What Blade Runner 2049 says about quitting social media
Do Androids tweet electric hot takes?
Good manners compel me to warn you that the following blog references major plot details from both Blade Runner films. Yes, they’ve been out a while, but it’s never too late to see what all the fuss is about.
I’ll be venturing into the cinema for a second time during the pandemic era (we ain’t post-pandemic yet, hun) to see Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune. In preparation for this I am burning through Frank Herbert’s novel again so that I can experience the appropriate sense of disappointment. Dune will not be my point of focus today, I will instead be reflecting on my current Twitter detox while remembering Villeneuve’s previous film, Blade Runner 2049.
A sequel that nobody asked for, Blade Runner 2049 came out to rapturous critical notices and underwhelming box office returns. While it was by no means a financial disaster, nobody is expecting a third instalment, though some of us may be asking for it very quietly. Villeneuve himself recently voiced his own astonishment that Blade Runner 2049 hadn’t sunk his career completely. Much like how Ridley Scott was able to return to make big budget cinema after the failure of the original Blade Runner, Villeneuve’s release of Dune (with the sequel green-lit already) is a good example of how failing upward can sometimes be a good thing.
Two films for two ages of anxiety
The original Blade Runner dealt with anxieties that are synonymous with the 20th Century — the crisis of the human soul in the midst of an overwhelming naturalist ontology. In Scott’s adaption of Philip K Dick’s original vision, not only had technological progress forced most of humanity to abandon the earth for other worlds, advances in artificial life had also put paid to any notions of human exceptionalism. While Harrison Ford’s Deckard was presented as the protagonist, his character was more of a witness to unfolding events, with Rutger Haur’s Roy Batty and Sean Young’s Racheal providing the more compelling arcs. Both characters are forced into awakenings throughout the course of the two hours. Racheal learns that she is a replicant, an artificial life form created by the Tyrell corporation, and that the memories that bedrock her identity are the embedded memories of Eldon Tyrell’s niece. Faced with the truth that the story of her life is in fact someone else’s story, Racheal resigns herself to finding meaning via an unconvincing romance subplot with Deckard. Roy Batty, on the other hand, is Neiztsche’s ubermench/superman running rampant with the goal of extending his three-year lifespan — murdering his father/maker Tyrell when he can only offer platitudes (“the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long”) instead of delaying his planned obsolescence. Batty’s antiheroic arc culminates in him becoming “more human than human” (the Tyrell company’s motto) and embracing the value of the moment that he is alive within — famously giving his ‘tears in rain’ speech to his former adversary, Deckard, before embracing the inevitability of his own death. It is Batty’s denouement that offers the only meaningful response to the loss of human exceptionalism and the hollow promise of an afterlife.
If the original Blade Runner tackles the challenges of there being no inherent meaning to existence in the late 20th Century, Blade Runner 2049 deals with the the attempt to restore meaning in the 21st — the narcissism and “main character syndrome” that has become endemic in the age of social media. While the later cuts of Scott’s Blade Runner heavily hint that Harrison Ford’s Deckard may indeed be a replicant, Ryan Gosling’s K is quickly revealed to be a synthetic life form, albeit one whose vocation is to track down and “retire” the remnants of the previous Tyrell generation. After being chastised by one of his quarry), Dave Bautista’s Sapper Morton (“You new models are happy scraping the shit . . . because you’ve never seen a miracle”), K discovers that a child was born from the union of Racheal and Deckard. As K investigates the origin and possible whereabouts of the child, the evidence that he uncovers chimes with his own childhood memories. He becomes convinced that he is this special child and not your typical production line replicant. This turns out not to be the case, the special child is a woman who works as a memory engineer who implanted her own memories into K. While K is not the physical offspring of Rachael, he is very much her descendent in respect of being a replicant whose sense of identity turns out to be a lie. Like Sapper before him, K eventually finds meaning in accepting the truth that he is not special and dedicates his life to rescuing Deckard and reuniting him with his daughter. Mortally wounded after fulfilling his new purpose, K dies gazing silently upwards at falling snow in a less grandstanding version of Roy Batty’s heavy-rain soliloquy.
