Instructions for Humans interlude: Project Oversight
After a fairly intense couple of weeks I finally had a day off on Monday and decided to veg and watch a stupid movie. My stupid movie genre of choice these days is the Marvel Cinematic Universe which have a nice mix of earnest nonsense and knowing humour. I settled on the 9th in the series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I remember enjoying at the time as a superior iteration of the genre. I wasn’t expecting to find a really useful metaphor for my work in it though.
Now, a lot of the current show is about embracing bias as a means to critique it, so when I find myself succumbing to it it’s not a surprise and kinda interesting. Like the legendary 23, I’m going to see data surveillance issues in everything at the moment. But this one was worth noting.
The driving plot of the film concerns a new surveillance system developed by super-spy agency SHIELD. This draws on a Prism-style database of information about everyone in the world, fed through a AI which determines who The Bad Guys are, so they can be taken out before they do harm. Nice bit of predictive policing, carefully contained within the safeguards of The Good Guys, of whom Captain America is a part.
Of course this being a big dumb action movie “taken out” means shot by one of three massive flying aircraft carrier gunships from low orbit, but we can let that slide.
Cap plays an interesting role in these films. Having been frozen alive since 1945 he’s a stranger in a strange land and is therefore able to questions the norms the have emerged in American society, as espoused by our hero good spy Nick Fury, here taking the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” position of every UK Home Secretary.
Cap takes on the role of a warning from history. Not a nostalgic “things were better then” but a “we had a war over this and it wasn’t nice”. There’s a nuanced argument hiding there that the “greatest generation” saved civilisation not from an outside enemy but from itself, which is then made blatant when it turns out SHIELD has been infiltrated since the very beginning by HYDRA, the Nazi science devision who the American’s integrated into their programmes in the 50s.
The big lesson from this seems to be to be wary of the origins of systems of control and power. When a tool comes to you, look at how it was programmed, what its intention was. Can something made for evil be repurposed for good?
The vehicle for that lesson in this case is data surveillance. The AI powering this new profiling system was built by a HYDRA scientist (who, of course, copied his brain and is the AI, because we can’t be too subtle here) which presumably is capturing data in much the same way Facebook, Google or the NSA might. We can argue that we don’t have to worry too much about those organisations as they’re not Nazis and just need decent oversight. But what if that oversight is corrupt? What if our systems enable evil to get in?
President Trump was not even on the radar when this film came out. That’s some prescient shit going on there.
Now, big stupid movies often wrap their plots around the issues of the day, and that means data surveillance these days; I often invoke the Gods Eye plot from Fast & Furious 7 as a classic of the genre where the shock of invasive technology is invoked purely to push the plot forward. I’d put Captain America in that category too, but on rewatching it I think this is the best illustration of the potential abuses of power in a data-harvesting age that we have. And that’s kinda awesome, but also a bit tragic, because no-one’s going to take a superhero movie seriously.
If you’ve seen a good, accessible summary of these issues in popular media, do let me know. I’m intrigued by how it’s done.