In 2012, a product designer called Paulo Cardini, delivered a TED talk critiquing society’s culture of technology-driven multitasking. He was irritated with being constantly bombarded with mobile phone updates; the supposed ‘must have’apps that seem to ask ‘how did you ever cope before?’. Constant multi-tasking, he argues however, makes us quite the opposite: an unfocussed ADHD generation, entirely beholden to our phones!
Watching 1927’s production of Golem at the Young Vic recently, I was reminded of Paulo’s talk. The play, adapted from a Gustav Meyrink novel, has a clear premise: supposedly benign technological advancement, left unchecked, mutates quickly from servant to master.
Here, the protagonist Robert, whose job is to ‘back up the backup’, is a geeky young man held firmly in technology’s grasp. An old schoolfriend of his is an inventorand continually dreams up ludicrous new products; an apt little nod to the internet start-up industry, whose corporate giants often started as obsessive one-man outfits.
In this case, the latest invention is Golem: a man ‘made of clay who can only obey’. The first buyer is the hapless Robert. As the play progresses, Golem is replaced by Golem 2.0, and so on. Total subjugation is quickly left behind: ‘Wouldn’t Robert suit those yellow shoes?’Golem subtly suggests at one point. Things only get worse.
However, in contrast to its doomsday-esque message, Golem is a continuous visual delight; five ‘live’actors are supported by a projected animated set. To this is added an animated supporting cast including the eponymous Golem; who, at times is impossible not think of as real. The visuals are vibrant and beautifully executed, drawing from sources such as Monty Python, Constructivist photomontage, and Quentin Blake illustrations. In fact, one imagines that Roald Dahl would have liked this play very much.
The interaction between real and virtual is seamless and the opportunity for humorous interaction is not lost: in one scene, Robert’s grandmother, with whom he lives (another Dahl trope!), polishes a projected photo of her late husband; in response to the duster, his moustache dances off-screen in an especially Pythonesque manner.
More interestingly, the continual interaction between virtual and real evokes modern society’s actual state of being: throughout the last century, and growing exponentially, we seem to spend more and more time in the ‘virtual’; in the elsewhere. Cinema, television, computers, phones, Skype and Facebook occupy much of our attention and take us to places without any need for us to be in the present. The real world becoming only a supporting character in our lives.
And, we do so complacently: we don’t really pay much attention to alleged privacy invasions from Google, or whether a child might have made our iPhone. Our moral scrutiny it seems plays second fiddle to an obsession with shininess and an apparent insecurity over ‘what the Jones’might already have’. How Bernays would have smiled.
Golem might look a bit Aardman (kudos to 1927 for managing to create such a play without becoming ‘preachy’). But don’t be fooled, Golem has a series message. You were warned!