You are not a computer and you shouldn’t think like one

When Ted Hope recently took up a position at Fandor, he was quoted as saying that he wanted a ‘total systems reboot’ of the film industry. In his defence, he wasn’t happy with the metaphor and had asked for help just prior to the taking up the position. I’d written on Ted’s blog three years ago about the language we use for filmmaking (and on Randy Finch’s blog too), so I found the desire for a ‘total systems reboot’ an interesting one.

I have a terrible knowledge of computers, but I figure that a ‘systems reboot’ would result in us blindly restarting the same system in the hope that ‘switching it off and on again’ would fix the problem. I don’t think we want or need that, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Ted is searching for either.

What I found more interesting than the term ‘systems reboot’, was the fact that it was a computer analogy. I find this particularly fascinating because my research has centred around the impact of digital technology upon the filmmaking process for almost ten years. For example, I’m interested in how digital technology has changed the specificity of separate, exclusive technologies into one universal, ubiquitous technology.

Whereas there used to be typewriters, cameras and cutting tables, now they are all computers. With the loss of the specific technology comes the loss of specific identities also. It is currently common that new filmmakers consider themselves to be a scriptwriter, a camera person and an editor. It is compounded by the fact that digital technologies are mostly built on cheaper materials than the expensive silver halides that made celluloid so precious. Therefore the exclusivity and scarcity has been replaced by ubiquity and abundance. The exclusivity and expense of celluloid technology meant you needed to be a specialist to be entrusted with it. These specialists were all associated with specific parts of the filmmaking process and had job titles that reflected that position. A studio ‘system’ was born, with sub-divided skills. People would do one specific part of a much bigger production, and consider themselves in relation to the other parts. Most importantly, this system was hierarchical; a system where members are organised in relation to status or authority. It begs the question: if digitisation damages the specificity of the identities within the system, has the authority diminished alongside it?

It is the system that industry is currently trying to preserve, as the specific parts of the filmmaking process are entrenched. It is the same system that Ted’s reboot would find once we turned the computer on again. An example would be IMDb, where filmmakers can classify themselves along any predetermined titles that the spreadsheet will allow – director, producer, writer, actor etc. The hierarchy would most likely remain, built in exactly the same way that it is now.

And why? Because we are thinking like computers. We are using the conceptual tools and terminology of the Scientific Management movement, pushing systems, quantitive methodologies, rationality and logic. I have promoted this approach in the past, even through guest posts on Ted’s website. I value the scientific method as a tool of enquiry in the world. Yet scientific management, and the ‘optimisation of a system’ has problems and limitations too. For example; everyone is different: the most efficient way of working for one person may be inefficient for another. Designing models for repeatability and scalability is reaching its logical conclusion with the homogenous studio blockbuster fare that we are witnessing in the cinema. This is where the system leads to, devoid of all the qualities that make us humans in the first place.

Qualities not quantities. The indefinable, elusive complexity that cannot be measured. Humans are not computers. We are unique, complex beings, the culmination of our own individual experiences. We are surrounded by systems that are desperate to determine our personal metrics so that we can be quantified. Our age, our ethnicity, our sexual orientation. At any one time we most likely appear in a myriad of demographics and ‘target audiences’ (make sure your film appeals to all four quadrants!). In the face of the unquantifiable complexity of humanistic qualities we develop a simplistic, metaphorical, machine-like understanding of the world in which we live.

Yet, life will go on, and for as long as someone wants cinema, it will exist. The direction it takes next as a result of this paradigm shift may be the result of a human leap of incredible imagination and creativity (something the algorithms of computers have not yet perfected). It may appear as the result of a hideously complex mix of what is called ‘the right place at the right time’. It may have determinants that most likely involve economic, technological and social motivators. Then, as part of society’s way of synthesising the appearance of such a revelation, we will embed it within the simplified narrative that we call ‘history’, whereby it is presented as a cause of rational consequence and logic, and we’ll all be made to feel stupid for not thinking of it first.

You may feel like this notion robs us of any sense of agency or control over the outcome. Perhaps it does, but you can cling onto the fact that this is living, and life is at the mercy of luck, chance and unpredictable chaotic events. The best you can do is develop a skill for spotting opportunities and maximise your ability to exploit them. Some are already doing this.

So, what about Ted’s elusive metaphor for what the industry needs? ‘Reincarnation’ has the obvious and unfortunate connotations of spirituality, but the sense that it will exist, in some other shape, is personally preferable. Inherent in the metaphor is that it isn’t co-existent with the current structure. The new shape only emerges after the death of the previous being. I believe that ‘reincarnation’ also reconnects us with the unknowable uniqueness that cinema can be, insomuch that it should have never been considered a mass production product and that the current state of the ‘industry’ is precisely a result of considering itself an ‘industry’ in the first place, governed by the principles of scientific management and measured by the ultimate quantifier – profit.

Do I believe we need this ‘reincarnation’? Yes, but I don’t think we will have something so clear cut. I think we are already witnessing the new hierarchies emerge, and the power lies in much the same places that it did before; with corporations and companies. Their ‘sine qua non’ is the profit motive. Like Ted’s computer analogy, the company structure disregards all humanistic qualities in favour of the profit margin. Yes, they can have ethical considerations (e.g; fair-trade) but the purpose is to make money. If this is to be the primary function of any new model, I predict it’s outcome will be the same as we have now – death to anything that doesn’t make money, a migration of skills to the activities that do make money.

However, what if the primary function was perhaps something else? Like empowerment, social cohesion, self representation of minorities? Are there other intangible qualities in cinema, that people value, that they may also be willing to pay for? I don’t think we need a ‘system reboot’ or a ‘reincarnation’, just a ‘re-imagining’. Not a mechanistic future or a spiritual future, just a human one.

James

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One thought on “You are not a computer and you shouldn’t think like one

  1. The exclusivity and expense of celluloid technology meant you needed to be rich. Period. You could be a complete idiot with a piece of crap project. But if you had money it would fly. The same still applies.

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