Our relationship to technology is ever-changing. We’ve come increasingly aware of the fact that machines, with their enhanced capabilities, may rob us of our humanity as we become increasingly dependent on them. But only the awareness has changed; the historical paradigm remains the same. Sadly, director Avi Zev Weider is too busy freaking out about technology, and looking for smart people to confirm his fears. His documentary, Welcome to the Machine, buries a thoughtful examination of our current relationship to technology within a sprawling mess of interviews, concepts, and apprehension. Weider occasionally manages to raise some interesting questions, but all of his inquiries arise out of fear, not curiosity. And in his fear, he avoids thoughtful discussion and takes time to consider the opinions of madmen.
Welcome to the Machine barely has any structure or organization. Weider flips between topics seemingly at random, and uses a few settings as his anchors. The director spends time with a military training camp for soldiers using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a blind man who has partially regained his sight through use of a technological implant, and Weider’s personal story about his premature triplets and the stress of being a new parent. These human-interest stories attempt to provide an emotional core to a movie filled with talking heads discussing the impact of technology on our society, our personalities, and our future.
Weider has built himself a cheap and ugly shield from criticism by using the birth of his triplets as cover for his sloppy documentary. At first, his interest in technology seems genuine since he and his wife needed in-vitro fertilization to become pregnant, and the pre-mature birth of their children required that the infants be kept alive with machines in order to survive early development. As a worried father, Weider reflexively asks if they used technology to break the laws of nature and that his kids will live or die by technology. This fear spirals out of control as Weider blames the repercussions of technology on his kids’ fragile health. However, while he wraps his concern in flowery, emo narration, Weider fails to realize that his fears have nothing to do with technology. His anxieties are normal for new parents. While he may have vague fears about the future of his children and how they’ll be impacted by the rapid pace of technology, he’s too blind to see that he’s misplaced his fears onto technology rather than accepting that he feels the same concerns of every parent. Some parents are worried about crime, some parents are worried about culture, and some are worried about technology. The root fear is still the same: wanting one’s children to survive and be happy.
His misplaced fear diminishes the thoughtful examination of technological advancement and his excuse of a documentary feels like a hypochondriac clicking through WebMD for confirmation of his symptoms. Weider spends far more time with those who fear technology’s impact on our society rather than those who are optimistic and excited for what the future holds. To Weider’s credits, his interviews manage to yield some thoughtful topics for discussion. One MIT professor raises the point of differentiating between technology that does things for us and technology that does things to us. Sadly, there’s no organization to his film and so no point really takes hold. Every worthwhile point is carelessly dropped into a stew of other interviews, miscellaneous arguments, and various subjects.
This approach includes Weider’s look at the technology that helps a blind man to see, and to soldiers who are trained to use UAVs. Combined with the ordeal of Weider’s children, the movie makes an obvious juxtaposition regarding technology’s ability to control life and death. Stangely, Weider seems to think that this is a recent phenomenon. He can’t pinpoint when technology has spiraled out of control, but he expects us to be awed by technology like the tech-eye and UAVs. And you will be awed if you have no understanding of history. We’re meant to be horrified at how technology has made soldiers so distant from the battlefield, but that distance has always existed. Since the introduction of firearms in warfare, soldiers have fired blindly and hoped they hit their target. They didn’t have to look their enemy in the eye. With UAVs, the bullet just travels farther now.
There’s also an unsettling religious theme littered throughout the picture. Weider mistakes literary analysis for historical evidence when he points to biblical moments like Adam being instructed by God to till the Garden of Eden, and God’s destruction of the Tower of Babel. As you may or may not be aware, the Bible is open to interpretation, but Weider can’t even competently state his interpretation. He lilts towards the notion of intelligent design, but the introduction of religion seems like another desperate element thrown carelessly into Weider’s confusion.
There’s no method to the madness and Welcome to the Machine features plenty of madness. Because Weider is ultimately looking for a confirmation of his fears rather than a consideration, he devotes a disgusting about of time to David Skrbina, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. Skrbina is a disciple of Ted Kaczynski, aka “The Unabomber”. For those who are unfamiliar with Kaczynski, he was a neo-Luddite terrorist who sent mail bombs to his victims, and penned a manifesto about his fight against the rise of technology in post-modern soceity. Skrbina believes Kaczynski to be a revolutionary who will be vindicated within the next ten years.
To even consider the ravings of a madman speaks to Weider’s despicable desperation. Calling Kaczynski “insane” isn’t a dismissal. After he was captured, he was diagnosed as insane. Furthermore, Kaczynski’s plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. If he were truly a “revolutionary”, he would have been willing to die for his beliefs. If he’s truly sane, then he’s a coward, and if he’s insane, then he’s irrational. Either way, Weider has no business giving a murderer one second of consideration. But Weider took the time to write letters to Kaczynski, and then the director devotes time to reading the terrorist’s replies. In a darkly comic moment, Kaczynski dismisses Skrbina’s interpretation of the manifesto, so to recap: Weider spends at least twenty minutes talking to a guy who loves the philosophy of a lunatic and even the lunatic thinks the guy is wrong.
Welcome to the Machine brings up some fascinating ideas, but it’s more by accident than design. Most of the time, it’s a rambling train of terrified thought that quickly goes off the rails and crashes into some simpleminded and sometimes truly ugly ideas that Weider can’t seem to comprehend. Our relationship with technology is always fascinating, urgent, and worthy of conversation, but Welcome to the Machine is too panicked and scared to be an intelligent participant.
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