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July 26-August 1, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Monstrous Politics

By Annalee Newitz

I DIDN'T want to see it, and then I did. When Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest came out, I was beyond underwhelmed. But then the box-office numbers started rolling in—it was the biggest weekend take in movie history—and I was intrigued. I kept wondering why Johnny Depp's prancing pirate Jack Sparrow could pack more punch than square-jawed Superman.

After seeing the flick, the answer is obvious. Jack Sparrow lives in a world of magic and monsters, a place where half-fish zombies stalk the seas in a mysterious ship, and a giant kraken fells merchant vessels with fat, sucker-covered tentacles. His greatest enemies are Davy Jones, an undead sea captain with a squid for a head, and the British East India Company.

How can Superman's boring domestic troubles and a bald, method-acting real estate mogul ever hold a candle to that? Metropolis is drably realistic compared to Jack's South Seas. And yet both films' supreme enemies do have a lot in common with each other. The British East India Company and Lex Luthor's real estate firm are both ruthless corporate enterprises whose owners mow down human life in search of bigger profits.

It's only in an overt fantasy like Pirates, however, that we get a story capable of capturing the full horror of uncontrolled corporate greed. Representing Halliburton-size evil is a toady for the British East India Company, which coerces hero Will Turner into hunting down Jack to get the pirate's magical compass, which points the way to whatever its owner desires. In exchange for this perfect colonizing tool—essentially, a never-ending source of information about where the raw materials are—the king promises to grant Jack a full pardon and make him a privateer.

But Jack is a true pirate. He steals and swashbuckles for the love of it and has no interest in working for a boss. Instead of selling out, he faces down Davy Jones and his zombie crew, cursed to spend their afterlives working under iron discipline of their tentacled captain. As they get older, they literally merge with the ship itself, melting into the wood until they are just flattened, grimacing faces poking out of the bulkheads. Fleeing the British East India Company's brand of domination, Jack falls right into the path of another.

Of course, this is also just a movie about monsters fighting monsters with goo and suckers and claws. And that's what makes it both fun to watch and fun to analyze endlessly. Monster stories leave room for interpretation; they allow us to tell stories that are subversive, that question why we should have to take shitty jobs and respect corporate power. At least, some monster stories do.

I just finished writing a book that's all about how monster stories in the United States reflect often-buried fears about capitalism run amok. The book is called Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke University Press), and you can actually buy the damn thing now. It's in bookstores and on Amazon and crap like that. I don't want to tell you how long it took me to write, but suffice it to say that before I became a tech and science geek, I was a horror and science fiction geek.

The weird thing is that I learned to excavate the cultural meaning of real-life technologies by analyzing movies about imaginary ones. That's because the process of innovation is nearly identical to the process of dreaming up a monster. Just as new devices like the iPod or TiVo respond to changes in social norms, so too do our fantasies. I mean, it's no accident that a horror movie like The Ring came out during the heyday of file-sharing.

Let's think about it. The flick is about a haunted videocassette that will kill you unless you make a duplicate copy and show it to somebody else. It's like a nightmare analog version of BitTorrent. If you do not share your media, YOU WILL DIE. Creative Commons really should do a cartoon parody of The Ring. There will always be people who want to consume their electronic toys and mass media without having to think about what they mean. Sometimes they even claim that there are no politics of science fiction—or science—because politics only take place in Congress or at the U.N. But I say that until we understand the monsters in our dreams, we'll never defeat the ones who run the world.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who just published a book! WOOT!

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