Dear Hacker. 2021. Directed & Written by Alice Lenay.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers.
There are many ideas bursting from the seams of Alice Lenay’s debut film, Dear Hacker—an hour-long documentary in which the director probes through ideas about how we relate to computers, with our bodies and our minds. The whole premise kicks off after Lenay notices strange flickering in her webcam as the light turns on and off, blinking at her, as if trying to initiate a conversation between human being and technology. Or, perhaps it’s a hacker on the other end. Lenay enlists the help of friends and colleagues who offer their own respective theories on what could be going on, or at least on whatever Alice believes is happening.
Dear Hacker eventually becomes less concerned with the initial fire that lit Lenay’s interest in this subject, more interested in fostering a philosophical discussion about the ways computers and humans relate, how we’re the same, and how we’re vastly different. There’s no real resolution to whether Lenay was being hacked or if it’s just a simple mechanical anomaly. That was never what the documentary was about anyway. Lenay’s interest, shown in the way she voraciously digs into posthumanist ideas, is quite obviously far deeper than a blinking webcam light.
One aspect of posthumanism involves the idea of transcending humanity through technology. This is at the core of everything in Dear Hacker, as Lenay seems to want to view the human body and mind as a flesh and blood parallel to the computer, that we can view computers as an extension of ourselves. At one point Alice talks about finding it difficult to socialise because of the “affective labour” involved. She goes on to describe herself as “on” while socialising and then “off” later. One of Alice’s friends talks to her about the iPhone or computer camera as a shareable organ requiring “connection between humans” to function; it conjures, in my mind, a Cronenbergian organ that’s half plastic and metal, half flesh and bone. There’s a technologically visceral image later when Alice and a couple friends watch as one of them deconstructs a webcam as an experiment, what ultimately becomes like witnessing an eye being mechanically taken apart layer by layer until it dies; when it does die there’s one final image transmitted, bringing to mind optography, and the belief during the 1800s that the human eye records the last image a person sees as they die. Again it just brings the parallel Lenay’s exploring closer together.
Lenay touches on an uncanny technological state we enter into via the digital world. In one scene, Lenay sees that her friend Robin has moved his computer onto a piano and she says “I‘m on a piano?” to which he replies “No, you‘re in your room.” She’s self-identifying as the computer when appearing on/through it. This is an uncanny image: us versus an image of us. It’s likewise a way of anthropomorphising technology, making ourselves and our bodies the computer. Robin, a professed Cartesian, talks further about spectrality in regards to Skype, Zoom, and other webcam technologies. In response to Alice’s self-identification with the computer, Robin says “you don‘t exist” in the sense that she, on his computer screen, doesn’t actually exist; someone you meet solely online, even via Skype or Zoom where you’re seeing that person, doesn’t physically exist to you, they’re an image, data being streamed from one place to another like Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Lenay comes to present the digital world as a kind of spirit world of “spectral states” which communicate and engage with one another. She starts to wonder if there could be “a metaphysical intelligence” like “a ghost” or a “type of collective god taking care of us, moving through the cables” of the computer and across the internet. Doubly interesting when we take into account her webcam friend Robin’s comment about the way people treat him as a computer technician. Robin tells her that people always call him “guru, shaman, wizard, doctor, but never computer technician!” In this light, the one who can ‘talk’ to computers can, in essence, talk to a god, like a priest, an earthly mediator between humanity and a higher power.
My only complaint about Dear Hacker is it isn’t long enough and needs extra time to fully flesh out all the concepts Alice’s discussions bring out. Others can feel their own way, but I would’ve enjoyed at least another half hour. Lenay has great discussions with the several people she talks to over the course of an hour, I just think she could’ve done even more and brought in other people from different areas of expertise. I like the open-ended nature of the documentary, there’s no goal line Lenay’s trying to get past; the film becomes about the thought experiment itself. In spite of wanting the film to be longer, I love it, and I adore how deeply philosophical the questions become. Especially after all the changes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us able-bodied folks have finally begun to genuinely look at and acknowledge how reliant we are on technology, in positive and negative ways. Lenay’s posthumanist exploration of humans and computers is profound, quite often funny, and it’ll leave you with a headful of questions that’ll cross your mind each time you pick up your phone or power up your laptop.
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