Modern wizardry

25 August 2017

BBC/Red/Mark Mainz

False identity: Jodie Whittaker as Ally in the BBC drama Trust Me

False identity: Jodie Whittaker as Ally in the BBC drama Trust Me

IN A time of global shifting and shaking, who on earth — literally and metaphorically — can we rely on? Secrets of Silicon Valley (BBC2, Sunday) takes a round-the-world (but mostly the United States) tour of the shifting sands of political certainties to present the new world to an audience still trying to orient themselves.

Disruption is the theme, offering an explanation about how a bombastic reality-TV host became a twitchy-fingered US President. Turning to smartphones and social media to navigate the rapidly changing world, we have become dependent on a band of modern-day Wizards of Oz. Used to trusting established authority figures, we have not yet evolved the filters needed to distinguish between the narratives of different interest groups presented as fact, and how information might be being manipulated on grand and micro scales with world-altering consequences.

Contrast this with Trust Me (BBC1, Tuesday of last week), where the future Doctor Who actor Jodie Whittaker becomes a present-day fake doctor, in episode two of a drama that shakes our ingrained faith in the NHS. (A dodgy passport that satisfies the scrutiny of HR is no match for Google’s archives, when suspicions are aroused after a late-night call on a smartphone is dismissed with an unconvincing “wrong number”.) Trust Me is in some ways pleasingly old-fashioned: it dramatically questions reliable authority figures.

Since post-war Britain scrambled back to its feet, the NHS doctor has been an enduring symbol of compassionate responsibility, above and beyond the call of duty; the characters of Secrets of Silicon Valley offer no such reassurances about ethics or the long-term reliability of the world that they are shaping. Insulated from consequences, they still aim to reshape society.

There are life-and-death consequences in both scenarios, but only one plays out in real time and offers the prospect of accountability. The gory nitty-gritty of medicine, and our trust in those who save our lives, is part of our reality, and Trust Me offers adrenaline-racing escapism. Playing out in close-up what could happen if a beleaguered nurse took desperate steps to change her life, “Dr Sutton” now seems to be hurtling towards professional and personal disaster.

By contrast, Silicon Valley shows that our real lives can now be reduced to personality profiles viewed through filters, screens, and statistics. Mysterious, election-shaping projects are tracked down to empty office suites, where experimental software and algorithms might have brought about the biggest political upset in decades. Invoices paid and profits counted, all those involved are free to move on. The human price of these changing times is, as yet, hard to measure.

Contrasting the surgeons (and nurses) who play God, and the unseen Silicon Valley techies who change the world in their image, it seems that, perhaps, in these uncertain times, nobody can be taken at face value.


Correction: Anita Rani’s family are Sikh, not Hindu, as reported in last week’s review. Our apologies.

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