This modern world is, in all facets, shaped by technology. However, the society affected by all this technology is the same one creating it. Therefore, the role of digitalia is one yet to be established by contemporary civilizations: How does one control that by which one is controlled? It’s an interesting conundrum and, with the advent of both Internet culture and hi-tech, fastpaced digital technology, ours is a culture that is continually blurring the line between Virtual Reality and Reality Reality.
Those issues of control, as well as that ever-blurring line, are the subject of director lara Lee’s new film Synthetic Pleasures: A Sci-Fi Documentary About Our Hi-Tech World. Less a traditional
documentary than it is a philosophical travelogue through the assets and absurdities of the Information Age, the film examines how modern culture is detaching itself from traditional, “real” life experiences in favor of controlled environments and existence.
The role of “hi-tech” is but a subtext to the picture’s larger message, and Lee demonstrates that humans – whether online or in Las Vegas – seem to be always searching for ways to manipulate their lives in finite,
manageable ways and that controlled, “synthetic pleasures” are slowly but surely replacing the long accepted randomness of life on earth.
“I think that as soon as you’re born, you know you’re going to die, and that thought is always very strong in our mind, and we have no control, no matter what we do, to prevent that from happening,” says Lee via telephone from her New York office (ironically, we attempted an email interview, but she couldn’t get online). “I think that now, technology allows us to control our fantasies somewhat, but the ultimate goal is to control life and to be able to reach immortality.
“But, the question is, is that really the point? Should we just accept nature as it is, or should we feel entitled to manipulate it? Should we go skiing in the summertime? Should we, if we’re born a boy, become a girl?”
Accepting nature as it is seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind in Synthetic Pleasures. Indoor Japanese golf courses, the ritzy plastique of Las Vegas, body sculptress Orlan, mood-altering and “smart” drug use, gender manipulation, and the potential for true artificial life – is there anything left in the world that is truly real? The most telling example of how this tendency to control reality is more a human trait than a byproduct of technology is the contrast Lee paints between Seagaia (an enormous, hi-tech, enclosed “beach environment” that, though complete with tides and sand, is completely impervious to weather from the “real” world) and a shot of a Japanese fishing shack in which patrons gather in a dingy, cluttered building to catch fish from a regularly stocked tank no bigger than a small car.
“That’s my favorite shot,” laughs Lee of the people fishing, “because it’s so low-tech. It’s the ultimate absurdity. It’s like, I understand you want guaranteed pleasure, so you’ll spend billions of dollars to create this dome where everything’s perfect, but really, what’s the point of going to this shabby place where you go fishing in a tank? If you’ve got your pleasure guaranteed, then how do you get your pleasure out of it? You wind up fooling yourself. Humans desire predictable adventures.”
And, though Synthetic Pleasures is about much more than simply computers and technology, those very things play quite an important role in the film. Interviews with R.U. Sirius (Mondo
2000 co-founder), Lisa Palac (Future Sex founding editor), John Barlow (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the ubiquitous Timothy Leary are
interspersed with dazzling (though sometimes overbearing) computer graphics and a stellar soundtrack (featuring Young American Primitive,
Banco De Gaia, Single Cell Orchestra, Tranquility Bass, Terre Thaemlitz and others).
The way Lee seamlessly moves through a wide variety of topics makes Synthetic Pleasures a highly engaging-and alternately terrifying and hilarious film. However, Lee is quick to point out that the movie is far from a complete synopsis of life in the computer age; rather, it’s simply her way of posing a few of the many questions that are bound to come up as we move into an age where telephones and televisions will soon seem as anachronistic as telegraphs and handcranked phonographs.
“[The moviej is more about how people interact with the machinery,” says Lee. “I didn’t want to make a movie about who makes the best VR machine, I wanted to look at how people deal with VR machines. It’s about how people deal with – and need – this power that they’ve given themselves.
“It’s true that we really are leaving the Industrial Age and moving into the Information Age and it’s a really big transition. But it’s very exciting because there are no rules or regulations and everything, pretty much, is up for grabs. Therefore, you’re shaping a whole new world and writing the constitution of the future.”
Synthetic Pleasures is scheduled for release this summer. The soundtrack is available on Moonshine. For current information and screening dates near you, set your Web browser to http://web.emedia.net/sp.
First appeared in the June 1996 issue of Alternative Press.