In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.
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Since Tinder let us swipe through an online rolodex of nearby singles, dating apps have attempted to refine the matching process by collecting a range of personal information and preferences. Competing algorithms from the likes of Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid all attempt to answer one question: can computers crack the compatibility code? In Osmosis, Netflix's new French language series set in the not-too-distant future, siblings and cofounders of the titular startup Paul and Esther believe that their technology holds the answer.
The pioneering tech from Osmosis populates participants' brains with nanorobots that monitor their thoughts and emotions, and incorporate other sources of information such as social media to match the participant with their soulmate.
The series opens with the beta technology being tested out on three willing subjects: Lucas, who wants to find out if his soulmate is his faithful and loving yet bland long term boyfriend or his serially cheating ex-partner; Ana, who poses as a naive believer in the pursuit of true love but who is actually an undercover agent for anti-Osmosis activists - entirely unconvinced of the technology’s ability to select a soulmate, until she falls in love; and finally Niels, a minor with a sex and masturbation addiction who hopes that finding his soulmate could cure him of his affliction.
From the beginning, the cracks are apparent in Osmosis' vision of the power of the love-matching technology. When the season opens, Paul embodies the role of the naively optimistic tech startup CEO with a genuine belief that his company will change the world. But all is not well in paradise. His own Osmosis-selected love has mysteriously disappeared, prompting fears of her kidnapping by a rival company or 'humanist' activists.
Meanwhile, his sister and the creator of the technology, Esther, is unconcerned with turning her creation's algorithmic abilities to her own love life. Instead, she's content with intermittent sex with a handsome stranger in VR simulated hookups. Instead of true love, the goal that consumes her is arousing her mother from her illness-induced vegetative state. She does so by attempting to stimulate her brain with a memory, a plan which first involves injecting memory fragments into the unwitting test participants, who are plagued by disturbing hallucinations.
Throughout the series we are forced to question the startup's vision for 'perfect' love and harmony. At one point, a prospective business partner of the startup asks Paul whether humans are even supposed to be happy all of the time. Later in the series, when Ana's new partner discovers her double life in the most disastrous way possible, an assistant from the programme checks up on her, saying that her hormone levels have been raised. In response she wails: "Sometimes love hurts, where's that in your programme?"
Tech is fallible, we are reminded, and there is no accounting for the various quirks of the human psyche. The series takes a different tack to the likes of Black Mirror, with a more subtle demonstration of why the utopian tech dream is simply not fit for an errant, confused and damaged humankind.
In Lucas' story, things quickly go awry. He is advised by the implant to return to his cheating ex-partner, and is thrown into confusion before deciding to obey the implant and ditch his current boyfriend. When he pleads with an associate of Osmosis later in the series, they remind him that the tech is not fully accurate yet - in fact, there is a 20 percent margin of error, underlining humanity's tendency to overestimate tech. Lucas' partner still cheats, and the story ends tragically. Meanwhile Niels acts violently towards his partner and is voluntarily confined to a behavioural bootcamp for troubled teens.
The series has been compared to Black Mirror, particularly Hang the DJ, an episode from the most recent series where sentient AI avatars are forced to go through thousands of partners before determining the soulmate of the human they were modelled on.
However, there are several striking differences between this series and Black Mirror. In the latter, humanity can often feel rudderless in the current of whichever is the threatening technology du jour, and tech takes on an implicitly totalitarian bent, with characters often trapped within repressive systems that seem to be maintained or even enforced by technology. This can often feel distant from our current political and cultural climate. In Osmosis, humanity is given agency to push back.
We learn that even within this commercial space, there are other options on offer to humanity. A competing company, Perfect Match, provides the user more choice by narrowing it down to a few close matches yet still leaving the final decision up to the individual. It attacks Osmosis for creating a form of prison where you are confined to one partner for the rest of your life.
We also see the genesis of Osmosis' vision, with the eventual revelation that despite having created technology for love-matching, love is something that both creators struggle with. In Paul's case, he doesn't trust that he is able to find and nurture love organically. When his partner eventually returns Paul finds out that she left to have her implant removed. She wants to live with Paul naturally to test their connection without the programme, but at this suggestion he is dismayed, unwilling to take this chance.
In Esther's case, when her VR lover suggests they meet up in real life she is dismissive. When he says he is in love with her, she says they should stop seeing each other, declaring herself incapable of love (before acknowledging the irony).
Given its many admirable qualities, the show can sometimes feel like a patchwork of different stories that don't always fit into a sufficiently cohesive and compelling whole. It also lacks the requisite plot propulsion to keep viewers gripped at times. However, its handling of a technologically entwined future is much more subtle than the at-times hamfisted approach of Black Mirror and it breathes some much-needed humanity back into tech-centric fictions.
The overall message, that attempting to impose a perfect, tech-enabled vision onto disordered humanity is inherently doomed, rings true. You might be able to optimise technology, but you can't optimise love.