Silicon Valley as Cult? Mystifying and Demystifying Surveillance Capitalism in Alex Garland’s Devs (2020)


SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 4

Selected SFRA 2021 Papers


Silicon Valley as Cult? Mystifying and Demystifying Surveillance Capitalism in Alex Garland’s Devs (2020)

Miguel Sebastián-Martín

In an old essay that speaks very directly to the purposes of this panel, [1] sf writer and critic Joanna Russ warned us:

Hiding greyly behind that sexy rock star, technology is a much more sinister and powerful figure. It is the entire social system that surrounds us, hence the sense of being at the mercy of an all-encompassing, autonomous process which we cannot control. If you add the monster’s location in time (during and after the industrial revolution), I think you can see what is being discussed when most people say technology. They are politically mystifying a much bigger monster: capitalism in its advanced industrial phase. … It is because technology is a mystification for something else that it becomes a kind of autonomous deity which can promise both salvation and damnation. (246-47)

Russ was clear enough about the mystifying potential of technology –insisting that we avoid its fetishism so as to re-consider it critically. But to what extent do sf creators and critics remember this in the so-called age of surveillance capitalism? To what extent do we keep mystifying, and to what extent do we keep a critical distance from contemporary technologies? In this paper, I propose the ideological and aesthetic ambivalence of Alex Garland’s Devs (2020), an sf series which both demystifies and re-mystifies the world of Silicon Valley. But what is that world? What is surveillance capitalism, the central object of cognitive estrangement in Devs?

If that concept is now so popular, it is in a large part because of Shoshana Zuboff’s bestseller critique The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), which theorises and historicises a new phase of capitalism based on the commodification of behavioural data. Although this lengthy study is “somewhat Marxish” in Rob Lucas’s words (132)—in the sense that it presents itself as a moderately anti-capitalist critique of the “rogue capitalism” of digital platforms—it seems that is as much a critique as it is a symptom of the hegemony of surveillance capitalism.  As elaborated in Cory Doctorow’s heretic sequel How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (2021), Zuboff’s critique in many ways conforms to a common-sense “technological exceptionalism” which hinders a full demystification of this mode of capitalism. [2] In fact, in Zuboff’s monograph, one can observe an unjustified lenience—and sometimes reverence—towards Apple, [3] as well as, perhaps more importantly, an overestimation of the manipulative influence of these kinds of corporations. Under the hegemony of technological exceptionalism, even expert critics seem to share one core belief with surveillance capitalist corporations: the belief that, as Doctorow ironically puts it, “if you collect enough data, you will be able to perform sorcerous acts of mind control” (n.p.). Extrapolating from that belief, many claim that we are on the verge of a threatening singularity, even speculating that free will shall be forever lost once corporations develop the technology to predict and predetermine individual decisions. [4] Therefore, if this critical discourse can be called anti-capitalist at all, it is perhaps only so in an extremely deterministic, mechanistic manner—anti-capitalist in a manner that rules out the possibility of resistance against almighty capitalist technologies supposedly capable of infiltrating our minds. Even though these ideas raise critical questions and fuel antagonism towards the surveillance capitalist god, they seem to imply that, in the end, we cannot escape from under the new god’s omniscience and omnipotence: that it would be futile to “seize the means of computation,” as Doctorow invites us to do (n.p.). In these ways, much of the discourse on surveillance capitalism in fact re-mystifies as much as it demystifies, since it is overestimating and even deifying the power of the system. But what is the relevance of these polemics for Alex Garland’s series? My argument is that the show both exposes and deepens these ambivalences, illustrating how, as Joel Dinerstein says, “technology is the American theology” (569).

Against the discursive background on surveillance capitalism, plot-wise Devs focuses upon a top-secret R&D group of Amaya, a fictional San Franciscan corporation. It characterises that group as a tech-fetishistic, cult-like community that is building a supercomputer capable of predicting in all directions of time-space, a project aptly named DEVS—Latin for God. Narrated primarily from the perspective of Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a mathematician at Amaya whose boyfriend was killed after an attempted leak of information about DEVS, the series follows her trying to infiltrate and sabotage the project. In so doing, her goal is to get the justice that she couldn’t get against such a powerful company, one with massive resources and close ties to the state apparatus. [5] In these ways at least, the series positions itself as a classic dystopian narrative, focused on the futile rebellion of a powerless individual against an almighty socio-technological apparatus—but does Lily’s anti-capitalist struggle mean that the series on the whole functions as an allegorical anti-capitalist critique? A priori, it would seem that Garland’s show is (potentially) the locus of a critique of “capitalism as religion,” à la Walter Benjamin, since it imagines a surveillance capitalist corporation as “a pure religious cult” where “everything only has meaning in direct relation to the cult: it knows no special dogma nor theology” (Benjamin 259). 

