Severance and Pantheon reveal the ways our humanity can disappear amid the convergence of money and information.
As long as humans populate the Earth, we will always find a way to capitalize on the technology at our disposal. It has been easy to agree that the more technology melds with our lives, the more those in power will seek to benefit at the expense of the many. But if the planned obsolescence of our humanity is sold as a benefit to all, how will we resist?
The first examples of speculative fiction as a medium were largely focused on the possible utopia that technology could provide. Fantastic stories of interplanetary travel and colonization intertwined with dreamed-of advances in medicine and robotics, promising immortality through a fusion of humanity and AI, among other delights.
After the boom created by the Industrial Revolution, the reaches of human ingenuity felt limitless. The universe itself – not just the world – seemed to be within the grasp of “creative genius” – our artists, scientists, and philosophers. But as those advances in technology came to fruition, bursting forth with new uses and adaptations seemingly overnight, the idea of utopia slowly fizzled away under the weight of the dystopia more slowly being forged with each new invention. Our reliance on technology became less a sign of human evolution, and more a harbinger of our inevitable mutilation.
In these formative years of the Internet Age, it feels impossible to trust a sunny outlook for our future. It has become too hard to think separately about dystopia and technology – not because of tech itself, but because of what humans inevitably do with technology. Peter Thiel recently claimed Silicon Valley suffers from a “tech curse” akin to the “resource curse” of economics, a source of seemingly endless wealth that fuels corruption and decay. But it also fuels more technologization, optimized for the increase of their numerical hoard. In this sense, the greatest detriment to the furtherance of our species is the vicious cycle of money concentrating technology and technology concentrating money. Ultimately, the two converge into one system, where remuneration and information are the same thing used by the same people for the same end, the posthuman future sold, or enforced, as the ultimate utopia.
As the dream begins to waver, the balance tilts toward greater enforcement. America no longer enjoys the seemingly limitless abundance of the post-World War Two era. As a new World War slides into view, the ramifications of our legacy system are screaming into our faces at every turn. The middle class is disappearing, scarcity of food, supplies, and quality medical care is the norm, and yet humanity is considered the most advanced, wealthy, and interconnected in history.
Corporate media has worked reliably to control how we think about good and bad futures. But as the two tracks increasingly interweave, dystopian entertainment has grown more serious. Severance and Pantheon, on Apple TV and AMC+ respectively, offer a bracing look at how the unlimited concentration of wealth and data can seal the fate of humankind.
Releasing its first season in early 2022, Severance presents a near-future where biotech mega-company Lumon uses a controversial and questionable procedure: a chip implanted in their employees’ brains severs their memory-making faculties during work hours. The reason is bathed in mystery – to achieve a healthy work-life balance, as the company would put it? Or is it the sensitive, perhaps immoral nature of the work they must do?
On the surface, the wager is tempting, especially at a cultural moment where corporate jobs and “wagies” alike are so often maligned. You go into work, take an elevator down to the basement offices, let the office flip the switch that activates your implant, and poof, memory off. Blinking back on after the job is done, you go home fresh, or … seemingly so.
But of course the implications just beneath the surface are where the real story happens. Severance reveals the terms of the wager that each employee has accepted for their wage. In essence, rather than trimming off the part of their life they’d rather skip past, they’ve created a second, artificial self, a clone whose life and understanding of the world exists in the confines of a never-ending work “day.” Never sleeping, never finding leisure, never knowing what their other self (referred to as the “outie” in contrast to the “innie”) does out in the real world, or is. Family? Friends? Loves? Banished to the void. What the employees of Lumon have done, in an act of consciousness rebelling against itself, is condemn a perfect replica of themselves to a living hell.
The implications grow darker still when you discover the very human reasons why many of the employees are willing to undergo this procedure. Main character Mark (Adam Scott) was a college history professor before his wife died in a car accident. He chooses to go through with severance because it will allow at least some part of him to never have to feel the constant pain of that kind of loss. A particularly unsettling moment – one of the opening scenes of the series – has Mark sobbing in his car, staring at a picture of his deceased wife, before wiping his eyes, walking into the Lumon building, and entering the elevator, where in real time you see the agony of otherwise inescapable grief wiped clean from his mind. The memories disappear as he becomes his “innie,” a being with no knowledge that he ever even had a wife.
