Past, present, future – traveling in time, changing perspectives, and imagining. I remember watching Back to the Future II and discussing with my father that it is very unlikely we will be able to have video-calls in our lifetime. Now, along with smartphones, automatic cashiers, talking gadgets, and many other technological innovations, it is a reality. If the transformation continues at this pace, the kids of today will inhabit a completely different world in a matter of decades.
Mexican director Natalia Almada addresses these questions in her visually stunning documentary Users. She combines the universal and the personal – questioning technological progress and meditating on her own role as a mother in a rapidly changing world.
In 1978, Latvian-born director Herz Frank made a remarkable documentary Ten Minutes Older. He observes the faces of preschool children watching a puppet show. One continuous shot captures the full gamut of a child’s emotional experiences. Natalie Almada also focuses her attention on children’s faces. Be it a smart crib automatically rocking a baby to sleep, or a young boy’s face lit by a computer screen – the children are in contact with technological innovations from the very start.
In what kind of world will these children live as grown-ups? Natalie meditates on the possible scenarios for tomorrow. The audience is introduced to a futuristic story telling a fairytale about the past when parents could not choose their children’s sex, and mothers needed to push babies out of their wombs and feed them from their own bodies. What will food production, energy consumption and human interaction look like?
In what kind of world will these children live as grown-ups?
The current advances in biomedicine make me think not only about the world transforming around present-day children but also about their very bodies. Will the body we’re seeing on the screen now be a human or a post-human body 30 years later? If machines become more like humans, will humans become more like machines? German philosopher and psychotherapist Erich Fromm has once said, «the danger of the past was that men became slaves; the danger of the future is that men may become robots». In his bestsellers like Homo Deus, Israeli superstar philosopher Yuval Noah Harari also predicts the transformation of the human being into a superhuman.
Present-day decisions are often marked with hashtags and slogans «trust the science». Nevertheless, science has many faces, many disciplines, and involves a lot of unknown factors. It might seem rational to insert a microchip into a human body measuring blood level, temperature, or the presence of certain viruses in order to detect and treat potential illnesses early. However, inserting such a device into one’s body is still a taboo for many, because, along with the protection, it could make a person vulnerable to surveillance.
On the other hand, society has already accepted feeding technical companies with our personal data in exchange for 24-hour entertainment on our smartphones, tablets, and computers. The Netflix audience hit Social Dilemma demonstrates how social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others are designed to make their users addicted and to collect their data. And yet, even such a powerful red flag is not enough to change most of the addicts’ behaviour.
Users combines the hypnotic faces of children with visually impressive landscape shots. Image composition, camera perspectives and editing are used in a similar manner as in the extraordinary documentary trilogy Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi by Godfrey Reggio and Baraka by Ron Fricke.
The sound and visuals offer a perfectly controlled, almost entrancing experience. The music score by Kronos Quartet and flutist Claire Chase becomes an irreplaceable component of the overall atmosphere. Everything moves at the right speed; everything sounds like from another world. The shots are clean, no unneeded details are seen. The only moment when the visuals of the film turn a bit dirty is an underwater shot revealing a gigantic cable carrying our digital data. The hidden cable makes the today’s world possible; the computers transfer memories into data.
Unlike Reggio’s and Fricke’s documentaries, which rely on visuals and music only, Users employs voice-over. The imperfection and inconsistency of the off-screen narration makes the film more humanly accessible. It becomes a visually impressive notebook combining associative ideas, experiences, fears and questions. The fires of today and the industries of tomorrow, the children of today, the grown-ups of tomorrow, the breastfeeding of today, the artificial wombs of tomorrow.
Technological innovation can lead to both utopia and dystopia. It can be utopia for some and dystopia for others. Natalia Almada invites us to contemplate and fantasise about the possibilities of tomorrow. Can we still influence the course of today – before political discussions are replaced by the algorithms of tomorrow?