I’m writing whilst debating whether to spend £6.99 on the iTunes download of Rollerball, the original Norman Jewison version of 1975. (There are of course other options, including renting the 2002 version for £2.49, but this is not really even an option). It’s not the money alone giving me pause, but the irony of purchasing a film about the rise of ‘corporate society’ from the worlds most powerful entertainment corporation. (To add further irony Apple inc. was founded in 1976…)
I first saw Rollerball when I was ten or so, at the start of one of those summer holidays that seemed to go on forever (at least until the last day of August when we went shopping for school uniforms and pencils and text books and it all seemed suddenly far too short) and I spent much of the holiday cycling a child size BMX around the concrete playground at the heart of the housing estate, pretending to be a motorcycling Rollerballer. I’m not sure I got the poltical sub-text of the movie then, but I thought the spiky gloves were cool and the Japanese death-blow was the coolest thing EVER.
(It’s likely that one of the most formative factors in my love of weird tings was being allowed to stay up late most nights and watch really quite weird and violent telly.)
Rollerball is set in 2018, in a utopian / dystopian (depending upon your viewpoint) future society where corporations control every aspect of society. No one is poor, no one is sick, but neither is anyone free and humanities darker side is expressed in the ultra-violent future sport of Rollerball. The trailer is really rather excellent:
As we come closer to 2018 Rollerball seems ever more prescient. Behind the the rhetoric of recession and austerity, the true process at work in the current economic collapse is the complete ceding of power from nation states to corporate structures. The vast debts now carried by the industrialised nations are a stone over which to break them. The only question is how much longer the puppet shows of national politics will continue, and whether our corporate structures will develop any form of democratic process beyond shareholder privilege.
The uncomfortable truth is that for those who value material comfort and wealth, the ‘corporate society’ will be as great a step forward as was the industrial society of nation states before it. The average person will have tremendous material wealth, almost unimaginable today. But at what cost? If the trends of today continue, the price will be conformity and inequality. For the masses life will come pre-packaged and perfectly tailored to fit your biometric profile. As long as you don’t ask too many questions, you might even be able to believe you have chosen your life. But you’ll never be more than a component in closed system designed to empower others. The elite controlling those systems will have unbounded wealth, and the pick of new technologies that will transform their existence so far beyond our own that it’s hard now to even imagine. A sci-fi fantasy? I might have said so a decade ago, but as the masks which covered the staggering inequalities in our society are stripped away by the recession, it seems an ever more likely future.
There is a mind-game which asks ‘If Steve Jobs ran the whole society like an Apple product – let’s call it iSociety – so that it functioned perfectly but gave no freedom of choice, would you rejoice or rebel?’ Your answer to that question may well determine your response to the decades ahead.