Technology and “The Effect of Magnification”
Actor-filmmaker Benjamin Dickinson discusses the self-interest and satirization of Creative ControlMovies Features
People love their technology, but does their technology love them back? In Creative Control, the sophomore feature by filmmaker, writer and actor Benjamin Dickinson, the answer to that question is positively fraught and depends entirely on your perspective. Sure, your technology lets you maintain potentially uninterrupted contact with your loved ones—your friends, your family, your significant other—but as it grows cooler and more sophisticated, so too does it keep you isolated from them. Before you know it, you’re ignoring your girlfriend’s text message salvos and taking carnal solace in the unfailingly obedient simulacrum you’ve created as your pixelated fuck buddy.
That schism between reality and reality as filtered through technology is what Creative Control is all about. The film focuses on David (Dickinson himself), the overstressed and narcissistic creative director of an advertising agency who tries to whip up a campaign for an “augmented reality” gadget called Augmenta. (Think Google Glass on steroids.) David tosses back pills like they’re Skittles, dances around genuine intimacy with his girlfriend, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), parties with his obnoxious photographer friend Wim (Dan Gill, plus his mustache), and indulges in VR fantasies about Wim’s bonnie lass, Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen), that quickly overwhelm the line separating the physical from the digital. Things get rapidly uncomfortable from there.
Consider Creative Control as the bitter, cynical cousin to Her, a movie with a similarly uncomfortable narrative that is better defined as melancholy and sweet rather than wary and contemptuous. It helps that the film is presented in crisp, gelid monochrome, which not only looks gorgeous but also supplies a visual simplicity that belies the complexity of Dickinson’s themes and ideas. There’s a lot going on in Creative Control, as Paste learned firsthand in an interview with Dickinson, who spoke not only of his inspiration for the movie, but also the dueling nature of technology as a source of enlightenment and ignorance, and why it might be a good thing that the Internet so often seems to bring out the worst in us.
Paste: There’s so much in the movie to talk about that I don’t really know where to start…
Benjamin Dickinson: You know what? Let’s just find it! Let’s make the road by walking.
Paste: Let’s do it! If I may, I’d like to start off with a quote—I don’t know if you’re familiar with Alvin Toffler?
Paste: He wrote a book back in 1980 called The Third Wave, which is about the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age…
Dickinson: I love this already.
Paste: I figured you would! That’s why I wanted to start with this. He wrote, “Any decent society must generate a feeling of community. Community offsets loneliness. It gives people a vitally necessary sense of belonging. Yet today the institutions on which community depends are crumbling in all the techno-societies. The result is a spreading plague of loneliness.” This rolled around in my head a lot while I was watching the movie, and I wanted to talk to you about the way that technology divides the characters of your film and separates them rather than bring them together.
Paste: Is that what was going on in your mind when you were making this, or did that spring out of other themes that you wanted to explore? Because the movie does have quite a few different themes.
Dickinson: It began with a personal anxiety, not a philosophical conceit. In brief—I don’t want to go into it too deeply—but in brief, I went through a bad breakup, and much of that breakup was negotiated over text message, which was a new experience, because this was in 2011, 2012, and smartphones had only been around for three, four years at this point. So, you know, if you were going through a breakup in 2005, the chances of it being a very long text conversation on an iPhone were impossible. That was very strange, that experience, and alienating, and around that time I also quit Facebook, because Facebook was telling me things I didn’t want to know about, and it became evident that Facebook didn’t care about my feelings. It just saw me as a series of behaviors, and the algorithms saw me as behavior, not as a complete person that has emotions, and it knew what I would be interested in but it didn’t know why. It didn’t know that I’d be interested in seeing certain photos because it caused me pain. It didn’t see the pain. It just saw interest.
So, my concern is, as we’re building a technological society, are we concerned that the technology serves us as human mammals that have complicated emotions, have social needs, have the need to be touched, and have spiritual needs as well? Is that being considered when we’re writing software, when we form our financial institutions, when we set up our industries, and as we make our devices? Are we considering the needs of the whole human being, or are we just looking at human beings as consumers that are going to make our corporations wealthy? Are we looking at people as numbers and behaviors rather than poets, musicians, lovers, priests, dancers, friends … all the stuff that makes life worth living, all the stuff that’s good, which is connection, and good food, and music, and family, that’s what makes human life good. That’s what makes human life a joy and a celebration.
Our behaviors that can be analyzed by algorithms, the robot aspect of our nature is important, very important, but it’s only a small piece of what it’s like to be a human. And I guess some people might say that the best-case scenario for consciousness would be for us to remove our consciousness from the meat sack, to extract it from its biological origin and put it into a metal box, but I don’t know if I agree, and I don’t know if it’s possible. I don’t know if you can extract human consciousness. I think consciousness must exist outside of bodies—it seems like it must—but I don’t know if that is a human consciousness. So I think there’s a paradox there.
Paste: So this started at a really personal place for you, and expanded into something that’s cultural, that we can all tag into. I guess where I would want to go with that—first, I agree. Technology can’t serve the whole of the human. But in the movie, it seems like the technology serves, honestly, the worst tendencies of the human. It facilitates so much bad behavior in David, and in Wim. David tries to have an affair with Sophie; Wim just sends sex pics to David all the time. Is that the other concern? Not just that it won’t serve the whole, but that it will also serve, augment if you will, the bad parts, the bad tendencies of humanity?
