There is a famous fight scene in John Carpenter’s iconic 1980s cult sci-fi film They Live that has to be the most over-egged conflict ever put to celluloid. The main character is a working-class guy called Nada, who is deeply frustrated by the injustice of being kept down by the white-collar workers who brush past him on their way to their daily grind.
One day, he discovers a pair of black sunglasses, puts them on and sees the world as it truly is: not in beautiful technicolour, but drab black and white, with billboards everywhere that are not advertising aspirational images, but words like ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’, ‘OBEY’, and ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’. The sunglasses reveal a plot to control the masses. Behind the plot are some of the white-collar workers – they are not humans, but grotesque aliens.
This is when the fight comes in. Nada tries to convince his buddy, Frank, to try on the glasses and see the truth behind the facade. But Frank refuses. Like, really refuses. They spend 10 of the 94 minutes of the movie physically beating the heck out of one another. “Put on the glasses!” “Take a look! Put ’em on!”. Nada is truly the world’s most persistent sunglasses salesman.
I unabashedly love this film. It represents the length we will go to ignore the fact that we are being sold desires and lifestyles that serve nobody except those who sell them. Nada desperately wants his friend to open his eyes. Frank stubbornly refuses to. They are both sides of us in our relationship with our technological world.
We have all been told a million times what the true price of free is. We know that our incredibly rich behavioural data is being sold by everyone who runs a web service to people who want to sell us stuff. It is written in black and white, but it’s covered up by filters that drive us to produce identities that never cry, always have amazing holidays and constantly consume.
Some people, though, want us to put on the sunglasses. I’m usually one of them, often on news programmes explaining tech companies’ loose interpretations of privacy. But as in Nada and Frank’s epic screen fight, talk doesn’t always hit home. Sometimes you have to force the glasses on.
Artist Ivan Cash’s interpretation of this mission is to block out screens entirely. He recently released his first batch of ‘IRL glasses’ that turn most digital displays black. Added bonus: they are designed to look like the glasses in They Live. But like my incessant talking, they aren’t the solution either. In the recent Crutch episode of Digital Human he says as much, describing the IRL glasses as a catalyst that he hopes will spark debate about the problem surrounding screens.
The Hollywood version of this story ends with the aliens being revealed to the rest of us. But in the real world version, we already know the aliens are there. And what happens after the credits roll? Well, that’s our sequel to write.