What’s your next Google search going to be? Where will you be buying your lunch? What film will you watch tonight on Netflix?
Banks’ algorithm, created to give businesses the keys to people’s minds, has the answers. It can predict people’s every last choice from the data it harvests, constantly learning and recalibrating. This triumph of programming is the sinister antagonist in Jenny Lee’s new play, slowly closing its grip on the life of its creator. Forget robots; this is how the machines will really get us.
Banks – the sort of woman known only by her surname – is a programmer for a London hedge fund, working on the final stages of a new algorithm. If successful, it’ll bring in the big bucks, allowing brands to access and therefore (terrifyingly) change people’s choices. The Thought Police of Nineteen Eighty-Four have nothing on this nasty sequence of code. To prove its worth, though, it needs to be tested.
Giving the algorithm access to her entire online self, from online banking to porn viewing history, Banks represents something of an extreme. But all of us leave that electronic imprint, our data telling a story about ourselves whether we like it or not. Though Lee’s narrative is imagined, it speaks to a mounting anxiety about how much of our lives are lived through screens – and therefore how much of ourselves we put out there for the taking. As Banks starkly puts it, “you are what you click and you are what you share”. We log in therefore we are.
As the algorithm’s predictions become more and more unsettling, nudging Banks towards existential crisis, Lee’s play dials up the intensity. Valentina Ceschi’s production is about as still and simple as solo theatre gets, yet somehow it has all the compelling force of a taut thriller. Bathed alternatingly in red and white light, Lee delivers the piece with machine precision, her voice taking on the uncannily controlled intonation of Siri or sat nav. She’s more computer than woman, placing her trust – and then her entire life – in unfeeling strings of code.
But code only sees the strictly factual. It speaks in absolutes, not subtleties. And if Heartbeats & Algorithms is to be believed, there might still be a shred of hope for us flawed, messy humans – a hope that lies precisely in our flaws and our mess. There’s only so far you can predict the unpredictable. The same goes for Lee’s play, which coaxes us into expecting one conclusion before cleverly swerving at the last moment. If it succumbs to a little too much optimism in its final moments, though, it still serves as a timely warning against an existence defined by data.