Obsessed as Amaya’s developers are with engineering a computer God, this cult-like, top-secret group shows absolute devotion towards their creation. Especially once it seems to function, they all begin to believe that the universe must be predetermined, necessarily conforming to the computer’s data-driven extrapolations and audio-visual recreations. Fascinated by these recreations in particular—and notably, by reconstructed images of Christ’s crucifixion—these developers are turned from god-like creators into the passive spectators of their creation. They, and especially CEO Forest (Nick Offerman), often behave like fanatical believers, willing to protect their sacred object at whatever cost. As Marx might have said, these people (if not all of us under capitalism) are now unknowingly ruled by their own creations, since they fetishize the computer as a godlike entity, totally independent of human will. Moreover, the series masterfully highlights the characters’ devotion towards the computer with lengthy contemplative shots of their “sacred” facility, and this beautiful cinematography is accompanied by a haunting, quasi-religious musical score—all of which invites viewers to understand and even share the characters’ enthrallment. In these ways, surveillance capitalism is blatantly exposed as the fanatical cult of a sublime technological power and, at the same time, its technological apparatus is re-mystified as an object of adoration and admiration. This is why I would classify this narrative as a paradigmatic example of what I have elsewhere called “the beautification of dystopias”—deeply ambivalent dystopias in which the object of critique and the object of pleasure are one and the same (cf. Sebastián-Martín). [6]

On another front, reading Devs as an anti-capitalist critique (even if an ambivalent one), would give us a convincing counter-argument against a very common objection raised about its supposed “flaws.” Against the claim that the series’ philosophical discourse is logically unsound, and hence not “proper” sf from a hard definition, [7] we could suggest that Devs’s characters are voicing a profoundly contradictory version of philosophical determinism because theirs is rather the pseudo-deterministic ideology of surveillance capitalism. In other words, theirs is not an attempt at theorising any form of determinism, but rather a sign of their commitment to the project of rendering the world controllable through data collection. In this sense, my assumption is that the series is both criticising and extrapolating from the counterfactual-but-popular belief that data-driven prediction can eventually become predetermination—a belief that obscures both the responsibilities of the minority in power and the potential agency of everyone else. As one developer tells the CEO character, “if DEVS works, determinism precludes free will; if it doesn’t, then you’re guilty [of murder and many other crimes]” (episode 5). And ultimately, the series seems to favour the conclusion that the world is not predetermined, but full of divergent potentialities, since the DEVS machine only works properly once it is re-coded upon a many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, a controversial theory that assumes that all possible measurements of quantum states are simultaneously real or true in some parallel universe. [8] Nonetheless, despite the fact that the DEVS computer works upon a many-world hypothesis, it continues to enforce one single predetermined future, which far from being a logical plot hole could be read as an illustration of how surveillance capitalist technologies are not designed to predict, but primarily to dominate by predetermination. Thus, even if surveillance capitalism (and its technologies) have to operate with an awareness of the diverging potentialities of time-space, they nonetheless operate as a repressive totalising force that disavows those alternative futures. [9]

Taking such an interpretive path could at least make us suspect that Devs’s seemingly contradictory treatment of quantum physics is probably not a mere plot hole, or maybe even convince us of the de-mystifying intent of the series, given how it apparently exposes surveillance capitalism as a corporate environment inherently bent towards total techno-domination –or at least, in a more modest conclusion, towards a more entrenched monopoly power. But does the series really favour this critical, demystifying conclusion, shifting blame away from mystified techno-divine powers and placing the focus on the politics of surveillance capitalist corporations? By way of conclusion, we should observe how the series’ ending re-introduces a set of ambiguities, especially through its re-evocation of religious iconography and symbolism, and its character-centric individualistic narrative. In the finale, Lily dies after falling into the facility’s security vacuum, and Amaya’s CEO, Forest, dies of asphyxia with her. Here, the crucial detail is that Lily, willingly and knowingly, contradicts the computer’s prediction of that moment—and this could suggest that individual agency can after all subvert technological power; that surveillance capitalism’s data-driven domination can never be total. However much distorted and disempowered, free will and individual power is thus shown to persist, but there is further ambivalence in the narrative denouement. 

After death, Lily and Forest are uploaded into a virtual simulacrum of reality run by the DEVS supercomputer: an alternate reality where they can reunite with their deceased relatives and partners. Leaving aside the myriad readings of this world as a digital or postmodern simulacrum, my assumption is that this re-opens the field of interpretation, and perhaps can serve as the starting point of further debate. According to Walter Benjamin’s reading of capitalism as a religion, Löwy explains that it would appear “the only salvation consists in the intensification of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities [or, in this case, data]; but this remedy results only in the aggravation of despair” (68). From this perspective, we could ask: Is Devs suggesting, in a critical way, that surveillance capitalists (like Forest) are false prophets that re-appropriate religious anxieties for purposes of domination, or is Devs also suggesting, in a re-mystifying way, that technology will nonetheless, in divine, mysterious ways, eventually deliver us a digital utopia? And more generally, we could also ask: Does Devs function as a critical dystopia that rekindles transformative hopes for the present historical moment, or does it function as an anti-utopia that reinforces what we could call “surveillance-capitalist realism”? Personally, I believe that the series’ ideological ambivalence merits a deeper analysis than what could be sketched in this paper. Indeed, Amaya’s CEO Forest may be clearly exposed as a high-tech false prophet, but he is nonetheless a successful entrepreneur who, despite his fanatical immorality, ultimately manages to construct a heavenly virtual afterlife that compensates for the valley of tears that can be life under capitalism. But of course, the series ends showing another character’s concerned gesture while watching the simulacrum from the DEVS computer screen. Thus, considering that gesture, we may also ask ourselves: Will this really prove to be a digital utopia, or will it merely be surveillance capitalism’s gilded cage? De-mystification, or so it appears, is in Devs inseparable from re-mystification.

