Review of Devs, season 1 (2020, TV Series)
Devs. Dir. Alex Garland. Hulu, 5 March 2020.
Distributed by Hulu, Devs is an 8-episode, single-season series that has been written and directed by Alex Garland, already known for writing and directing SF films Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018). As a TV series, Devs is understandably more detailed and lengthier in its narrative development than Garland’s cinematic works, but it also shares some of their contemplative-minded design and pace. Throughout its roughly 8-hours total runtime, Devs is wholly set between the city of San Francisco and the nearby R&D campus of Amaya, a high-tech capitalist Leviathan in the likes of Silicon-Valley companies such as Apple, Alphabet or Facebook. The series mainly focuses on the character of Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), a talented computer engineer at Amaya who lives with her co-worker and romantic partner, Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman). In the first episode, Sergei is misleadingly presented as the protagonist, and we follow him as he joins Devs, the company’s top-secret development program; however, upon his attempt to leak information, Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), assassinates him by direct order of Forest (Nick Offerman), Amaya’s owner. Thus, throughout the rest of the series, we follow Lily’s arduous search for answers and her ultimate arrival into the Devs facility—a spy-movie-like storyline that is interspersed with Forest’s and his staff’s progress with the Devs programme.
On the whole, Devs raises a range of socio-philosophical questions, from specific dilemmas posed by the rise of surveillance capitalism, all the way to a grander pondering of the (im)possibility of free will in a seemingly overdetermined universe. Nonetheless, Devs also seems to be a site of numerous ideological ambiguities—which are not necessarily flaws, but rather provocative triggers for productive, deeper studies of the series. “What is Devs?” is the simple question that is constantly suggested by the series and explicitly asked by its characters, and it also seems to be the most fruitful question for potential scholarly examinations. At the diegesis’s literal level, Devs is Amaya’s grand ambition and Forest’s pet project: specifically, an ongoing, partially successful attempt at both predicting the future and recreating the past, doing so with the utmost wealth and preciseness of detail. Thus, thanks to Amaya’s select team of coders and to a powerful quantum computer, the Devs machine proves capable of recreating reality in all directions of time and space, showing its results as a literal video-on-demand stream, eventually one with sound and colour.
On an immediate sociological level, the series appears as an anxious vision of the potential of predictive algorithmic/AI systems, which are currently the target of heavy investment by most surveillance capitalist corporations. Were these technologies capable of providing epistemic omnipotence, and were they concentrated upon the hands of such a secretive, cult-like few, would these be the consequences for our democracy and our individual freedoms? Relatedly, but on a more theological note, Devs (the Latin spelling of Deus, God) poses another set of questions, recently asked, among others, by Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: What would the so-called singularity imply for humanity? Will technological development turn us into gods, or rather, will technology itself emerge as a new, mechanical God?
In parallel to Devs’s social and religious echoes, the series is also worth examining for its reshaping of numerous SF motifs: for instance, the series presents Forest as a Silicon Valley Dr. Frankenstein, given his life-defining obsession with resurrecting his daughter Amaya through the Devs system. Devs thus re-imagines the Faustian-Promethean figure as an almighty capitalist entrepreneur, a high-tech guru of the twenty-first century. On another line of enquiry, lead character Lily and her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) are both constructed upon cyberorientalist stereotypes, given their racially marked, seemingly innate ability for mathematics and coding—although there is a degree of ambivalence in this. On the one hand, Lily and Jamie’s conformity to the stereotype could be said to reinforce cyberorientalism, but, on the other hand, there is a potential subversive quality to this, insofar as are Lily and Jamie dynamic, central characters, often with greater autonomy and self-awareness than their white counterparts.
Regarding visual aesthetics, Devs seems profoundly ironic, since the Devs system, the very source of the series’ anxieties and fears, is shown as a beautifully designed, temple-like workplace—a connotation that is reinforced by the solemn, religiously themed music. The secret facility is a magnetically levitated, perfectly geometrical cube, with an organically shaped, tree-like computer at its core: a symmetrical machine, made of gold-seeming materials, with a “steampunk-ish” look. It is in this aspect that Devs seems to ironically juxtapose its dystopian discourse with a utopian-seeming, awe-provoking setting—an aspect in which it may be comparable to the ambivalent aesthetics of Zamyatin’s We. Moreover, because of the series’ otherwise contemporary setting, it could also be argued that Devs blurs the limits of SF itself. Following Nilges’s “The Realism of Speculation” and his interpretation of Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, I would contend that Devs seems symptomatic of a certain conflation of cyberpunk and realism within the context of a highly speculative, future oriented economy. In other words, because of the logics of contemporary surveillance capitalism, the series explores a classic cyberpunk theme—namely, the emergence of a sharply technocratic, extremely unequal society—without extrapolating towards the future, but by (so to speak) “extrapolating into” the present’s logics.
Finally, the series can also be scrutinised as an overtly self-reflexive narrative. In a medium-specific sense, the Devs machine is ostensibly cinematic, the source of an endless stream of audio-visual materials, and its designers and supervisors are its constant spectators, especially the obsessively voyeuristic and nostalgic Forest. Moreover, in a genre-specific manner, the machine is also a machine for extrapolation: it is a reflection of the very mode of fiction that imagines it, although one that, contra SF, seems to seal off the possibility of alternative futures. In these ways, Devs’s pondering of free will may be linked back to a timeless metafictional and existential question, repeatedly asked by numberless time-travel and SF narratives: can the future (and the present) be changed, or is it already predetermined? Although this is absolutely not a new question, the series’ merit is to ask it in an entertaining televisual format which does not renounce provoking critical reflections on the power of surveillance capitalism. Hence, media and SF scholars, as well as sociologists, theologians and philosophers, could take Devs as a fruitful ground for reflection.
Gibson, William. Pattern Recognition. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Vintage, 2016.
Nilges, Mathias. “The Realism of Speculation. Contemporary Speculative Fiction as Immanent Critique of Finance Capitalism.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 19, no. 1, 2019, pp. 37-59.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 1924. Translated by Clarence Brown, Penguin Books, 1993.