Wednesday, May 27, 2020



The hegemony of technology


By Rachel Niblett


Struggling to escape her dreary hometown and ongoing divorce drama, Helen (voiced by Alia Shawkat) gets a job at Orbital Teledynamics, a secretive tech company responsible for the creation of an Alexa-style personal assistant named Sandra.


Unlike Alexa, Sandra (Kristen Wiig) is operated by humans who respond to queries and have access to every scrap of information that there is to know about a person. Think Siri, but dialed up to a hundred.


If the omnipresence of the Amazon Echo unnerves you, then Sandra’s role as a kind of friendly Big Brother will leave you rattled. Sandra is essentially every AI skeptic’s worst nightmare: a machine which has all the best qualities of a computer and, unfortunately, the impulses of a human. 


As Helen begins to humanize her role as personal assistant to the masses, her desire to help leads her into increasingly gray territory. One area that Sandra excels in from the beginning is in its observation that even with the best intentions, technology can facilitate the most destructive human behaviors. 


Sadly, such insights are undercut by a lackluster plot. While I appreciate the move away from the specter of rogue AI that has been done and overdone–2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, I Robot, and most recently, Ex Machina are all testament to society’s AI complex–the notion that the ‘person’ behind the curtain is just a person seems archaic, if not absurd, in 2019.


Sandra doesn’t have enough bite to make me feel truly troubled by the vision of AI that it presents, and any success it does achieve in this field is first ignored and later undone when the story takes a narrative nosedive in its penultimate episode. 


Technology is liberating, but it naturally gives power to those who can wield and manipulate it best. Sandra is at its most commanding when it addresses the increasing hegemony of technology and the morality of giving anyone, or anything, the ability to monitor human behavior in the way that we do.


If Sandra had a more potent narrative and a clearer conception of what it wanted itself to be, it might be a convincing allegory about the dangers of sharing so much of ourselves with a medium that is ultimately easily corrupted. 


Instead, it settles for a domestic drama-cum-sci-fi thriller that fails to commit to either genre successfully. The podcast benefits from strong performances from its cast and an interesting premise, but never manages to achieve more than this. –RN


Cover art courtesy of Gimlet Media.

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