one that is very much relevant in our world.
“Like most of us I’ve got a deep unease about the power of tech companies,” Garland, director of Ex Machina and Annihilation, told Gizmodo late last year.
Devs is about to come to its halfway point tomorrow, when it streams its next episode on FX on Hulu—and if you’ve been watching you know the tech company in the series, Amaya, already has a pretty firm grip on its employees. The last episode dealt with a very specific instance of their technology being used to invade the privacy of someone outside the company, but it’s now been hinted at that the secret work in the Devs department is something that could have incredibly serious repercussions for the entire world.
Garland told us his discomfort with tech companies isn’t because they are inherently bad, but because of the massive amount of power they wield. “Unlike governments, you can’t vote out a tech company. You could sort of say you could vote them out by electing to not buy their products or use their system or whatever it is, but it’s not a vote any of us ever really make,” Garland told Gizmodo.
“Any reasonable minded person knows there are problems with tech companies. It might be to do with the way they do or don’t pay tax. It might be to do with the way they exercise their power. It might be to do with the kind of information they acquire about us and the way they use that information. But we’re broadly passive in the face of our discomfort.”
Speaking at a panel at New York Comic Con last year, Garland expanded on this thinking.
“[It’s] about the incredible power, the sometimes disturbing power of the tech companies. And the fact that we live...when did you guys write the constitution in this country...1776? So you wrote this Constitution. The reason for the Constitution was it had checks and balances, and it built checks and balances...Well, they’ve been tested [recently] but at least that they exist to be tested, right?” he told the audience. “So you’ve built in checks and balances between the executive and the legislative, judiciary, and the reason you did that is because you knew these things contain power and if they didn’t have checks and balances that was dangerous. That was the reason to do it, its dangerous.”
He continued, “Well we now have corporations that have more power than most countries and they have no checks and balances on them at all and they could be working on any number of different things or interfering with democratic process or whatever it happens to be. And it’s completely without oversight.”
The moderator interjected to say that on the lowest level of paranoia, some folks are afraid to use Amazon’s Alexa, to which Garland replied, “No, but they’re not. They’re not. They do use them.”
“There was a bit in Ex Machina where [Oscar Isaac’s character] Nathan, who’s the sort of tech boss who’s created this [AI] machine, says ‘Yeah we switched on the microphones and cameras of everybody’s cell phones and accumulated a lot of data.’ And one of the financiers [of the film] said, ‘Maybe you should take that out because that seems overly paranoid and unrealistic.’ And it turned out to be not even remotely too paranoid or unrealistic,” Garland said. “But interestingly, nobody in reality changes their behaviour. They just carry on. Ed Snowden made a whole bunch of revelations about what the degree to which we’re being observed...who’s done anything about it? Realistically? What tiny proportion has stopped using messaging systems or emails...We don’t change our behaviour at all.”
Devs has four more episodes to go, with its finale airing April 17.