Social inequity in an age of technological extremes: Lessons from the movie Elysium
A short excerpt from chapter six of the book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi-Movies
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth
On September 17, 2011, a small group of social activists occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City. The occupation became the spearhead for the global “Occupy” movement, protesting a growing disparity between “haves” and “have-nots” within society. Two years later, the movie Elysium built on this movement as it sought to reveal the potential injustices of a technologically sophisticated future where a small group of elites live in decadent luxury at the expense of the poor.
Elysium is, it has to be said, a rather earnest movie. It deals with big social issues, and it takes itself very seriously — to the point where its overly simplistic portrayals of technological innovation and greed-driven social inequality are accompanied by equally simplistic solutions. And yet, for all this, it’s a movie that shines a light on the potential dangers of new technologies benefitting the rich at the expense of the poor. It also showcases some cool tech which, while implausible in how it’s portrayed in the film, nevertheless reflects some quite amazing developments in the real world.
In 2011, just a few months before Occupy Wall Street moved into Zuccotti Park, the economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Vanity Fair:
“The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”
Stiglitz foreshadowed the Occupy movement, but he also touched on a deeper truth that has resonated through history — that, while there is a natural tendency for the rich to live at the expense of the poor, this is a recipe for social and economic disaster in the long term. And while he didn’t explicitly call out the potential impacts of emerging technologies on social inequity, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which science and technology can, if not developed and used responsibly, deepen the divide between those who live comfortable, privileged lives, and those who do not.
This is a theme that the movie Elysium piles on in spades. In the film, the rich are pampered by every conceivable technological innovation, living lives of luxury in grand mansions on a Beverly Hills-like space habitat, looked after by subservient AI robots, and living long, healthy lives in perfect bodies, courtesy of home-based medical pods that can cure every ill and erase every blemish. In contrast, the poor have inherited an Earth that has none of these advantages, and instead feels more like the impoverished slums of a Brazilian favela, or some of the less salubrious parts of LA. And rather than being served by technology, these communities are suppressed by it.
Elysium is driven by the social inequities that are sustained and magnified by these technological disparities. But it’s the medical pods that lie at the heart of this tale of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. These pods can seemingly detect any illness or injury in a patient and treat it in seconds, even down to reconstructing human tissue and bone. It’s a dream technology that, in the movie, has conquered sickness and disease, and made permanent injuries a thing of the past. But it’s also a technology that’s only available to citizens of Elysium, the orbiting space habitat that gives the movie its title. Everyone else left on Earth is destined to grapple with outdated technologies and with disease, injury, and death, living hard, stressful lives while constantly being reminded of how little they have compared to the people they serve.
The medical technology in Elysium is very much used as a metaphor for how technological capabilities in the hands of a few people can amplify the power they have over others. I’m not sure the medical pods are meant to be a realistic portrayal of a future technology, and to be clear, they are not scientifically plausible. Rather, I suspect that they represent an extreme that drives home the message that powerful technologies come with great social responsibility. And yet as we’ll see, scientifically implausible as they are, these pods echo some quite amazing developments in 3-D tissue and organ construction in the real world that are beginning to radically challenge how we think about some forms of medical treatment …
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies
In 2016, a quite remarkable series of images started to permeate the internet. The images showed what looked like the perfectly formed outer parts of a human ear. But, unlike a real ear, this one was emerging, as if grown, from an iridescent pink liquid held in a laboratory petri dish.
The ear was the product of a technique that scientists around the world had been working on for some years: the ability to, quite literally, print replacement body parts …
This chapter from Films from the Future goes on to examine the some of the ways in which unthinking and socially irresponsible use of powerful technologies can widen the gap between the rich and poor, from access to life-enhancing technologies and workplace automation, to workplace safety. It also delves into the rapidly emerging field of “3D printing human parts!