still frame from 1982's Blade Runner of a spinner flying by a billboard

Blade Runner's 2019 vs. Today: Which Is the Dystopia?

7 minute read
Jed Cawthorne avatar
When you compare the "Blade Runner" version of 2019 Los Angeles with today's, it can be hard to pick out which is the dystopia.

Even if you’re not a science-fiction or movie buff like me, you've probably heard of Ridley Scott’s 1982 "Blade Runner," his cinematic imagining of Philip K. Dick’s short story, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Blade Runner was set in Los Angeles, in November 2019. Yes, that’s right. As of this week, Blade Runner is now set in the past, not our future. Scott hired American industrial designer Syd Mead to work as his futurologist, to build out his concepts of a dystopian future which added to the visually stunning movie. 

Many articles over the years have covered how the movie's treatment of technology stood up to real life, especially the neon advertising seen everywhere in the film’s version of Los Angeles, but I thought we would take a look at its concepts of the future through the lens of information management, information governance and security.

Security in the World of 'Blade Runner'

The fictional tech of the movie was at a much higher level than ours, starting with the film’s protagonists, who are androids, artificial humans. These genetically manipulated super-people called Replicants are designed to do difficult jobs to prevent risk to humans. Although they are faster, stronger and more robust than normal humans, they are not necessarily smarter, and unfortunately are all doomed to an artificially short lifespan. The movie's Replicant characters are back on Earth looking for information on how to extend their lifespan.

Yes, I did say back on Earth. While we don’t yet have "off-world colonies," Elon Musk is working hard on getting us into orbit and maybe to the moon or Mars. Some of the humans in Blade Runner have migrated to these off-world colonies, and the Replicants are supposed to apply their skills to aid them. So the first inference I am going to draw from the movie's plot, is that in Blade Runner’s 2019, the cybersecurity is potentially better than ours. Apparently the Replicants cannot hack a distant terminal in order to launch attacks against the networks of the company that made them, Tyrell Corporation. Perhaps latency is an issue on the interplanetary internet, but there are ways of launching exploits that do not require high-speed interactive access. So, it looks like that at least Tyrell Corp. has good network security. This requires, as it often does now, that the bad guys take a social engineering approach. 

Generally, Blade Runner steers clear of hacker culture, which given the fact it was made in '82 makes sense, but I am going to say that in our overall environment of regular data breaches today, with over 3,000 publicly disclosed so far in 2019, marking a 54% increase on the first half of last year, seems a lot less locked down and secure than what was supposed to be a dystopian future.

Related Article: Customer Data: Too Many Breaches, Not Enough Action

AI in the Home Office

The hero, a police officer named Rick Deckard, is the movie's titular Blade Runner (someone who hunts down and ‘retires’ Replicants). He uses a sophisticated computer image manipulation system in his apartment (home office?) to uncover the Replicant’s whereabouts. The system has voice control, so the whole digital assistant phenomenon seems to be something that was predicted accurately. Deckard also talks to the elevator in his building, which uses his voice print (and other biometrics?) to verify his identity in conjunction with a keycard. 

Although not specifically called out at any point in the movie, artificial intelligence is inferred. For a start, the Replicants must be considered AI. They are not human and yet they are conscious. We are told they have fake memories of a fake childhood for psychological reasons. On a more mundane level, Deckard’s computer system seems to use advanced AI algorithms to build a 3-D scene, allowing him to see things not visible in the 2-D prints he fed into the system. However the scene of him talking to the system, telling it to zoom in and focus on different items in the photo is highly believable given the amount of voice control we now take for granted, and the ability to manipulate and analyze images provided by the likes of Microsoft, Google and Amazons cloud based AI tools.

Related Article: Why AI Is at the Center of the Modern Workplace 

Flying Cars? No. But Autonomous Cars ...

One thing we do not have yet, although companies are working on them, is flying cars. We've already established the fictional world seems to have better network security, so the threat of someone hacking a flying car and turning it into a missile doesn't seem to be a problem, nor does air-traffic control. Now, to look good, and futuristic for a 1982 audience, the cars have a cockpit with lots of switches, lights buttons and displays. 

Learning Opportunities

An autonomous ground vehicle, or even an autonomous flying car, needs little in the way of instrumentation, the idea being that it is safer than a manually driven or piloted craft, and so human intervention can do little to help. For that reason, many designs for self-driving cars don’t have a steering wheel or any other manual controls. However a 2017 MIT Technology Review article suggested that hackers could be the biggest threat to autonomous vehicles. The article references a collaboration between US and Chinese universities which figured out how to jam the sensors on a Tesla Model S. Other researchers have used the built-in 4G mobile networking to access a car’s computer system. So once again, perhaps our attitude to cybersecurity is less strict and thorough than that of the fictional world.

Related Article: Baby You Can Drive My Car: The Business Benefits of Autonomous Driving

Advertising, Privacy and the Surveillance Society

One thing Blade Runner did not predict was the highly personalized advertising we are inundated with on a daily basis. In fact, in Blade Runner, giant airships (blimps) pass over Los Angeles carrying huge screens and PA systems extolling the virtues of a life on the off-world colonies. However, the movie does not show everyone carrying an always on, always connected mobile phone. The dystopian future also lacks the controversy over Facebook showing political adds that contain lies. So maybe it’s not that dystopian after all .… 

Twenty years after Blade Runner, Steven Spielberg made "Minority Report," another movie based on a Philip K. Dick story. The constant tracking in a surveillance society is a much more central theme here. The hero of Minority Report is trying to go unnoticed and every window and storefront speaks to him, by name, offering the latest deals and offers. For a 15-year-old movie, based on an older story, Minority Report includes voice controlled home automation, driverless cars, facial recognition and a slew of other technologies including deep fakes that are already becoming mainstream or will be before the movie's fictional setting in 2054.

Related Article: Facebook: A Case Study in Ethics

Which Version of 2019 Los Angeles Is the Dystopia?

We don’t have murderous artificial superhumans on the prowl, nor have we had an ecological collapse (yet), or numerous unspecified biological disasters. However, we are in a society that is struggling with application of advanced technologies. Our cybersecurity could be characterized as poor overall, with breaches, ransomware events and denial-of-service attacks all being daily (or hourly) events. We struggle with concepts of online privacy, ownership of and rights to our own data, and with questions of how to deal with fake news, propaganda and information warfare. 

From an information security and information governance standpoint, we may already be living in a dystopian world, meaning we need to do a much better job on those fronts before we can consider the ethical impacts of autonomous vehicles and anything approaching a human-level AI.

About the author

Jed Cawthorne

Jed Cawthorne is principal evangelist at ShinyDocs, focusing on spreading the message of the benefits of good data and information management. Jed has over 20 years experience in information and knowledge management, and over 25 years in IT.

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