Teasing out the knots of our tangled web
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The internet is everywhere.
It is in our ears. It is in our pockets. It is in our brains, and it is in our collective consciousness. Many of us have not known a world without it, and as a result, have grown… what’s the word… uhhhh… just let me Google this… reliant on the services the internet has to offer.
When the connection is lost, so too are we.
So when Scott (Daniel Péloquin-Hunter) a moustachioed engineer working for the International Digital Society, is tasked with finalizing a program to “clean up” the internet, he is understandably… what’s the term… up the creek without a paddle… when a severe weather event knocks some cords and wires out of place. Aprés lui, le déluge.
In Empreinte(s), on to March 24 at Théatre Cercle Molière, three living characters — Scott, Hervé (Henri Thomas) and Koumba (Aminata Touré) — must work together to decide what a new internet, and in a way, a new world, should look like.
Scott, the antisocial tech-bro, thinks he knows best. But Hervé, a successful businessman who has seemingly made a fortune in the manufacturing sector, also considers himself wise. Koumba, a cleaner, knows a thing or two about how to fix the messes others leave behind.
Of course Scott disregards the other two. They aren’t experts, like him. Empreinte(s), a multi-pronged collaboration helmed by the Francophone director Karim Troussi, probes that self-centred thought: if all of us are experts, then nobody is, and if nobody is, then we are doomed. On the internet, this societal fallacy is more obvious than anywhere else.
The dark sides of the web are at the heart of Empreinte(s), which puts our three characters inside a box at IDS headquarters, with shifting walls, a robotic voice named Enlil, an AI named Sylvia, and echo chambers encircling each character. To a different generation, this is comparable to the cone of silence, made famous in the 1960s television series Get Smart. (Smart lighting, set, and sound design elevates this story significantly.)
Like that series, Empreinte(s) deals directly and indirectly with real-world anxieties. But while Buck Henry and Mel Brooks were concerned with the looming threats of the Cold War, simultaneously mocking, addressing, and cowering at the stupidity at its core, dramaturges émilie malosse, Biliah Bah and Dominique Leclerc are instead fixated on the potentially ominous machines who seem destined to both replace human ingenuity and supplant individual thought.
In recent weeks, Chat GPT, a software which uses artificial intelligence to compose written content, has been a source of contention in all industries. Educators have raised concern over its potential to hinder actual learning, turning students into data inputters instead of writers. Meanwhile, AI remains a powerful tool for work related to translation and transcription; reporters often use it for both.
AI is a tool in the toolbox. Empreinte(s) worries what happens when it is tasked with constructing the shed.
The show, which unfolds in French (English subtitles are available), is a showcase for ideas, and for its actors. Péloquin-Hunter and Thomas are given ample opportunity for slapstick, and often rise to the occasion. However, in this trio, it is Touré’s Koumba who controls the story, and therefore, the end results.
This is the right decision: voices from working class women of colour like Koumba are often left out of conversations about the internet, as well as most conversations writ large. Hervé and Scott both are expected, based on societal biases, to be in charge, but it is when they begin to listen to Koumba, who raises salient points about access to information and digital infrastructure, that both characters begin to see a new light.
Ultimately, when the internet goes down, everyone panics: Scott, whose job depends on it; Hervé, who wonders how in the world he’ll stay connected to his kids without social media; and Koumba, who isn’t perfect, but realizes the physical world extends beyond her own digital self.
It’s a funny corporate comedy and environmental parable wrapped into one, with tones reminiscent of last year’s ascendent television comedy, Severance, and to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Developed by TCM, Cie du Jour and La Muse theatre companies, the show is a globalist critique disguised as a techno-drama.
It asks the audience to consider why society goes to pieces when the cellular network goes out for a few hours, but hardly bats an eyelash when the temperature rises to levels so high that animals, including humans, are dying at an alarming rate.
The most recent epoch is often called the Anthropocene, taking into account the profound impact human activity has on our lived environment.
Digital fingerprints are accompanied by ecological footprints. It’s quite possible that both indentations are too deep to ever return to a livable equilibrium.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, March 16, 2023 6:40 AM CDT: Adds that English subtitles are available