Every generation uses the technology of its time as a metaphor to better understand itself, and in the zeitgeist-examining docu-essay “Welcome to the Machine,” director Avi Zev Weider ponders the degree to which man’s present and future are dominated by his inventions. Philosophically speaking, it’s fascinating stuff, though film hardly seems the most conducive way for Weider to present his arguments, with an overreliance on baby photos and the failure to deliver a key interview making the whole inquiry feel smaller than it is. After touring nonfiction fests, pic will depend on DVD and VOD-delivery machines to connect with auds.
Weider was inspired to consider the relationship between man and technology after the premature birth of his triplets, who were conceived via in vitro fertilization. Boy, are they cute in all their big-eyed, raisin-skinned fragility, and the writer-director-narrator knows it. His three kids’ survival, as well as their very creation, could only be possible thanks to the current state of medical science, Weider reasons, and yet, it seems right to question whether people have become too complacent about the expanding role of technology in their lives.
Unfortunately, technology has expanded so much that no 85-minute film could possibly wrap its head around the enormity of the subject, so Weider tries something else. He goes to some of the key thinkers on the subject — everyone from futurist Ray Kurzweil to dreadlocked virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier — and shapes their talking-head insights around two subplots.
In the first of these threads, 68-year-old Dean Lloyd is learning to see again thanks to a revolutionary retinal implant called the Argus II, which suggests a way in which machines may be able to communicate directly with our brains in the future. Meanwhile, in a more ambiguous advance, Army pilots learn to remote-control unmanned aerial vehicles, which have not only revolutionized combat, but also suggest a world in which autonomous weapons make some citizens feel less safe.
To articulate the downsides, Weider seeks comment from jailed Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, which would have made for a far more sensational film had the manifesto-driven Luddite granted his request. Instead, the director is limited to quoting hand-scrawled responses, forcing him to settle for a dry U. of Michigan expert studying Kaczynski’s writings and a Yale computer science prof who received one of his mail bombs. More salient than anti-technology paranoia is the question of how human relationships are changing as a result. MIT social-studies thinker Sherry Turkle has interesting ideas on the subject, but then, so do other, more focused documentaries, such as Tiffany Shlain’s recent “Connected.”
“Welcome to the Machine” belongs to the broad tradition of “ignore the trees, consider the forest” exercises, most commonly presented in book form, and one can imagine it taking far more enlightening shape on the page. Here, Weider is limited by the footage available, using stills when more conventional B-roll eludes him. For instance, to illustrate a tangent in which he examines what the Bible says about technology, he playfully appropriates what looks to be an old Mormon slideshow.
Too superficial a survey of the topic to deeply satisfy, the docu nonetheless suggests avenues for further independent exploration, the most fascinating being a snapshot of the field’s founding father, Alan Turing, a mathematician and codebreaker whose concept of artificial intelligence reflected a dissatisfaction with his own identity, defined in part by his repressed homosexuality, along with the possibility of achieving immortality in virtual form.
Considering the forward-thinking topic, technical specs are just adequate.