Through synthesised speech and an adapted Star Trek script, artist Lin Ke’s Like Me (2016) questions whether digital technology detaches users from reality and community.
In the beginning of Lin Ke’s video Like Me, the artist is shown from the head down dancing in his home office through the camera of his laptop. The whole scene is covered by a semi-transparent blue overlay. Dubstep tracks by DJ Shadow, Spag Heddy, and other artists are played, switching from one song to another. As the music continues, Lin retires from dancing and sits at his desk to face the camera. A tiny rectangular frame featuring the artist’s face in full colour appears over the blue screen and begins to bounce around like a DVD logo screensaver, one of the key visual elements of digital home entertainment from the 1990s. Lin, contained within the frame, puts on a pair of headphones and repeats the phrase ‘I know’, seemingly responding to a conversation. These ramblings weave into the beats in the background, until the artist starts rapping lyrics that draw (and, at moments, veer) from the script of ‘The Menagerie’, an episode from the first season of Star Trek in 1966:
‘But they found it’s a trap,
Like a narcotic.
Because when dreams become more important than reality,
You give up travel, building, creating.
You even forget how to repair the machines left behind by your ancestors.
You just sit, living and re-living other lives left behind in the thought wreck.
To probe the mind of zoo samples, like me.’
The lines originally illustrate the Talosians, an alien race that possesses psionic abilities to create illusions of a fantasy world. Addicted to the illusions, the race is enslaved in the ceaseless chase of pleasure, leading to the decline of the society as a result of abandoned infrastructures and lack of historic documentation.
Lin’s adaptation of the Talosians’ tale is a commentary on the modern digital experience we are offered every day. The abundance of readily available online content in the form of grids, reels, and feeds has made people accustomed to getting real-time updates of other people’s lives with just a click and a scroll. Social media and streaming platforms compete for people’s attention with a constant influx of information tailored for short attention spans. Consider how many browser tabs you have opened on your laptop, or how many songs you have streamed and skipped today. Do you feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you have consumed? Do you experience FOMO (fear of missing out) when hearing about the latest internet trend that you may have overlooked? The artist compares internet users to the sci-fi aliens whose source of entertainment becomes their undoing; then questions whether a balance has been struck between indolence and profundity in our use of digital media.
Back then in the early 1990s, information explosion brought about by the rapid advancement of digital technology provided us access to on-demand viewing services on a scale never before seen and had had a noticeable effect on our visual culture. Moving image makers were quick to notice how radically this digital shift would change the world. In 2000, experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh produced a video titled 73 Suspect Words. The work flashes keywords extracted from ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’, a 35,000-word manifesto by American terrorist Ted Kaczynski published by The Washington Post and New York Times in 1995. Kaczynski, more known as the ‘Unabomber’, was notorious for mailing bombs to universities and airlines and targeting individuals that he identified as contributors to modern technology in an attempt to curb technology’s dominance in human lives. Ahwesh generated the keywords by running the text through a spellchecker which highlighted repeated words such as ‘oversocialized’ and ‘technophiles’. As the screen flashes a new keyword, a sound resembling a ticking bomb can be heard, amplifying the menace of Kaczynski’s extreme cynicism towards technology.
Ahwesh’s work demonstrates that as much as digital media provides us entertainment, it could be an equally powerful tool in helping us confront social reality and traumatic experience. There is a spectrum of relationships between human and digital technology, driven by how we use it and what we want from it. Lin also addresses this condition in Like Me by reflecting on the unprecedented freedom we enjoy in the digital world which allows us to access and experience any content that piques our interest through a vast trove of information on the internet.
Lin repeats his monologue and gradually raises his voice, as if something ominous is about to happen. A robotic female voice reminiscent that of Google Translate joins in, and the two voices layer on top of each other, differing in pace and volume. By now, the recitation has turned into an imploration for the viewers to ponder the possible future of a society entranced by digital sensations. The artist then stops, leaving the robotic voice reciting alone before it too fades out.