As I think about media and science fiction, I find myself asking some basic questions. If science fiction is about the future, is there a genre requirement about how far ahead an author must look in order to be included in the canon? 

I took a trip back in time and explored my long history of science fiction media, in search of a topic worthy of current consideration. Fahrenheit 451, Star Wars, 2001 a space odyssey,  Silent Running, District 9,  Children Of Men, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Planet Of The Apes, RoboCop, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Terminator, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Matrix, Blade Runner. It’s a long list, and each of them had a seminal impact on my view of the world, my hopes and fears of the future, and served to fuel my sense of adventure in aiming for the stars, either literally or figuratively.

This isn’t to say that my favorite science fiction films are inherently hopeful. In some the future is bleak, in others the future is complex but hopeful. But all of them are about a future that is far away, on the horizon, with lifetimes, generations between our current lives, and a future of technological difference.

And so, after much consideration  – for the purposes of this paper – I rejected them all. It’s hard to give myself, and my readers, the leeway to think optimistically about the far-away future when the speed of technological change and the looming environmental dangers of climate change seem so urgent, so real and so much in need of our attention. 

And so, dear reader, may I present to you a film called: “Please Hold.” A powerful, prescient, and believable journey into the near future. So near that it may not even qualify as science fiction.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi comedy, but you’ll have to stretch to find humor in its crisp eighteen minutes. 

The writer/ director is a Mexican American woman, KD Dávila – whose chosen science fiction as her pallet, painting a story of a young man,  sending her character on a journey a punishing technological maze that is both absurdist and painfully possible. Dávila graduated with a degree in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, she earned her MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. She was a Universal Pictures Emerging Writers Fellow, and a Film Independent Project Involve Fellow. (“KD Davila”) Her film was in competition as a short at the Academy Awards, and while it didn’t win this year, she’s a powerful director with a promising career ahead. 

The film takes place as our protagonist, Mateo Torres is on his way to work.  And just in case it’s not clear from the start – Mateo is all of us, in a world that has been totally taken over by algorithmic automation. He’s also the only human charter in the film. As he’s walking he gets a text message on his phone: “Mateo, it seems you are under arrest.”  Moments later a police drone is in front of him, and he’s told to put on handcuffs. “Failure to comply will result in the use of non-lethal force,” says the drone, brandishing the stun gun menacingly. 

The word comply echo’s in my ears. And, as it turns out, Google confirms that the use of “comply” has grown steadily over the past 10 years. 

https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2009-03-01%202022-03-26&geo=US&q=comply

Moments later, he is in a totally automated jail cell. Mateo (played by Erick Lopez) is awaiting trial. He continues to ask what he did, what he’s charged with? But his requests go unanswered. He’s in ‘the system’ and there is a branch and tree structure of steps he must accomplish to have his charges adjudicated. The line between current treatment of people of color in the justice system and a dystopian future get blurry here, and that’s not an accident. 

A scan of Mateo’s face – driven by facial recognition software that is known to be inaccurate, confirms his ‘identity’ with a scan of a remote database. (Ford)

To hire a remote lawyer, Mateo needs to get $10,000. To get the money, he needs to call his parents, but he can’t afford the call. Due to the privatization of the justice system, “the average cost of one 15-minute phone can range as high as $24.82.” (Kendall)

To earn money to pay for the call, to get funds, to pay a lawyer, he needs to work in prison. Explains one prisoner – not in the sci fi future, but today: “My day would start at 4 a.m. I would go into the kitchen. I would make the breakfast for 1,200 men. I would work lunch. I would work dinner. And I’d make $2.25 a day.” (Cronin and Hirsch)

The automated public defender runs a ‘simulated trial, and tells him there is an 89% chance he will be found guilty? What are the charges? Despite his continued attempts to speak to a person, saying “human, human” he never speaks to anyone – until, his parents send him $10,000 and the human 1-800-Lawyer gets involved. His first advice is, “take the plea bargain, it’s a good deal.” Mateo stands his ground, as he still doesn’t know what he’s charged with.

Guillermo Lima, Esq. then looks at his iPad, and says: “oh, no – not again, stay there” and hangs up. 

Hours later, a disembodied female voice says: “We hope you enjoyed your stay, please exit the room to start the discharge process.”

This is a film about the near future. The prison-industrial complex already exists. Facial recognition already exists, the charges that prisoners must pay to use the phone are real. The only thing that makes this science fiction is the replacement of human police officers with a drone that instructs suspects to handcuff themselves or be tazed. 

Filmmaker KD Dávila describes Mataeo’s journey as a Sisyphean pursuit. Being put in prison for something you haven’t done is an existential horror. Having every part of the process run by an AI is both comedic and terrifying. Dávila explains that the idea that you can buy ‘upgrades’ to your jail cell isn’t fiction, it’s based on a real-world prison. (Santo et al.) The film certainly makes clear the impact of privatized prisons on marginalized communities, but as a piece of science fiction, it connects dots and takes existing technology into the near future with a grim warning of just how close we are to living in a world where flawed AI can turn innocent citizens into jailed prisoners with little recourse. Even Mateo’s parents it seems initially think he must have done something wrong, after all, he is in prison.

So, how do we feel about “near future” science fiction? Is it too believable? 

For science fiction about the near future to be believable,  it needs to align with the latest work in fast-moving technologies. When Stephen Hawking is talking about the dangers of AI, saying “humanity could be the architect of its own destruction if it creates a super-intelligence with a will of its own” he’s very much blurring the line between science fiction and science fact. 

I think that near-future science fiction isn’t just relevant, but it’s essential. With Elon Musk building rocket ships aimed for Mars, and cars that drive themselves, even as General Purpose AI seems possible, and Ray Kurzweil predicts that the singularity will occur by 2045, science fiction writers have an urgency to write about the fast-approaching future. To do anything else could end up being irrelevant. 

 

Works Cited

Cronin, Brittany, and Paddy Hirsch. “How prison labor contributes to the US economy : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money.” NPR, 29 June 2020, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/884989263. Accessed 26 March 2022.

Dry, Jude. “How Oscar Nominee ‘Please Hold’ Turned the Police State Into a Dystopian Sci-Fi Comedy.” IndieWire, 11 March 2022, https://www.indiewire.com/2022/03/please-hold-oscars-short-kd-davila-1234706890/. Accessed 25 March 2022.

Ford, Trenton W. “It’s time to address facial recognition, the most troubling law enforcement AI tool.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 10 November 2021, https://thebulletin.org/2021/11/its-time-to-address-facial-recognition-the-most-troubling-law-enforcement-ai-tool/. Accessed 26 March 2022.

“KD Davila.” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4944814/. Accessed 26 March 2022.

Kendall, Tyler. “Why are jail phone calls so expensive?” CBS News, 13 October 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-are-jail-phone-calls-so-expensive/. Accessed 26 March 2022.

Santo, Alysia, et al. “’This is like paradise’: Seal Beach’s pay-to-stay program actively markets its jail, attracting deep-pocketed offenders.” Los Angeles Times, 9 March 2017, https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-me-pay-to-stay-seal-beach/. Accessed 26 March 2022.