The World’s End, God, and Technological Determinism
I had the pleasure of watching The World’s End, along with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, to comprise the newly titled “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.” First, a recommendation. Yes, do see The World’s End. You’ll end up laughing and thinking a lot. That’s all I’ll say as means of a review. I also recommend reading The Dissolve’s interview with Pegg, Wright, and Frost, as it gives some valuable insight into the film. The rest shall be contemplations on some of the main themes in The World’s End.
Spoilers for The World’s End and The Truman Show ahead.
One of the themes I found most interesting in The World’s End was the interplay between technological determinism vs. technological instrumentalism. The concept of technological determinism asserts that technology shapes and therefore determines us. Scholar Marshall McLuhan’s book Understanding Media proposed the idea that “the medium is the message,” that the medium itself communicates and shapes meaning. For instance, we might ask how television screens are becoming more like movie screens in terms of proportions, and might ask how the digitalization of music alters our perceptions of how we understand and enjoy the music we own. Can we truly say we “collect” music when there is no physical media purchased? (Short answer: yes, we do.) Nevertheless, the implications of how the medium of, say, iTunes and how it shapes us is worthy of consideration.
Conversely, technological instrumentalism asserts that humans shape and therefore determine technology. The focus is located in how we make, form, alter, and change technology for our own purposes, and emphasizes our own free will in how we interact with technology. Scholar Raymond Williams, disagreeing with McLuhan’s theory of determinism, argued for a theory of instrumentalism instead. Nintendo’s game NintendoLand for the Wii U gently reminds you once in a while to take a break from video gaming, but the choice is ultimately up to the gamer (and the advice is often ignored in my own experience.)
These two theoretical approaches to technology find themselves grappling in The World’s End as a part of a larger theme of a higher power to free will. While five men return to their hometown to try for an epic pub crawl, they soon find the place to be full of strange replicant creatures. The ultimate opponent in The World’s End is The Network, and can be described as an alien technology seeking to colonize planets to “civilization” through robotic replicants known as “blanks.” Anyone who refuses is replaced by a blank while their body is mulched for the earth. With an eerily perfect town full of eerily perfect people, comparisons to The Stepford Wives have surfaced for good reason. Though surprisingly, I haven’t seen comparisons to The Truman Show, which also mirrors the the setting, but is a better comparison in terms of ideology.
The climax of the film, where Gary King (Simon Pegg) argues with The Network over the necessity of free will for humanity, even if it means screwing up, feels very reminiscent of the climax of The Truman Show. In both cases, the scenes represent man versus God, with man arguing for freedom from control. In The Truman Show, Christof (Christ of) is abstracted as a voice to Truman (True Man) in their final confrontation. (“I am the creator...of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions”) Similarly, King confronts an abstract God figure represented by light and voice, arguing for the same freedoms as Truman, but with a more nihilistic edge. For the total freedom that King and his friends fight for means the liberation of man – into technological destruction. Whereas Truman escapes the constructed world built for him (in his case, a 24-hour TV show dedicated to his life), King and company end the tyranny of polite oppression through its destruction. With the elimination of The Network, all of technology on earth (made possible only by The Network) is eliminated as well, ending with humanity’s freedom at a terrible cost – a new dark age.
While both films end with humanity rejecting a false world, Truman is able to leave the constructed world around him, whereas King and his friends rejection of the system of oppression ends in its destruction, affecting the whole world. In the case of The World’s End, the system had been so ingrained into the world, its removal caused much more damage and a much more radical shift in how we live. The opposition to God’s will came at a price, with the world becomes a desolate wasteland after the violent termination of The Network’s control and subsequent departure. The imagery conflates the fall and the apocalypse, foreshadowed not only by the film’s title, but other references such as Oliver’s birth mark of a 6, a la The Omen, and Gary’s old car termed “the Beast.”
This isn’t to say there isn’t radical ideological shifts in Truman’s world either. Truman asserts his own free will and refuses to be a part of an ultimately oppressive system, refusing to be commodified as well. The link between the God figure and technology in both films (Truman’s world being an entire technological dome, with Christof being the show’s director) proves a fascinating similarity, and worthy of further investigation. But suffice it to say for now, the rejection of God and technology is symbolically intertwined with each other, making for fascination commentary if we consider the films’ representing technology as God, an idol that we worship in our daily lives to our own detriment. With the amount of dependence we have for technology, the connection isn’t that radical an idea.
The film appears to assert that for true freedom from the tyranny of technological determinism, we might need to sever ties with technology altogether, or at least realize we need to resist passivity that technology can instill. Aside from the overt oppression of Newton Haven, the more insidious elements of technological dependence are seen through the “normal” lives of Gary’s friends. Oliver, Peter, Steven, and Andy are all successful businessmen, but are also slaves to the technology their wield. While Gary lives off the grid and clings to the vestiges of his past (“the Beast,” an old mixtape from Stephen, his long black jacket circa 1990), his friends all sport smartphones and computers. Andy’s marriage is on the rocks because his job (and the technology involved) demanded too much time away from his family. Steven mentions that “My company got bought out in ’08, but I’m happier. It’s less stress,” indicating a preference for passivity. Oliver always wears a bluetooth headset, even though he’s on vacation with his friends. Many of them are inhibited or controlled in a way, but their passivity towards their situation is what ultimately makes them unhappy. Their civilized and controlled appearance leads Gary to call them “slaves,” though the few terrified (or delighted) human citizens of Newton Haven reveal themselves to be the true slaves, under constant oppression of The Network.
It’s Gary’s initiating their adventure to make it to The World’s End (the pub) that not only reveals the tyranny hiding behind the town, it also instigates a change from the characters’ passivity to activity trying to change the status quo. Steven finally declares his love to Sam, Oliver’s sister, after years of “waiting for the right moment.” Andy punches a blank in the stomach to retrieve his wedding ring. Peter destroys the blank replica of the bully that terrorized him for years as a kid, finally standing up for himself. The characters rebel against the technology that directly oppresses them, which liberates themselves from their own positions of normal passivity. If all the world’s technology was not directly developed by The Network, perhaps everyone would return to their lives with a better sense of individuality and freedom from the technology they use. But that is not a possibility represented in the film. The only technological instrumentalism presented is the choice to destroy technology, the tools that shape us and oppress us.
The Network is the ultimate manifestation of technological determinism, as it was not even made by human hands, but asserts ultimate control over those it can. The two presentations of normal tech (computers, smartphones) and oppressive tech (The Network, the blanks) complicates whether one can assert The World’s End completely makes a case for technological determinism, as the former can be utilized with freedom. It can at least be said that The World’s End warns of the tyranny of passivity towards technology in all our lives, encouraging us to us technology instead of technology using us.
Next time, I’ll be looking at the role of nostalgia and memory in the film.