We all love the Internet, right? But we also know how addictive and dangerous it can be when put in the hands of an impressionable teenager, or a moron who intends to exploit other users.
Described by Julian Assange as "the biggest spying machine ever created", the Internet is placed under director Beeban Kidron’s microscope in her compelling and topical documentary InRealLife. We spoke to the filmmaker about Facebook addiction, regulating sites like Twitter, and her hopes of getting teenagers angry about being manipulated.
GFW: You start the film by talking about always seeing teens with electronic devices in their hands. Is that what inspired the project?
Beeban Kidron: No, I was actually sat in my kitchen [laughs]...The Smartphone was the game-changer. What was on the shelf, on the desk, became ubiquitous. It was sort of in my peripheral vision; one day I walk in the kitchen, there are six kids there: one on a game, one on a computer, four on a server. And I’m looking, I’m sort of standing at the threshold – I am a director, let’s face it – and I'm like, What’s wrong with this picture? There’s something wrong. And I realise they’re not speaking. It wasn’t like, Oh my God they’re not speaking, you know, it was more, That’s interesting. Is this what they mean by the generation of digital native, the digital immigrant? I was more curious like that and I thought, Does it make you different?
There’s a sense of teens being permanently connected. How did you approach the subject as an older woman?
I started reading what people had written, you know, there's the utopians on one hand, there’s the detractors on the other ... then I did what I always do when I start making a documentary, which is I went on the street with my camera. I’d stop kids on the street and I’d go, What’s the best thing about the internet? What’s the worst? How would you feel if it switched off? And they would always go, I’D DIE! [laughs] I’D DIE! …So it wasn’t sort of minor, it was impassioned, it was loss: 'I’d be sad, I wouldn’t know what to do, I’d be bored'; And I thought, Gosh, this isn’t a world that’s really with them, this isn’t a choice ... it’s like life itself would end [for them].
Have you tried Facebook and Twitter yourself?
Oh yeah! And ChatRoulette and porn sites and everything, you name it, I’m right there, what do you want?
And could you see that addiction from their point of view?
Completely. To be absolutely frank, my thing is not Twitter, is not Facebook. I have a very young sister who put me on Facebook and everybody I’d ever met in my life wanted to befriend me in 24 hours. I was so horrified about hurting anybody’s feelings by not friending them that I didn’t friend anybody. I deleted it, and that was me on Facebook, all done. But it’s not like, I don’t like Facebook therefore it’s a bad thing, you know, I like all sorts of things. I love Skype – that’s pretty epic – I think flash mobs are just glorious (particularly ones where people come together and eat ice cream as a social protest and the police don’t know who to arrest); I think Wikipedia is a work of art, you know, there’s so much that’s good, but that’s not the point. All that glitters is not gold ... here’s the rub: even you, being much, much younger than me (half my age, I’m sure), even you have got a before, you’ve got a memory of what it is to say, I’ll meet you in Leicester Square at 3pm next Tuesday.
Under the clock.
Under the clock. And actually have a fair amount of certainty that that person will be there.
One teen says that the Internet – porn sites in particular – has ruined the whole sense of love. Would you agree?
Well, I mean if he says so then yes indeed! I think the porn thing is really interesting because it’s always cast in this very high moral tone and I really don’t think that’s the issue, and I’m really not a prude. If I’m absolutely frank, I am surprised at how shocked everybody is by this scene. I’ve seen much worse [laughs]. But I think the problem about porn is twofold. One is that if you think of porn as a learning tool; that is to say an unmediated space where young people are learning everything about sex for the first time and that porn is designed for the adult male, and it’s deliberately transgressive. It’s what you don’t get at home, is the idea of porn. And so the problem is, if your entry level is this hardcore stuff with its 80 per cent of porn is violent, it misrepresents the sexual norm among adults; it [the Internet] has very, very bad ideas about consent. This means, what you think is normal and what you think is adult from a very young age is quite distorted.
What worries me even more – which never comes into the conversation – is that young women are measuring their bodies against porn star bodies. So if that young boy says, 'Oh yeah, those are perfect tits', and I’m looking at two blow-up jobs, then that young woman is meeting his expectation or even her expectation, and she's suddenly looking down and going, Where are mine? But I don’t take a moral position; I do believe that teenagers will have sex, I do believe that they are sexually interested and curious; I do believe that many of us went to our parents’ copy of 'The Joy of Sex' just to see a little bit of what was going on.
