Note: Mostly written while watching the film version of V for Vendetta over Christmas with a hangover, spoilers galore for both it and the book within, so proceed at your own risk.
Of the many things wrong with the Wachowski Brothers’ flawed adaptation of V for Vendetta, the omission of the computer Fate is by far the biggest. Fate is the computer that runs the society in V’s alternate future; it hooks into to the surveillance systems used throughout British society and makes all the decisions. As the novel progresses, the high chancellor Adam Susan, supposedly the fascist dictator in charge of society, turns out to be in thrall to Fate’s machinations, believing it to be a goddess; with it his truly wretched and lonely character is revealed
From Fate and her omniscience and omnipotence, all the best complexities of the characters come – for example, the curious hidden nature of Lewis Prothero, the “Voice of Fate”, a sociopathic concentration camp commandant with a nevertheless seductively charismatic voice (and a natty line in girls’ dolls). In the book he is the human voice of the computer, broadcasting sonorously to the nation, but in the film, robbed of his duality he gets turned into a shitty cross between Richard Littlejohn and Bill O’Reilly, ranting away incoherently on national television every night.
Despite bring set in Britain, the Wachowskis’ adaptation is very Americocentric (as demonstrated by the recharacterisation of Prothero); it details a narrative based on opposition to the neoconservative agenda in America and the resulting foreign policy; the film is peppered with references to the Iraq war, Islamophobia and homophobia, and the bioterror plot within is a little reminiscent of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. The film is very much a product of the early 2000s – and with the crushing defeat of the neoconservatives in the US mid-term and presidential elections, now already seeming a little dated.
With this in mind, the more I think about it, the better allegory for our times doesn’t come from the post-war on terror ostentatious authoritarianism but on the Fate plotline, of a more insidious system of control. Successive governments have become increasingly in thrall to mass surveillance, but it has especially been the case with the present one – whether it be CCTV cameras, the national identity register, DNA databases (even if you’re innocent), mass-snooping of emails and phone calls, or even outright hacking of your computer without a warrant.
And thrall is the right word to use here, as decisions are made not on evidence based on their efficacy but on an ideology that the more is more: the more data the government has, the more able it is to govern. Focusing on the quantity rather than the relevance of data has various unfortunate consequences; we fall risk to garbage in-garbage out: supposedly reliable databases turn out to be heavily flawed. It leads to greater risk of security breaches, whether they be accidental or malicious. And most importantly it leads to a system of governance where everybody is treated as a datapoint – and thus governments manipulate people just like they would like to manipulate datapoints. The end result is a dehumanised and rather bleak polity, with every facet of public service characterised with targets, performances and star ratings, human beings reduced to automata in a fabulous number-crunching system.
There’s another twenty blog posts I could write on this theme, but I won’t for now. But do check Adam Curtis’ The Trap as a primer on it from a philosophical/psychological point of view; The Tiger That Isn’t by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot for a mathematical examination; there is no equivalent from a sociotechnical or economical aspect exists, as far as I know.
Anyway, back to V for Vendetta, and Alan Moore. The comic was set against the spectre of nuclear war (from which the putative fascist Britain would rise), with a hint of a warning about where the right-wing agenda of the early Thatcher government could take us. And through this system, the monstrous system of Fate is created, and we are beholden to it. The odd thing is that we’re being taken towards the end without going through the intermediate stages – which is a relief in some ways (eating dead rats out of radioactive rusty hubcaps is never a good thing) but also oddly chilling. The pessimistic conclusion is that supreme control and omniscience is the goal of anyone in power and with the technology at hand it’s an inevitability. The optimistic conclusion is that despite the steady encroachment, it’s never too late to turn it back, if only we have the will. What’s it going to be? Hopefully it is not a matter of Fate.