'They're in our heads': TV series tackles big-tech nightmare

Fiachra GIBBONS
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Powell's show is set in the near future when we can share emotions, thoughts and what we see with our eyes on a social network embedded in our brains

Powell's show is set in the near future when we can share emotions, thoughts and what we see with our eyes on a social network embedded in our brains (AFP Photo/JOEL SAGET)

Cannes (France) (AFP) - Channing Powell, the creator of the hit horror television series "The Walking Dead", is not someone who is easily spooked.

But Powell is scared, "terrified actually" of what big tech might be up to.

And critics were too after watching her spine-chilling new series, "The Feed", premiere in Cannes this week.

The Amazon show is set in the near future when we can share emotions, thoughts and what we see with our eyes on a social network embedded in our brains.

If that sounds as far fetched as the post-apocalyptic zombies of "The Walking Dead", Powell has news for you.

"Elon Musk and Facebook are already trying to develop the technology portrayed in the show," she told AFP at the Canneseries festival in the French Riviera resort.

The Tesla boss and sometime Twitter warrior "is developing a neuro lace (computer) that covers the entire brain that you would control with thought," Powell said.

"Facebook has been working on something similar in some place called 'Building 8' where it has all its secret projects."

Both are very quiet about what precisely they are doing, said Powell.

- Chips controlled by thought -

However, "people at MIT have already created something you can attach to your ear that is controlled by thought.

"It can tell you the time and how much groceries are when you walk through the aisles of a supermarket," she added.

"The Feed" -- which will screen later this year -- is based on Nick Clark Windo's 2018 novel of the same name.

Told from inside the fabulously wealthy family who invented "The Feed" and now effectively control the world, the story doesn't end well.

Given what we have learned about the harvesting and misuse of personal data from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and how Google can seem to predict our needs before we search for it on our smartphone, that should not be too surprising.

"We have seen dystopian shows before but never like this," Powell insisted, who cast British actor David Thewlis as the tech guru patriarch of the seemingly well-meaning clan.

"It was a very realistic portrayal of what happens when we let technology control us -- and we are heading in that direction.

"We cannot let go of our iPhones, we need to check Instagram every hour or minute. The notion that you would put something inside your head is really frightening to me," the 39-year-old said.

- 'Terrifying' -

But it is where tech companies are going, she insisted, the next logical step from Google's smart glasses.

Powell said workers in some companies in Belgium and Sweden already have chips implanted in their bodies.

"What is happening around us right now is so scary. When somebody like Elon Musk (a radical libertarian) -- who is inside this -- is telling the government, 'You need to regulate us, and stop us from doing what we are doing', that is terrifying. Because he knows way more than we know," she said.

Paranoia about new technology is nothing new, Powell admitted, dating back beyond the Industrial Revolution.

But what we are living through now, and with little or no regulation to hold tech companies back, is of a different order, she argued.

"Technology has brought us so much.... but there are also these negative undertones to it. Facebook is watching you and selling your information. They own Instagram and WhatsApp, and (Amazon's) Alexa is in every room of your house. Siri can pop up on your phone when you didn't even call her. You cannot ignore that side of it."

Set in England, "The Feed" has British actor Guy Burnet play Thewlis' psychologist son and Nina Toussaint-White his daughter-in-law.

Burnet told AFP that the series' vision of the near future "was far from crazy... and it is amazing it hasn't been done before" when you see Beijing's plans for its social credit system.

From next year all Chinese citizens will be ranked and either punished or rewarded according to their "social credit" score.

"I think we're not on the precipice, we may have already passed it," the actor warned.

In "The Feed", a handful of people control the code on which the world relies, and it is they, said Powell, who get to decide what the public need to know.

"Which is effectively where we are now" in the real world too, the writer warned.