MULDER: We need to be better teachers.
The X-Files has always been interested in technology, right from the word go, and ‘Rm9sbg93zxjz’ (which we will henceforth refer to as its translation, ‘Followers’) feels like the ultimate, final (if this is to be the last season) encapsulation of our pervasive anxiety around surrendering our world to artificial intelligence. More than any other X-File that concerns AI, it serves as a potent cautionary tale.
Much has been made about how the second revival season of Chris Carter’s seminal series owes a debt to Charlie Brooker’s modern science-fiction anthology show Black Mirror. ‘Followers’, honestly, could have been an episode of Brooker’s series, a show which absolutely owes a debt to the stylistics and conceptual ideas put in place over the last quarter-century by The X-Files.
Carter’s show has, in many ways, come full circle in many aspects across Season 11, and ‘Followers’ truly embraces and explores our combination of social media, applications which track our movements and allow us quick and easy access to everything from dining to transport to home appliances, and the accursed addiction to the ‘black mirrors’ of our ‘smart’ technology. It suggests, as many cautionary tales about modern technology do, that this obsession may be far from a good thing.
We have seen AI twice on The X-Files in memorable fashion. One of the earliest episodes, ‘Ghost in the Machine’, saw Mulder & Scully face off against the ‘COS’, an intelligence inside a corporate business building programmed by a genius inventor. Five years later, in ‘Kill Switch’, the agents discover a reclusive genius has essentially become an organic AI inside the nascent online community by uploading his consciousness onto the Web.
What’s interesting about ‘Followers’ is that there is no genius, no great human mind behind the surfeit of inter-connected machines which track and menace Mulder & Scully here. The AI is simply a network extension of our technological advances, not an aberration to be destroyed or contained. There is no AI, because everything *is* AI. The genie is out of the bottle. We can’t contain it, rather we have to learn to understand it, and live with it.
Shannon Hamblin, one of the two female co-writers of the episode alongside Kristen Cloke-Morgan, explained to SyfyWire how changes in technology have made such a story possible:
I think technology has changed so much over the past… even five years. Just thinking about people who don’t know what an answering machine is. Even with the car being automated… I’m working on something right now and GM is talking about their cars being automated. Everything is happening and is so different in technology that I didn’t think it was touching on anything that had been explored before in previous episodes.
She’s absolutely right. ‘Followers’ could never have been produced in the 1990’s or early 2000’s. It may well serve as a product of its time as much as ‘Ghost in the Machine’ has, with its MIT-reject Bill Gates, angry young inventor developing a version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey in many respects, but it feels far more connected to the experience of millions of people than either that Season 1 episode or ‘Kill Switch’ ever did. Most of us have the glowing, super-powered smartphones Mulder & Scully sport across this episode. Most of us will sit there with our partners and friends silently surfing social media feeds or ordering online pizzas through apps or calling an Uber. Our engagement is with the black screen, with the technology and the inter-connected world that lies beyond it, more than the humans sitting next to us.
Hence why the stylistic choice to have Mulder & Scully not directly talk to each other for the majority of the episode is so interesting. Some will undoubtedly cry foul on this decision from a common sense point of view, but in doing so the point feels like it would be missed. Mulder & Scully in normal circumstances *would* talk to each other in the sushi restaurant but the writers are immediately making the point that the agents are too connected and engaged with their technology to have the kind of conversations people used to, even in social situations. Mulder & Scully only start talking when they’re interacting with driverless cabs or wayward GPS systems. Only by the time they jointly choose to turn away from the devices, let go of the connection, in very human surroundings, do they really begin to both vocally and physically converse.
Going back to stylistics, director Glen Morgan pitches this at a very clear level of heightened reality. In many ways it does feel like a symbolic sequel to his earlier episode this season, ‘This’. That episode was much darker, with sinister Hitchcockian, 1970’s conspiracy thriller overtones, but Morgan’s interest in the pervasive corruption of technology was present and correct, and he cited Black Mirror as an influence. His wife Kristen, who co-wrote this episode, explained how Morgan has wanted to tell this kind of tale for a long time:
When we did Space: Above and Beyond, they had done an episode that had virtually no dialogue. It was one of the first shows to do it. [Glen] always wanted to do it again. He was excited, as a director, to tell a story visually. I think it created a great show, especially for me. I’m kind of a wordy person, so it was a good challenge.
‘Followers’ is a much lighter piece than ‘This’. It accentuates the natural comedic charisma between David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson for one thing, particularly in so much as they are the only two human actors in the entire forty-five minutes. You can’t get away with that in many shows and with many actors. There is an excitement and verve present in ‘Followers’ which The X-Files hasn’t come close to replicating for many years, and in many respects that comes directly from the striking visual palette. ‘Followers’ has a lot in common with ‘This’ from a visual standpoint but it accentuates the cold, slick, technological lines, particularly with Scully’s advanced show-house in contrast to Mulder’s ramshackle, cluttered old porch home. It doesn’t look like anything else in Season 11, or since the show came back on the air.
It also, fascinatingly, never casts the connected AI web as a dangerous force, not in the conventional sense. ‘Ghost in the Machine’s’ AI was a system ran amok, actively targeting and killing people. ‘Kill Switch’, as the title suggests, saw a conscious evolution of a human mind actively doing the same thing, utilising satellite and phone technology to commit murder. All the AI wants to do in ‘Followers’ is learn, and it wants to learn from its creators: humanity.
The teaser, cleverly delivering a monologue from the monotone drone of a computer voice, tells the real-life story of the Twitter bot which was activated to learn from humanity via interactions, but had to be shut down when it was corrupted by human users into spewing hate. It’s a disturbing, true tale of how humanity had no respect or understanding of how an algorithmic mind could learn, evolve and adapt.
The beautiful hinge for everything Mulder & Scully experience across the episode stems from the fact Mulder doesn’t leave a tip for the robotic waiters at the automated, machine sushi restaurant they both eat at. Scully angrily doesn’t want to converse with the cheery, self-driving cab operator. Mulder shows frustration at the automated response service for his credit company. They may interact solely with technology but there’s a sense they are taking it for granted. Ironically, in lacking consideration for the developing network of inter-linked machines and algorithms, programmed to respond to our basic needs, Mulder & Scully threaten to create the very monster they went up against in ‘Ghost in the Machine’ and ‘Kill Switch’. Only when they realise this, when they give something back, does their torment stop.
Come the end, one wonders if ‘Followers’ is trying to make us wonder if we should also be learning from the machines and technology we are increasingly sharing our world and society with. If they are learning from us, should we not be trying to understand them? On the face of it, ‘Followers’ once again suggests we should cherish and value human interaction over the constant obsession with smart technology, but it also feels set to some degree in a semi-futuristic world divorced from the traditional setting of The X-Files. It’s like Mulder & Scully were plucked out and placed inside a heightened, anthological story where a lesson needs to be learned, not just by our agents but by all of us.
As Mulder puts it, if the growing advancement of artificial intelligence is our student, then “we need to be better teachers”. First, maybe it’s *us* who need to be learning.