Dickinson: I think there’s Davids everywhere right now, particularly in our current political situation. The Internet, and technology in general, seems to have the effect of magnification. So I think it’s magnifying, augmenting, both the good and the bad, both the better angels and the demons of our nature. So I think everything’s becoming more extreme on both sides, and it’s a concern. I think it depends on how you look at it. From a certain point of view, you could say, “What an opportunity!” Because if the technology is magnifying the worst parts of humanity, then it makes it easier to see. Do you know what I mean?
Paste: Yeah, absolutely.
Dickinson: It becomes more apparent. So in and of itself, magnification could be an advantage if we extract the right message from it, and that’s where it could go either way. You know what I mean?
Paste: Sure, definitely—I mean, the technology has allowed people like Mark Zuckerberg to do great things with charity, but then on the other hand you have things like Ashley Madison, which came up in the back of my mind while I was watching the film, too.
Dickinson: You could even look at Ashley Madison and learn a lot about human nature from that, too, you know what I mean?
Dickinson: People have been having affairs forever. Once it becomes a service, that offends our sense of propriety, but that’s a really arbitrary moral standpoint, you know? So I actually think it is bringing some of the darker aspects of human nature that have been subliminal to the surface, and now we have to look at it. You know, Freud sort of predicted this, in a way.
You could say that the Internet didn’t create the phenomenon of Donald Trump, but I think what’s interesting about Donald Trump is that he’s saying things that people said in private publicly. From a certain point of view, that’s great, because it’s out in the open, and now we know that that’s how people feel. And that’s good to know. I think it’s worse if it’s just being thought but not said, because then you can’t respond to it.
Paste: Right: If it’s invisible, that’s kind of more of a threat. You know, I wish I’d brought up Donald Trump first. I was thinking it when you were halfway through your answer. But I think that’s absolutely true. When this stuff is in front of you, as opposed to just hidden away in people’s souls and people’s minds, at least we know that it’s there, and maybe we can deal with it.
Dickinson: And it’s impossible to deny any longer. And I think one of the cudgels of power in our society is the power of denial, which is hypocrisy. I think if we take the opportunity to get into an era of more honesty and openness, that’s going to be better for people in terms of being able to be real, free individuals. But of course the dark side of it is, people are also going to get lost down all kinds of addictive wormholes, just like David does. I guess I hope that if people watch this movie, a conversation might be started about what we want our technology to do, and how we want it to serve us. Do we want it to placate us and pacify us? Or do we want it to inspire and illuminate us? I think it is up to us. I think we’re all going to have to grow up a little bit, and stop allowing technology to infantilize us, and stop giving over our power to the technology, because it’s meant to serve us, not the other way around. That’s its function.
Paste: Yeah! I think people are going to have to make that choice, and I hope that people lean toward illumination, but who knows?
I kind of want to jump back to something that you said earlier, when you talked about how this started with a breakup for you: Because of that, did you always see yourself in the David role, or is that something that kind of just happened by chance? Did you always know you would be the one stepping in to be the lead in this story?
Dickinson: No. I did not. I asked a great number of actors to play David, and they all said “no.” So, then I decided to do it myself. I thought that I could do it. It was obviously somewhat inspired by me. I mean, I kind of just exaggerated all of my worst qualities to create the character of David. So I felt that I could do it. You know, the first person I asked was Aziz Ansari…
Paste: That would have been pretty cool.
Dickinson: It would have been interesting. But he said “no.” He probably made the right choice. [laughs] He was writing Master of None at the time, and I think it’s difficult for writers to really understand another writer’s work, especially if it’s so personal, but in an alternate universe he’s the star of the movie.
Paste: I think it works that you’re the star of the movie. Hearing about the personal quality of the film opens up my thoughts about it in different ways. I would say personally that you nailed it…
Paste: Of course! But were you anxious about that, though? Because you were talking about David magnifying these bad qualities, these are the worst qualities in you… Was there a concern for you about stepping into the shoes of this unlikable character, how people will see you or perceive you?
Dickinson: I didn’t think about that too much in advance.
Paste: That was probably a good idea.
Dickinson: I mean, I have noticed that if people know me through that film, the first time they meet me, I’ve gotten a lot of, like, “Oh, you’re not what I expected you to be like.” But I think in the end, the conversation, or my sense of self, or what people think about me, it really just matters to me what I think of me, and what my close friends and family think of me. That’s what sustains me. You know what I mean? Like, on a day-to-day basis, I would be nowhere without my friends, and they know who I am.
Paste: And that’s what matters. But it’s interesting that the technology that brings the movie to people could alter the way that they receive you.
Dickinson: Yeah. You know, I don’t think of myself as being above anyone or anything, certainly not better than David, but more fortunate to be not addicted to pills, and not, you know, not living in some pornographic reality construct. I feel grateful to not have those problems. But I don’t think that he is a despicable person. I think he’s just confused.
Paste: I agree with that. I say “unlikable,” but I know it’s a little more complicated than that.
Dickinson: Well he’s an asshole, but we’re all assholes!
Paste: [laughs] Yeah, of course!
Dickinson: You know what I mean?
Paste: Totally. I could come off as a complete jerk on Twitter if I said the wrong thing the wrong way.
Dickinson: Exactly. And it’s in our DNA to be assholes. That’s why we’re here! That’s how our ancestors crawled out of the fucking swamp: self-interest.
Paste: One-hundred percent true.
Dickinson: Yeah. But we’re trying to wake up a little bit, and rather than put being an asshole up on a pedestal, like certain people are doing in the public sphere these days, I am holding up the asshole for satirization.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.