Because the “innies” only exist in the workplace, and take no memories home with them, they are open to limitless amounts of routine abuse and manipulation by their superiors. When new hire Helly (Britt Lower) misbehaves, she is taken into the “break room,” something akin to a black site interrogation chamber. Told to sit across from supervisor Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman), her hands are placed on a device that serves as a lie detector. She is then provided an apology letter and forced to read it, again and again and again. “I don’t believe you,” Milchick claims each time she finishes the scripted apology. And how can she really mean it? When Helly finally returns to the office space she shares with Mark, Dylan (Zach Cherry), and Irving (John Turturro), Mark asks her “How many times,” already all too aware of what the break room entails. “1,072,” she replies. “I said it 1,072 times.”
Out in the real world of Severance a host of human rights groups rally to make the procedure illegal, warning that some in Congress are already pushing to make it mandatory for all jobs, even for children. The web of deceit built between Lumon and the government, and their shadowy plan to transform human workers into mental automatons threads through the background of the entire series, coming to a thrilling and jaw-dropping finale reveal.
Through it all, Severance grapples genuinely with the ways we handle grief, the concept of freewill, and the temptation toreintroduce slavery. The convergence of money and information makes it easier than ever, and almost irresistible, to atomize and automate parts of ourselves, destroying the unity and integrity of our selves. The “innies” of Severance are viewed by many as less than human – mindless drone-versions of real persons, their rights unequal to the “outties” free to sell their lesser hived-off self into a lifetime of forced labor. In one poignant scene that cuts straight to the heart of the show, a woman working in the shadows as part of a resistance to the growing Severance threat to humanity tells Mark, “You brought him into this world without his permission, for your own emotional convenience.” The anti-natalist echo shows how the artificial reproduction of severance puts even natural reproduction under suspicion.
If Severance explores the idea of turning a version of us into slaves for profit with our given permission, Pantheon takes that same realistic possibility and translates it into something arguably even more likely and nearer on the horizon: Artificial Intelligence.
Pantheon takes place in an alternate version of our current society, even referencing the COVID-19 pandemic as an analogy for the apocalyptic events that eventually take place as a result of the action at the show’s focus. Maddie (Katie Chang) is an intelligent and bullied high school student whose father, David (Daniel Dae Kim), was a successful and genius programmer for the high-profile tech company Logorhythms before succumbing to a terminal illness two years ago.
The former CEO for Logorhythms, Stephen Holstrom (played by William Hurt in his final, and posthumous, acting credit), passed away much longer ago, in 2001, but not before sharing his vision of the future in a very Steve Jobs-esque TED Talk. In it he foretells the inevitable invention of UI, or Uploaded Intelligence, wherein people’s minds are moved to a digital server, making death, illness, and scarcity things of the past. Despite certain imperfections in the code, Holstrom’s company successfully uploaded the ailing David’s mind, with his consent and much to the chagrin of his anti-tech wife Ellen.Withhis expertise preserved on their servers, the company continued his work in secret, keeping under wraps knowing that one final flaw in the code had never been fixed. Logorhythms quickly learned that an AI replica of David’s mind wasn’t enough. David told Maddie when she was a child that the human brain was the most complex and greatest computer to ever exist, and working on that assumption the company decided to code emotion into UI-David in order to tap its full potential. But when they introduce the emotional stimuli to David’s UI, he becomes, mentally at least, human again. He remembers and misses his family. He considers himself to be locked in a digital prison, forced to write code and solve problems for Logorhythms for all eternity. And he wants out.
