In the world of Merger, the worker sits alone in front of a screen or eight, surrounded by a sea of constantly compounding data, anxiously trying to handle tasks as they rapidly pile up, and attempting to make sense of the nearly incomprehensible world it all somehow fits into. It’s a film apparently set in the future, but like most good speculative fiction, it’s effective as an unsparing metaphor for work right now.
Merger is the latest speculative interactive short from user interface designer and filmmaker Keiichi Matsuda, of ‘Hyper-Reality’ fame. And like its predecessor, it’s culled from real-world experience. Matsuda positioned the UI as a poke at common sci-fi tropes—namely, the incessantly influential Minority Report. “I’m asked to build that sort of interface all the time,” Matsuda laughed in an interview with the Verge.
This, in other words, is where tech companies want us to go. The premise—that we’re all hamsters on a hyper-accelerating, artificially augmented wheel, racing to stay on top of a world that demands every ounce of our attention and willpower, every efficiency hack and productivity software, in a vain hope to ‘compete’ with AI and autonomous systems—is bleak, and it is also now.
Matsuda’s neatest trick isn’t the plot or the UI, but how he renders the desperate isolationism this world inevitably begets. For one thing, the viewer can drag the perspective of the screen around with a finger to watch from every angle as our protagonist hopelessly tries to navigate the streams of data; to-do lists, news articles, shared documents, blaring feeds. And it’s clear from each angle, that she’s totally alone, surrounded by nothing but digital representation, the workstation is all.
This isolationism reminded me of one of the most despairing—and most prescient, probably—works of early science fiction; The Machine Stops, by E. M. Forster (yes, the dude who wrote A Room With a View also did some nasty sci-fi). In it, humans live solitary lives in underground hexagonal rooms tended to by the titular Machine. They are not in any sort of relentless race to stay relevant, but they are similarly dependent on a system of immense complexity that some of them invented but no longer understand how to operate or how to fix.
Merger ends with our protagonist trying to upgrade once again, with assured futility. The Machine Stops ends with the machine breaking down, bringing a dependent humanity down with it.