So what would be your solution?
Well, one woman and one documentary ain’t gonna solve the world ... I think the bottom line is this: I’m very, very interested in looking at the whole anonymity issue on the net, the culture of anonymity; I think there’s a lot of work one can do about that. I think age verification is something that’s worked very well around gambling; that’s a much better way than cutting things off. Sure it won’t work for everyone but if it works for 90 per cent, why not? I think actually where we want to regulate if we’re going to regulate is that they can’t use data of people who haven’t reached an age of maturity. And that would be interesting, immediately, because it would pull some interesting things in. And I think both we as consumers and we as individuals have to use our consumer power (like they did on Twitter around the rape threats) we have to use it and say, Come on, guys, if you know I want to buy a blue kettle, you can work out where the predator lives. Give me a break. It cannot be that they know absolutely everything about everyone and then they know nothing about anyone.
I want to live with the Internet, don’t get me wrong, this could be brilliant, but we were promised open, non-hierarchical, small networks, interconnected, and free and democratic, and we got this huge concentration of power, all about the monetisation, and it ain’t democratic…
Perhaps the scariest aspect of the Internet that you present is the idea that Google knows you better than your own mother. Do you think we’re living in a new kind of Big Brother era?
Well, it’s funny because I really was going to have a look at this, and I looked at all the dystopian movies – you know, 1984, I read Brave New World – and then I woke up laughing, which is actually a very pleasurable thing to do, because I realised what movie we’re in, and it’s The Truman Show, and the way that the wife who’s in on it makes him breakfast and then shows the cereal packet to the camera as a sort of internal advert, and he doesn’t realise he’s in a world that’s mediated, and then when he does he realises there’s an absolute edge to it. And I think this is the thing. We are living in The Truman Show, and anyone who says we’re getting services for free is absolutely insane, because how can it be that they gather all our data, sell it to third parties, make billions of dollars, and then someone says it’s free, and obviously it’s not free and it’s all about the advertising. So I think we are living in The Truman Show, and I think that that was a very good movie to just sort of bring a little bit of consciousness to us and say that we could perhaps live in a different world.
I thought it was interesting how you filmed what goes on behind the surface of the Internet - all the wires. What was your biggest discovery in doing this?
Well this is shaming because my biggest discovery was that it was in wires! I thought it was in the sky, in ‘the cloud’, you know, in the satellites and so on. I think it’s both a fact and a metaphor. I thought it was really important that people see if it’s a visceral thing that someone owns and it goes somewhere … you can look behind the green curtain and realise we can do something.
Some people might be surprised to hear that you directed a Bridget Jones movie. Are there any similarities between your approach in documentary and fiction?
Probably both my actors and the interviewees say it’s like having a session with a shrink [laughs]. So that’s a big similarity. I think in both I do try and talk about the world we live in. I loved that Bridget Jones was this person that the whole world had taken on; the idea that women in Korea felt like they identified as well as women in London as well as women in New York; it was a huge cultural thing to be part of the Bridget Jones machine. Truthfully, I’m sure I would have had a very different career if I had just polished one idea – romcom romcom romcom – but in a way this suits me. I’ve had that experience, I’ve been to Hollywood and back, I’ve played with a crane ... For me it’s about discovering the world, talking about the world, and making sure the conversations we have in public are the right conversations.
What would you hope a teen would take away from watching your film?
The main thing I hope is that there’s a sort of consciousness, that what they get is, it’s not a level playing field: algorithms and engineers are not necessarily neutral, and that they have to make personal choices over how they use their devices. And I suppose as part of that I would hope they get a little bit angry about being manipulated and say, Actually, no, I don’t want free for my soul, I want either free or I wanna pay for it or I wanna have a fair exchange that does not mean that everything that is important and personal for me is not just data for someone else.
'InRealLife' is released in UK cinemas this Friday. The film just premiered at TIFF and should be heading to Canadian cinemas early next year.
For more info on the film, head over to inreallifefilm.com
All images via Dogwoof