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Augmented-reality movie director: If tech is made to be addictive, 'We're f*cked' (Q&A)

"We are going to be, potentially, walking into a very dark situation."

Magnolia Pictures

When Benjamin Dickinson directed "Creative Control," an independent film that premiered at South by Southwest last year and was bought by Amazon last fall, he had never used any virtual reality or augmented reality technology. All he knew was that he was addicted to his smartphone.

"This movie is an attempt to deal with" that addiction, Dickinson said.

"Creative Control" takes place in a version of the near-future where an ad exec (Dickinson) lands the business of Augmenta, the makers of a hip new pair of smart glasses. As he tries to understand the glasses and their creepy potential, however, his real life begins to unspool.

Today, the film reads as a prescient satire of how tech companies are pushing us toward tech that’s even more addictive than smartphones. Dickinson answered Re/code’s questions about "Creative Control" via email.

Re/code: When did you first start thinking about augmented reality as the premise for a movie? Was there a specific moment that it clicked into place?

Benjamin Dickinson: I didn’t actually begin with the augmented reality thing. The first wave of the concept was about the phones negotiating our interpersonal relationships. The constant presence of smartphones, every social interaction being processed through these square screens. It wasn’t until I started writing the film that the augmented reality aspect emerged. It was a way to visually dramatize what I think is already happening to us, but in futuristic ways.

Who did you consult with on the technological side to create what we see in the final film?

My biggest consultant was Jake Lodwick, who plays Gabe in the film. Jake [co-founded] Vimeo; he thinks like an entrepreneur. Google Glass had come out around the time I conceived of the idea, and our discussion was, "What would Google Glass be like if it was an actually good product?"

What augmented/virtual reality devices have you used? And did those experiences influence "Creative Control"?

At this point, I have experienced a lot of them: Vive, Oculus, etc., in the VR world, and Meta in the AR world. Before I shot the film, which was in fall 2013, I hadn’t seen anything at all, not even Google Glass. It was all based on research and extrapolating from that research. And imagining.

You recently screened the film in San Francisco. What has been the general reaction to it from tech-savvy people?

Surprisingly, the tech community seems to be embracing the film, even though it is somewhat critical of some of the more utopian tendencies of that community. I find this to be very encouraging. My impression is that the tech community is very conscious of the potential hazards of what they are creating, and I think there is a genuine concern to make sure the products they are designing are good for the human mammal, and not just for profit. This is excellent.

Do you see "Creative Control" more as a satire or a warning of things to come?

Well, it’s a satire of where we are at right now, and a warning, too! Like, if we don’t start to discuss our situation — and I’m not just talking about the inevitable exponential upswing of tech according to Moore’s Law, but also the social pressure and economic pressures — then we are going to be, potentially, walking into a very dark situation. If we design our tech to be addictive, rather than expansive, and if we continue to worship greed above all else, then we are fucked.

You can watch a clip of Dickinson’s character exploring the Augmenta glasses here:

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