Warning: Contains spoilers for Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up.’
I’ve seen a lot of theories making the rounds about Mark Rylance’s character Peter Isherwell in Don’t Look Up, an eccentric tech mogul whose uber-capitalism masks itself as altruistic enlightenment (even to himself). But whether Isherwell owes more to Musk, to Zuckerberg or to Page I think misses the point: The tech industry target the movie truly eviscerates is the vaunted Tech Demo.
You can argue about its actual origins, but most will agree that the concept of turning a new product or tech innovation into a stage show for public consumption gained traction thanks primarily to Apple founder Steve Jobs. Jobs was a natural showman from the very beginning, and if you have a bunch of time to kill it’s worth taking a look back through his recorded presentations, which date back all the way to 1983. Especially beginning with the debut of the iPhone in 2007, this kind of treatment became something competitors obviously felt they couldn’t help but also use to introduce new products.
Tech demos obviously existed prior to, and continue to exist independent of, their incarnation for general public consumption. Demos were also famously the way that teams internally sought the attention and approval of Jobs throughout the development of Apple’s various products, and a good demo might mean earning approval and resources, whereas a bad one could see an entire team’s efforts cut short.
But internal demos, at least when used properly, tend to be ‘warts and all’ affairs that provide key opportunities for leaders to tangibly see what their various teams are working on, and offer guidance about direction and solutions. The public tech demo is something else entirely, and at this point it’s become what it’s presented as in Don’t Look Up: An act of artifice that exists independent of (and hardly shares any common ground with) the real world.
Don’t Look Up has two big ‘tech demo’ moments that point out exactly what’s wrong with the kind we’re used to now — and a third, related depiction that’s sort of analogous to the ‘hands-on’ experience typically offered to the press after the official demos and introductory presentations. The first is the introduction of Bash’s new smartphone software, which literally reads a user’s emotions and serves them pacifying content when needed (a cute cat video in the stage show.) While introducing the software, Rylance (as Isherwell) is inexplicably flanked by children who are also holding Bash-powered phones.
Isherwell ignores a request from one of the kids on stage to say something, which is just the appetizer for his complete ignorance of them once the presentation is over, when he focuses instead on ironing out a minor detail of the demo itself.
The next demo is for a much smaller audience, the President (portrayed by Meryl Streep) and her retinue. In this one, Isherwell is demonstrating how his proposed system for intervening in the arrival of the world-killing planet that Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence’s characters identified. The demo is technically very impressive, presented via a slick hologram in which everything works exactly as intended. Isherwell also backs up the technical bona fides by name-dropping some accomplished academics, but the name-checks are crucially shallow.
Finally, the ‘hands-on’ happens when Isherwell shows off the asteroid-mining robots he’s created to the President prior the mission. It’s a brief, surface-level look at the tech outside of its target use case that can’t help but be impressive, but that isn’t at all backed up by later real-world performance.
In every instance where Isherwell is demonstrating what his technology will do, the scenario is fabricated and the demo is rigged. Each is a reflection of an ideal state, and each (either maliciously or otherwise) hides the actual purpose or performance of the tech in question once loosed on the real world. The smartphone OS, installed on actual phones, later ends up just auto-buying music for one of DiCaprio’s on-screen sons without his permission or even involvement.
The asteroid dismantling robots first collide into one another, then just fail to break up the comet as intended. Isherwell doesn’t stay to deal with the consequences: He excuses himself and moves on to his next big idea — a colony ship to escape to the stars (also, it turns out, doomed).
In the movie, the main criticism levied against Isherwell’s plan by the actual scientists in the film is that it isn’t ‘peer-reviewed.’ This may seem a weak counter, but it’s actually a profound one when you consider what it means about the tech industry in general.
Bash’s big plan to turn an existential threat (the asteroid) into commercial gain (through resource mining) is just a much more concrete example of the earlier operating system launch. Both are nascent technologies with the potential for profound impact on human society loosed into the world with, at best, only passing consideration given to knock-on effects, or to what happens if the impact is still profound but not the one imagined, or modelled in a vacuum.
Don’t Look Up is parody in that it exaggerates story elements to the level of farce in order to point out their absurdity, and most of us would still acknowledge that in cases where physical or planetary health are involved, it would be bizarre to expect something with that level of consequence to be put into action without any level of serious scrutiny or review by actual experts in the field. But we never think the same about the introduction of new technologies whose effects are perhaps more subtle but no less profound, like the smartphone, or new social networks, or new means of organizing, presenting and accessing information.
If there’s one takeaway for tech industry observers and participants from this movie, it’s this: Never trust the demo. We shouldn’t need the reminder, but the stakes aren’t always obvious until well after the fact.