Devs and the Anti-Matrix Effect: life in illusion is more comfortable

Disclaimer: This essay is a translation of a text originally published on Tab UOL.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Released right at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, in March 2020, Devs series didn’t get so popular to the point of reaching audiences beyond science fiction aficionados, which may have watched or heard about more famous titles like The Handmaid’s Tale or Black Mirror. Available on Hulu, the series was directed by Alex Garland, who was also director of the movies Ex Machina and Annihilation.

Devs was his first attempt to create something for TV, but many of his authorial signatures are found here too: not just in the fact that Sonoya Mizuno returns, now as the protagonist, but the focus (and critique) that Garland dedicates to the contemporary big tech culture — or, more specifically, the Silicon Valley mindset.

After choosing Oscar Isaac as the actor to give life a bearded “tech genius” in Ex Machina, this time it was Nick Offer (Parks and Recreation) that interpreted Forest, a character that is a blend between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who is the owner of a corporation as big as Google, here named Amaya after the name of his daughter.

Now, both in Annihilation and Devs you may find the topic of distorted realities, except that Devs was created by Garland and Annihilation was an adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s book with the same name. For those who are not so keen on conspiracy theories, Amaya could simply be the name that Garland chose to give to the character interpreted by Mizuno’s niece, whose name is Amaya Mizuno-André. Even though the character is barely present throughout the episodes, she is still the center of the narrative and of Forest’s delusions.

Not only Devs is placed in San Francisco, but there is also a campus where Amaya’s employees work. However, there is a separated sector, hidden among the forest and designed to work as a Faraday cage in architectonic proportions. The office for the project Devs is therefore a box that blocks electromagnetic fields, so the employees and machines can work with no external intervention.

After Sergei Pavlov (Karls Glusman), boyfriend of Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), develops an algorithm capable of predicting the behavior of a certain worm, he gets a promotion and an invitation to join the Devs project. This time, we realize that Devs actually a group of super geniuses that use a quantum computer to develop a similar algorithm, but in bigger proportions. But it all happens that Sergei is actually a Russian spy that is attempting to steal the algorithm, so he ends up being killed by Forest. This is the part when Lily becomes involved in the project, since she wants to know what actually happened to Sergei, though she couldn’t imagine the dimension of the problem back then.

Again, Garland names one of his characters with the surname Pavlov, which reminds us of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who created the Pavlovian conditioning technique based on the effects of stimulus-response of the central nervous system. Since Sergei was a spy, he was obviously trained and conditioned to stick to the plan. After learning about this, Lily questions if Sergei really loved her or if she was used as a disguise in his strategy. This detail is especially important because, as the series unravels, we learn that Forest is trying to develop an algorithm that not only predicts the future but can also recover the past after probabilistic algorithms. In other words, Forest concludes that reality itself is deterministic, thus everything is possible to be predicted and recovered indefinitely.

This is a very old philosophical discussion. If on one hand authors like Sartre believed in free will, other thinkers like Nietzsche were more skeptical about the possibility of true freedom. In the case of Vilém Flusser, he didn’t believe that reality was either deterministic or even possible of being predicted. In his opinion, reality is itself chaotic, not a result of causes and consequences. In Devs, however, what actually happens is that Forest achieves the biggest “geek wet dream,” as described by one character, which is to find the perfect algorithm that decrypts reality itself.

If today we have people working on formulas that attempt to predict the behavior of the stock market or even mathematicians who try to find a pattern in everything (like we have seen in the movie Pi), Garland stretched this desire to the extreme. For that, he incorporated in his narrative the emergent technology of quantum computing.

Right, the joke among scientists is that whenever there is something about nanotechnology or quantum physics in a fictional work, it’s much probable that a lot of unscientific nonsense will follow — on purpose or not. Movies like Lucy or Transcendence, for instance, have used this narrative-technological resource to the extreme and delivered to us endings that are both grandiose and absurd.

In Devs, there are some analyses that decodify the science behind the series, but here I would like to focus on that which Yuval Harari has affirmed when he says that increasingly more, technology is making what was once faith into reality. Considering that a person from the 15th century may have never imagined the kind of technology that we have today, perhaps our descendants are capable of develop something completely beyond our contemporary imagination.

In the series, I have found a connection of the plot with my PhD thesis and the fact that death could be a stimulus to cultural, artistic, and technological development. After all, Forest began to develop his technological entrepreneurship after being unable to accept the death of his daughter and wife. Moreover, he had the hope that, somehow, he would be able to join them again through technological means. This is the point where the series oscillates between choosing a metaverse hypothesis, which is not Forest’s favorite rationale, or perhaps understand that there is really only one dimension, one single reality, and, in this sense, multiverses are simply probabilistic scenarios, but not necessarily another dimension or world where another version of yourself is reading another version of this essay written by another version of myself.

After understanding what the Devs project was and the consequences it could bring, Lily begins to search for ways to “hack” their deterministic algorithm, thus suggesting that she could make her own choices in spite of what the computer could have predicted. In a bizarre scene, the Devs project’s employees run a projection of just a few seconds into the future. The simulation shows people’s reaction first on the screen and, with a slight delay, they did the same thing in “reality.” This is how Forest and his team predicted what was going to happen to Lily.

I’m not sure if Garland purposefully made a connection between Lily Chan and Lilith as the woman that disobeys God’s rules, but what Sonoya Mizuno’s character does is, precisely, acting in a different way than what was predicted by the computer. In any case, the catastrophic event that made the machine unable to project further into the future really happened, just not the way the algorithm predicted, though the resolution was the same.

By the end of the series, one of Amaya’s employees asks an American senator that she maintain her support to the project, thus never shutting off the computer so the simulation would never stop. In other words, as much as Amaya had scanned everything and all information to a quantum and atomic level, it was also possible to scan Lily and Forest to the slightest details, including their memories. “Reborn” into the simulation dates to a time before the events we follow by the beginning of the series. Both characters are therefore able to make different decisions for their lives, since they already knew another path that would take them to that resolution.

While other narratives leave it open the possibility that simulation can also be reality, or another timeline, Devs is deterministic until the end: even though Lily and Forest feel or know that they are in a simulation, it’s all good, because at least they have all things back to their right place (Forest is with his family and Lily is back with her ex). Those who are outside that computer simulation know that this is all data, algorithms running scenarios, but those who take part of this theater don’t.

In order to keep the simulation running forever, it is necessary that the computer never shuts off. Unlike the more “analogic” proposal of the German series Dark, Devs bets on the theory of a supercomputer being responsible to process our reality and that certain strange things are indeed “glitches in the Matrix.” However, instead of having a hacker like Neo who is attempting to run away from illusion, even though his reality is unnerving, Devs opts for the “lie” because it is more comfortable, even for those who are outside the simulation and need to deal with the reality — even if it’s just as a spectator.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.