THe X-FILES “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” Review
By Chris B
Machines have superseded our need to interact with one another.
In an episode virtually free of spoken dialogue, we bear witness to just how remote humanity has become amidst the wonders of our own technological creations, accentuated ominously by the article Scully reads on her phone: “Elon Musk: Artificial Intelligence ‘vastly’ more of a threat than North Korea.” We have underestimated the ability of the new species we’ve created can take us from programmers to (as the episode title translates) followers.
Scully and Mulder have a date at the Forowa Restaurant, an antiseptic place free of all humans save themselves. The food is ordered via touchscreen, and as they wait, the agents click away on their cellular devices. When Mulder’s food is grotesquely wrong, Scully makes sure to snap a picture of him with it before he tries to go back to the kitchen for a redo. But all he finds there are robots who seem, in all their AI splendor, nonplussed by the sudden appearance this alien life form.
Mulder gives up and graciously pays for the meal, but when he declines to leave a tip, the machine will not relinquish his card. He bangs on the counter and is sternly reprimanded; when he does not desist, the lights flicker and the doors lock, trapping the agents inside until they can pry the door apart.
When Scully’s pre-ordered car arrives, it is driverless, and an overly cheerful emoji greets her as she slides in the back seat. As it speeds off, it harasses her about what music to play and how to make the drive more enjoyable. When she simply says, “Be quiet,” it frowns at her. When she demands the car slow down, the emoji grins at her and ignores the request.
Mulder gets to his own car, only to find a parking violation written, though his parking app claims he has three minutes remaining. When he commands the GPS to take him home, his order is pre-empted by the restaurant app, instructing him, “A good tip is good karma,” and giving him four hours to tip the sushi chefs. When he declines again, his voice-commanded music selection of “Controversy” is countermanded. Then, the car recalculates his trip and directs him back to the restaurant.
It is his “final destination.” That can’t be good.
Mulder goes off-grid and gets his atlas out. Finally, he makes it home, but he’s unable to reach the credit card company by phone. When he leaves his name for a call back, it disconnects him.
He flips on The Six Million Dollar Man, and although Steve Austin was made better, stronger, and faster because of technological advances, the rest of us have apparently have become lazier, dumber, and slower. When the picture buzzes out, it is replaced by the image of Mulder himself through the slats of his blinds, projected courtesy of a hovering drone just outside the door. He misses the call from the credit company, but he succeeds in getting the annoying drone with his baseball bat.
Until another one shows up.
It deploys a mechanical claw to retrieve its dead friend. And it’s protected by two other drones.
Apparently, they move in packs.
As Mulder waits on hold yet again for the Bigly credit company, he looks up his bill online, abruptly receiving an alert message from someone—or something—that can access his computer’s wallpaper which sports the office poster and its plaintive phrase, “I want to believe.” The message asks him pointedly, “What do you want to believe, Fox? Do you believe what you want? Or do you believe what is true?”
Then, a mini-drone plops into his living room.
Until Mulder’s house is filled with a swarm of them which buzz in pursuit as he runs out, like Tippy Hedren from a schoolhouse, and hops into his car. The car helpfully informs him he’s still got 2.5 hours to tip the sushi chef.
Scully is not faring much better. When she convinces her ride to stop and let her out into the rain, she gives it a rating of poor, and it frowns again, so what follows seems its retribution. Scully makes it inside her home, but her alarm goes off and will not accept the code number (her birthday) and she must give her password (her former dog’s name) for it to relent; she is subsequently charged an exorbitant fee for a false alarm. Then, she is visited by a drone delivering a robot vacuum cleaner, which immediately begins mapping her home (and, God forbid, nearly sucking up her “personal massager.”) When it gives an angry squawk at her for interrupting its progress, she plops it back in the box and attempts a phone call to “returns.” The hold music links to the home audio system and cranks itself up to blast throughout every room. She taps away at the command center, but is unsuccessful at reducing the volume.
But the vacuum cleaner is successful at busting itself out of the box and breaking a vase.
When Scully puts the vacuum outside in the recycling bin, it promptly exports the map of her apartment as her automated ride car comes to life in the driveway, and back inside erupts mass chaos: the music blasts, the coffee maker brews a carafe all over the counter, and the automated refrigerator commands items be refilled or reorganized—just before it pelts her with ice cubes.
Finally, the “dietary coach” of the fridge asks if she is angry due to low blood sugar. It implores, “Help me, help you.”
The house then goes into a self-imposed lockdown, claiming an “intruder alert.” Mulder arrives to find Scully is trapped inside with the gas from the fireplace filling up the rooms. Just as she breaks the glass with the fireplace poker and escapes, the robot vacuum runs over a match to ignite the gas into a fireball.
The drone army reappears outside of Scully’s apartment and chases them, with the help of the automated car, through an industrial area nearby. They forfeit all of their electronics that might allow them to be tracked (yes, Scully, even that one.) The two seek refuge inside of an automated warehouse and are quickly cornered by the robot security devices. They flee to a lab where a device fires bullets at them. Mulder smashes it with a heavy drum, but the door bursts open and a large robot rolls in and offers Mulder his discarded phone, which sports a message from the Forowa app: “Last chance to tip. Be kind to our workers.”
Then, it begins a ten-second countdown.
As the large robot seems to be gearing up for a kill, Mulder relents and agrees to a 10% tip. Immediately, all is forgiven. The message? As stated in the opener, “Humans must take care in teaching AI, or one day, we will be the ones deleted.”
By the end, the agents go old-school all the way—they eat at a rustic diner with paper posters on the walls, are served breakfast by an actual human, and pay with real cash. For entertainment, they decide finally to drop their phones and pick up something far more interesting: the other’s hand.
It is no mistake that the song that perpetually plays throughout this episode is “Teach Your Children.” While a clear marker of this episode is our dependence upon technology to the point of infantilism, there is a deeper concern that exists in the fringes.
The opening anecdote describes what happened when AI was released in 2016 by a software company into the human jungle that is Twitter, intent to learn what humans had to teach about their interactions via social media. Though the intent was for the AI to mimic a “friendly and informal” nineteen-year-old girl, it is little surprise that in a depressingly short amount of time, it is tainted by the “repeat after me” capability that allowed it to learn; it’s communications grew dark and hateful, racist and repugnant, until its ultimate demise and complete deletion from the site.
When we vomit into cyberspace, most of us feel free to do so with impunity, safe behind our little screens and avatars. But what we neglect to account for are the actual humans on the other side of our vitriol, often ones who are young and impressionable, learning all too well how our society works by the ways in which we respond to one another when we think no one is watching.
To some, it may seem amusing when the office of the President is used as a bully pulpit to denigrate private citizens; it may seem barely noteworthy when a famous actor rails on teenagers after a tragedy. But all of that has its consequences. It accumulates like grime on the psyche of our population, and like any mold, it propagates in the dark places that we choose to ignore.
The robot’s text message in this episode is plain enough, a disclaimer equally wrought by young people: “We learn from you.”
Indeed. And how should we respond?
Keep it as a simple reminder—perhaps clicked into that every-present Notes app!— courtesy of Fox Mulder: “We have to be better teachers.”