NOTES

[1] This paper, with added explanatory footnotes and slightly adapted in response to questions raised by the audience at the SFRA 2021 Conference, was originally delivered within the panel “Technologies and Capitalism,” on June 19, 2021.

[2] Doctorow uses the term “technological exceptionalism” to refer to the over-estimation of surveillance capitalist technological power: an implicit ideological assumption that the dynamics of surveillance capitalism are essentially derived from technological innovations, whereas, in fact, many dynamics cohere with neoliberal and capitalist tendencies which are autonomous of technological developments. Using one of Doctorow’s clever puns, the growth of Big Tech is inseparable from “the growth of Big Inequality” (n.p.)

[3] Zuboff is lenient towards Apple because the company does not incorporate advertising in its platforms in the ways that other companies do (which is central in her critique of and indignation towards surveillance capitalism), but we should remember that this does not exonerate Apple’s monopolistic and exploitative practices, which are arguably much more harmful and serious than being eye-bombarded with unwanted ads.

[4] Of course, assuming that predetermination is technologically possible is entirely counterfactual, but “Big Tech has been so good at marketing its own supposed superpowers” that many (including critics) are led to overestimate their capacities if they take their marketing literature and patent filings at face value (cf. Doctorow).

[5] In an allegorically obvious manner, Amaya clearly stands as a (potentially) critical analogue of real surveillance capitalist corporations (the so-called FAANG oligopoly), since it illustrates how tolerance towards monopolistic practices and government-industry revolving doors generate hypertrophied companies like Amaya that feel entitled to act beyond justice.

[6] It is important to clarify that, in proposing the notion of “beautified dystopias,” my intention is neither to reject the ideologically ambiguous character of such dystopias nor to dismiss them as pure re-mystifications, but to theorise them dialectically. Even though “beautified dystopias can (unwittingly or not, in excess to authorial intention or not) present sociopolitical dystopian scenarios under a positive, consolatory light,” they also “seem capable of self-consciously thematizing Benjamin’s maxim that ‘there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (1969, 256)” (Sebastián-Martín 290). My assumption here is therefore that Devs should be not rejected for its ideological ambivalence, but rather valued for thematising such ambivalence in a non-Manichean manner.

[7] Taking IMDB user reviews as a sample, one can find claims that “this is not science fiction” because it is “full of logical holes” (griper), that it is a “Failed attempt at deep sci fi” (pandrews2104), or that is an “Anemic quasi-philosophical let down that looked promising” (martin-tosterud).

[8] Cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a general-interest definition of the theory.

[9] For these discussions of quantum physics (which are an addition to the paper originally read at the conference) I am indebted to Steven Shaviro’s thoughtful questions during the panel, who encouraged me to speculate upon the significance of Devs’s references to the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics within the context of Devs’s (and other texts’) critiques of the capitalist drive towards totalisation and/or (in Marxist terms) real subsumption.

WORKS CITED

Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion.” The Frankfurt School on Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, Routledge, 2005, pp. 259–62.

Bukatman, Scott. “The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema, edited by Annette Kuhn, Verso, 1999, pp. 249–75.

“Devs (TV Mini Series 2020) – Devs (TV Mini Series 2020) – User Reviews – IMDb.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8134186/reviews?ref_=tt_urv.

Dinerstein, Joel. “Technology and Its Discontents.” American Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 3, 2006, pp. 569–95.

Doctorow, Cory. How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. Medium Editions, 2021. https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59.

Löwy, Michael. “Capitalism as Religion: Walter Benjamin and Max Weber.” Historical Materialism, vol. 17, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60–73.

Lucas, Rob. “The Surveillance Business.” New Left Review, vol. 121, 2020, pp. 132–41.

“Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Published Mar 24, 2002; revised Jan 17, 2014. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-manyworlds/ 

Russ, Joanna. “SF and Technology as Mystification.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 1978, pp. 250–60.

Sebastián-Martín, Miguel. “The Beautification of Dystopias across Media: Aesthetic Ambivalence from We to Black Mirror.” Utopian Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 2021, pp. 277-95.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. PublicAffairs, 2019.


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