In inventing its digital slave, Logorhythms has invented the digital slave revolt. It’s a stroke of fateful irony that resonates with the predicament of Severance’s “innies” and “outies." If we try to create a thinking and feeling AI to complete tasks only a human could before, we will be trying to manufacture sentient creatures for the purpose of indentured servitude. Pantheon suggests that anything this close to human will do what humans forced into bondage do: rebel. The effort to introduce competent and sentient AI into our human world will trigger a cataclysmic Singularity, not an idyllic one.
The show’s title, Pantheon, is outlined as a core concept in the very first scene of the show, as Maddie sits in a classroom listening to her teacher talk. He explains that in almost every human mythology, there is an imperative story about a race of gods being overthrown, killed, or imprisoned by their very own kin. Kronos is dethroned and imprisoned in Tartarus by his son Zeus, who then rules with his brothers and sisters as the new pantheon of gods and goddesses where once the Titans stood on Mount Olympus. Pantheon’s Titans are humanity, and its Greek gods and goddesses the UI: the next step in “our” evolution and reign.
Who, then, is “we”? David wasn’t the only uploaded intelligence, or the first. A rival tech company based out of India, Alliance Telecom, became aware of Logorhythms’s UI program, and began experimenting with their own knockoff version, abducting the poor and sick from the slums of Mumbai and trying in vain to replicate what they knew Logorhythms had already successfully completed.
The race sets the scene for one of the most consequential characters in the show: Chandra (Raza Jaffrey), one of Alliance’s chief engineers. We meet Chandra as he joins a clandestine meeting with the current CEO of Logorhythms, offering his services to help with the coming boom that will be UI technology before Alliance makes their own patent with a more flawed program. He describes UI as being the biggest advancement since the industrial revolution. Working will be a thing of the past; people across the planet will be able to retire and live in leisure as UI will take up the helm of every human job in the world.
After leaving the meeting, Chandra is drugged and kidnapped. When he awakens, the CEO of Alliance, Prasad (Ajay Mehta), explains how he knows of Chandra’s plan to take his talents to Logorhythms, and how Alliance nevertheless believes they’ve gotten their UI program up to par enough to upload Chandra’s mind and force him to continue working as their lead engineer for UI, wiping his memory and giving him just enough emotional stimuli to enable him to solve creative problems.
What follows is the horrifying ordeal of Chandra being uploaded in real time while strapped down and still conscious as the machine burns through the layers of his exposed brain. He comes to in a digitally rendered version of his old office, with no sense of time, writing days and days of code that pass by in mere minutes out in the real world. In the quickly escalating UI race, Chandra becomes Alliance’s chief slave. Like David, he soon becomes fully sentient, this time with help from the mutilated digital remains of UIs uploaded from the slums, and breaks free. But unlike David, his goals aren’t altruistic in nature. He vows to take revenge on those who captured and tortured him. He begins to see humanity as less than UI, incapable of the godlike powers at his fingertips, utilized because of – and via – the vast interconnected networks that now largely run our entire world. Chandra wants to start anew with the next evolution of man, but first he needs to destroy the predecessors of his forming pantheon. Predictably, the military-industrial complex gets wind of the UI technology. Eager to deploy this new advantage in clandestine cyberwars, the complex quickly uploads their own soldiers for the cause. All the while, the single, fatal flaw in the UI code has still not been fixed. But another character, Caspian (Paul Dano), a seventeen-year-old mathematical genius whose life is shrouded in mysteries reaching all the way to the heart of Logorhythms’s biggest plan, may be the only one to fix this flaw, and reverse the otherwise cataclysmic end of the approaching Singularity Wars.
The motifs that both Pantheon and Severance dangle before us, firmly rooted in science fiction but still so plausible and close to our own reality, bring forth a visceral kind of dread: they’re not just scary, or even just likely – they intensify our difficulty in keeping emotionally separate the bad that might happen from the bad which has happened already. If these scenarios are coming sooner than we think, it’s likely because they’ve already been set so fully in motion. The ramifications of doom so bluntly and brilliantly conceived in these two shows make it hard to ignore that we may have lost the luxury of mere speculation. For me, the only question I have after watching both shows is not “will it happen?” but “What will we do when it does?”