The X-Files has always been fascinated by the potential evils of “smart” technology — one of the first episodes of the original season featured an intelligent computer system killing off corporate executives. But in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz” (an episode title I can only type out once), the show pushes the idea to its limits, and frankly, it hits a little too close to home.
This season 11 episode — which interestingly enough, features little to no dialogue — follows Mulder and Scully as they are terrorized by their own technology. What’s even more terrifying is that half of the gadgets that they interact with in the episode are not futuristic toys that the show creators have imagined — they’re tweaks on devices that already exist in our world. Let’s break it down.
1) Self-Service Food Stations
Have you been to a Panera recently? Or any other chain restaurant? If so, you’ve probably noticed the increase in “self-service” stations, where customers can bypass the cashier and order their items straight off of an interactive board. The restaurant that Mulder and Scully visit at the start of this episode takes this concept to the next level by suggesting the future of these devices: Will self-service machines eventually replace humans in the food industry? In every industry?
2) Self-Driving Cars
Headlines like “California Scraps Safety Driver Rues for Self-Driving Cars” and “Uber CEO Hopes to Have Self-Driving Cars in Service in 18 Months” are real, and they should scare you. This X-Files episode told us why. After leaving the eerie, malfunctioning sushi restaurant, Scully tests out a self-driving car system called Whipz. What starts out as a regular car ride turns into a nightmare scenario when Scully realizes the car won’t listen to her instructions and without a human to override the controls, she’s trapped inside.
3) Easy Order Buttons for Everyday Items
Once she finally makes it home, Scully rushes inside to start her nightly routine which, hilariously, involves dyeing her hair a “Rockin Red” shade. When she realizes she’s out of hair dye, she tosses the empty container into the trash, triggering a message on her phone suggesting that she order more of the product. Sound familiar? If not, then you haven’t heard of Amazon’s Dash buttons that allow you to reorder a product with one click of your finger.
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4) Robot Vacuums
Don’t get me wrong: I love Roombas. They take the hassle out of vacuming and make delightful toys for my cats. But they also have the potential to become creepy, data-collecting machines, as this episode proved. After spilling some product in her bathroom, Scully steps outside to find a drone delivering an automated vacuum, which immediately helps her clean the mess. All seems well and good, until it bumps into her vibrator, scans it and begins suggesting alternative colors and versions. Which, truly, would be terrifying, if it weren’t such a hilarious detail.
5) Smart Home Systems (Like Fireplaces and Refrigerators)
I got my mother an Amazon Alexa for Christmas, and within days, she was treating it like a friend: asking it for music suggestions and demanding that it turn on the specialized lights that she had hooked it up to. Products like Alexa are also programmed to control appliances, televisions and radios. Some larger appliances like fridges actually have their own “Alexas” built in, so they can tell you how many gallons of milk you have left and what your grocery list should look like next time you go shopping. Which is why Scully’s refrigerator, which spits ice cubes at her, and her fireplace, which tries to burn her alive, might have been the scariest part of this episode.
6) Drones. So Many Drones.
Actually, I spoke too soon. The drones were the creepiest part of episode 7. Not only is Scully visited by a drone that delivers her a vacuum, but Mulder is swarmed by them when he continually refuses to rate a recent restaurant he went to, like they’re drone cronies sent by the sushi house itself. While we already have Amazon Prime drones in beta phases flying around Chicago, as far as I know, they don’t punish you if you give them a bad rating. Yet.
7) Warehouse Robots
Drones weren’t the only robots featured in “Rm9sbG93ZXJz.” When Mulder and Scully are chased into a warehouse, they encounter dog-like robots (eerily similar to the ones seen in the recent season of Black Mirror) that try to attack them. One doesn’t have to look very far on the Internet to find similar gadgets.
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8) Trackers in Our Phones
Open the App Store and type in “find my friends.” No doubt, you will find at least three apps that market a “tracking function” that allows you to stalk your family and friends wherever they are. So Mulder and Scully’s realization that the robots were tracking them through their devices was not all that surprising.
9) Automated Customer Service Voicemails
More and more these days, it seems like corporations are ditching the customer service centers for automated “voice/touch telephone tellers” that prompt you with a series of questions to try to narrow down your request. Mulder’s struggle to get a customer service rep on the phone to discuss his lost credit card may have been the most troubling part of the episode, mostly because it’s so true.
10) Reward/Punishment-Based Ratings Systems.
The other day, I stumbled across a restaurant on Yelp. In the reviews, many users were complaining that the restaurant would grant customers certain specials, if and only if the customers rated them with five stars online. Similarly, there are certain apps on the App Store that won’t let you access their functions until you rate them and leave a review. This episode’s whole purpose was to question that process and force us to confront how much information we give these artificial intelligence machines, that will take that knowledge and eventually use it against us.
On a scale of 1-10, how terrifying was this week’s X-Files episode? Do you agree with its underlying message: that we’re all doomed to be ruled by our technology? Or are you more optimistic?
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(Image courtesy of FOX)