While an excellent article by Alyssa Rosenberg for the Washington Post has already covered the idea of K’s main character syndrome, I’d like to offer some observations that have been swirling round my head since I first saw the film on its release. One of the most striking, and controversial aspects of the story is K’s romantic interest, Joi, played by Ana De Armas. Joi is K’s holographic girlfriend, an AI programmed to make the replicant feel exceptional and loved. Not only can Joi change her appearance to suit the whims of her user, she can change the ambience of the room, make the rain beyond K’s window appear as snow and perk up the drab appearance of K’s evening meal. Her role is one of pure aesthetic augmentation.
De Armas’s skilful performance ensures that the viewer is never entirely convinced about how sentient Joi is, whether there is still room for some kind of autonomous meaning beyond the rigid strictures of her programming. After the one surviving copy of Joi’s “consciousness” has been destroyed by one of the film’s antagonists and K’s own hero narrative has been revealed as a lie, he stumbles across a giant advertising hologram for the same AI while strolling through 2049 LA. It is in this moment that K seems to accept that Joi was one of many fantastical augmentations to an existence that he is now ready to accept.
Applying K’s Main Character Syndrome to today’s social media
In Blade Runner 2049, Joi is not so much an agent of deception as she is a powerful tool for K’s self-deceptive tendencies. Social media doesn’t so much enslave us to a false idea of our lives as it gives us the tools to augment our lives into something that make us feel like a main character. Even the dramatic act of deleting or deactivating our accounts can be more a fulfilment of the narcissistic desire to be present at one’s own funeral. While Instagram seems to receive the most stick for this particular flavour of self deception, with users fashioning an online identity through a blend of third-person portraits and first-person shots (Ks idealised dinner projection cannot be witnessed without immediately recalling all those instagram plate pics) — Twitter also provides its own subtle flavour of augmentation.
What Twitter lacks in visual pizzaz, it makes up for in narrative urgency. Here is where many stories take root, be they the major plotlines of our battles against the ‘ideological other’ or the smaller subplots about what happened on our commute. If Joi represents the aesthetic narcissism of Instagram, K’s sense of being the chosen one represents the ideological narcissism of Twitter.
I’ve never been much of an Instagrammer, but Twitter has had me by the cajones for quite some time. Perhaps this says something about my own kind of narcissism, not so much bound up in any sartorial or physical pride but more in my self image as a writer and intellectual of a left wing persuasion. The ideological aspect is also a handy way of presenting the things I do for my own good as part of some greater good.
Another factor of social media that keeps us hooked in is that of immediate feedback. WS Graham famously mused about The Beast in Space, the ungovernable silence that exists between the writer and their reader. Social media offers the seeming ability to tame this particular beast through the functions of replies, likes and retweets. But in the reveries and miseries of the responses to our posts (or lack of), we do not ask why others are responding to them. Motives to feed back work in direct relation to the stories that others are constructing about their own online lives.
Don’t delete the account, delete the persona
With both Blade Runner films, the moment of awakening and true freedom is immediately followed by the death of the newly-gnostic replicant. Wouldn’t it be nice to carry this new viewpoint into at least a few more moments of waking existence? The implication, of course, is that the death that enables Roy and K’s awakenings is not really a physical one, it is the death of the old story that they have been clinging to and the self that was centred by it.
Similarly, our ability to use social media in a way that doesn’t swallow up our existence is not so much about our ability to purge our profiles from the big platforms before reactivating a month later or sheepishly returning with a new account. Our freedom from the clutches of the digital giants could be more a case of seeing the grand narrative, the online persona that we have so skilfully constructed, for what it really is and then letting it die. Simple, eh?
Hmm, come to think of it, wasn’t the last thing that Roy Batty let go of some kind of little white bird? I think there might be a poem in this one . . .
Thanks for reading this.