About a month ago, I attended the Leiden Short Film festival and went to see all the finalists for the student competition. One which really stood out to me was Forever by Mitch McGlocklin. The film pulled the audience out of the world of hazy, colorful scenery and ambiguous plots which seemed to be the commonality among the other submissions and instead took a purely digital form. The scenes were made up of a number of pixels spinning unendingly and morphing into new settings, which I later found out was made using LiDAR, a type of technology which collects footage that is used for self-driving cars. While the other films took on a vintage aesthetic, Foreverlaunched us into a present which has started to look more and more like a dystopia than the here and now.
Aside from the foreign yet lucid visuals, the premise of the story was jarringly comforting. The story is about Mitch, a man who attempts to apply for life insurance and finds out that he is ineligible because the insurance company’s AI algorithm determines he is too much of a risk. Mitch falls into a spiral of thought, realizing that his life is entirely quantifiable, to the point that AI seems to know whether or not he’s prone to a life-threatening accident.
This isn’t an uncommon plot line, we’ve seen countless stories and musings since way before the algorithmic turn and the prominence of surveillance technologies that ponder how our lives are perhaps no longer our own. But unlike the typical narrative which either paints these technologies as a dangerous and fearful phenomenon or a revolutionary and helpful tool, Mitch takes a hauntingly, lighthearted take on the issue. The quantifiability of his life comforts him. The presence of algorithms and AI makes him feel less lonely.
What’s more, the unique visuals I described earlier further emphasize this. LiDAR, the technology used to film the entire thing, is made by AI in order to visualize the surrounding world, but its technique has its pros and cons. It can’t fully see everything, but it can capture you. And the scenes it shows in the film seem distant but also eerily familiar. We are not seeing Mitch, but we are seeing his space, his mannerisms and the bits of life surrounding him. The film positions us as the AI, looming over Mitch and his train of thought and seemingly offering him comfort.
McGlocklin’s suggestion that perhaps there is no need to idolize AI and algorithms nor disparage them, and that instead we might learn to live with it and feel comforted by their presence, is a rather lovely thought. He suggests that our deaths don’t completely matter, our life is being swiftly predicted, decided and finally recorded so that the end is obsolete. Years from now, (assuming the world lasts long enough), records of who we are will have faded from human memory and exist solely in technology. In short, we are no longer ephemeral.
Still, McGlocklin’s choice of visualizing his story send another message. There will be parts of you left behind, undetected by digital records. LiDAR can only tell us so much about the world which Mitch lives in, and it is only in telling multiple audiences across multiple film festivals that McGlocklin can tell this story. Yes, the film positions us as the AI, we are meant to view him. And so this record of who you are, what you’ve thought and what you’ve presented to the world, is only truly meaningful in the face of other humans. We are still ephemeral.