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Possessor (2020): Labor Alienation & Data Mining Horrors





still image from Possessor film, a blonde woman claws at her face that appears to look like a mask. Text reads: New Year, New Me. Ghouls Next Door. Possessor.
Possessor film review image

Possessor is a gripping sci-fi horror movie that intertwines an existential identity crisis with a chilling undertone of commentary on the issues of data mining, surveillance and labor alienation. gabe unpacks the film's themes by dabbling into a little Marxism and also highlights a very real issue within the first scene of the film. Kat explains data mining and other technological advances that raise alarms when it comes to ethical concerns.


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Possessor (2020)

An agent works for a secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people's bodies - ultimately driving them to commit assassinations for high-paying clients.

 


Possessor: Identity Crisis and Labor Alienation

by gabe castro


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Summary:

Possessor is a gripping sci-fi horror movie that intertwines an existential identity crisis with a chilling undertone of commentary on the issues of data mining and surveillance. Set in an alternate near-past of Toronto in 2008. We begin with a scene of a young, Black woman sticking a needle and cord directly into her scalp. We follow as Holly strolls through her workplace, a woman on a mission. We spend little time with Holly before she stabs her client in the neck, many times, far too many times than would be necessary. She then grabs a gun, her originally intended weapon, and turns it on herself. She struggles with it, seeming to question the act and second-guessing herself. She is then confronted by police who, predictably, shoot her down. You’d wonder at what drove poor Holly to this decision, why she would kill this man and bring about her own death. It is then revealed, Holly had nothing to do with it. She was merely a vessel for assassin Tasya, a white woman and hired serial killer. (I emphasize this because it’s important, no matter how often people seem to move on from this unsatisfactory beginning. But I’ll speak more on why later.) 


Tasya works for a mysterious corporation, using advanced mind-controlling technology to infiltrate the minds of those close to her targets for covert assassinations. After completing missions, she undergoes tests to ensure her mental integrity and to ensure her own mind hasn’t been tainted by the cohabitation. Tasya's true self is revealed as a tabula rasa, blank slate, with even her personal life appearing scripted, including rehearsed interactions with her husband and son.


Something isn’t quite right with Tasya, I mean even beyond the regular issues of her being an uncaring psychopath capable of insidious murder. Tasya faces inner turmoil after her last mission, where remnants of her victim's consciousness linger. Despite her unease, her ruthless boss Girder, played wonderfully by Cronenberg alum Jennifer Jason Leigh, compels her into a new assignment. Girder, acknowledging her own inability to undergo the process, aims to groom Tasya as her successor. In the upcoming mission, Tasya assumes the identity of Colin, an ex-drug dealer dating the daughter of a powerful figure in a data-mining company. The client hopes to orchestrate a scenario where Colin, under the guise of a relapse, murders his future father-in-law and daughter, creating a strategic power shift.


Unfortunately, Tasya’s control has begun to slip and she falls in and out of the narrative as Colin fights his way out of the sunken place. The film follows as Tasya and Colin fight each other, with Tasya carrying out the mission messily. After she successfully ruins Colin’s life and identity, he gets the idea of revenge and sets his eyes on her family. Only it doesn’t work out quite the way he intended when Tasya reveals the depths of her malice, her family was only holding her back from her true potential and in the gory and traumatizing last acts of the film, Tasya, Colin, and Girder take out her husband and child. Now Tasya, free from the inconvenient love of a family, can become the perfect, unfeeling killing machine and employee-of-the-month. 


Cinematically, the film is a fever-dream of reds and oranges. Cronenberg’s use of practical effects adds that extra layer of realistic unease. Watching as Tasya fights to hold on to her invasion of Colin, while he in turn resists the programming is conveyed through fantasy sequences of them pulling at each other’s flesh, their bodies melding and parting in desperation. A representation of the internal battle made graphic and tangible. 


Identity Crisis:

On the surface, the film is a conversation about identity. Something that stuck with me after the film was understanding the larger implications of this technology. The decision to invade regular, ordinary people with entire lives they’ve sculpted on their own and are now left with a tarnished legacy. I think of the family and friends who knew these people, now questioning their relationships and reality. For me, it was a worse cruelty to wear their face with the intent to ruin their history - the one thing we have left when we leave this world is our impact and interaction with others and they’ve destroyed that. It’s truly monstrous, even more so than the invasion of privacy and data-mining woes that dominate the narrative. 


Cronenberg, in an interview on RogerEbert.com, Psychological Infections: Brandon Cronenberg on Possessor, explained some of the inspirations for the film, one being his own struggle with being a person, acting the part, and not recognizing yourself in the mirror saying, “I was finding myself waking up in the mornings and feeling like I was sitting up into someone else's life and having to scramble to construct a character who could operate in that context. So I wanted to make a film initially about someone who may or may not be an imposter in their own life as a way to talk about how we create characters and narratives in order to operate as human beings.” Ghouls have talked quite a bit in the past about the fear of losing oneself in your work and in the appearances with craft for the social world. (See: CAM & Severance episodes). It’s a real fear, to play a character long enough to forget who the original one was. 


Horrors of Data Mining/Surveillance:

One of the bigger threads of commentary is found in the company Girder and co. intends to hostile-y take-over. Colin works as a lower-level employee at a data-mining company. Here, he enters a virtual office and spends his days watching people through their webcams to gather information about their lives. The information he’s looking for when Tasya pretends to be him is on the drapes and curtains in people’s homes. We watch the invasion of privacy as he cycles through the different webcams, eventually getting stuck on a scene in which two people are having sex. An absurd violation of privacy to know what color their curtains are. And as extreme and absurd as this moment is, it doesn’t feel too far off. Data-mining companies and other invasive technologies operate under the guise of gathering only the unimportant minutiae of our daily lives. 


Cronenberg, in that interview mentioned previously, shares the surveillance horror inspiration saying, “I was approaching it in different ways in the film, partly through surveillance. I mean, the Snowden leaks happened as I was writing it. I was feeling a lot of despair at the thought of the death of privacy through technology, and that made its way in.”


I’ll admit I don’t know much about data mining other than the general idea. I fear it as I fear all new technology that tries to convince the public it’s harmless and nothing to worry about. Doth protest too much. New technology always be like, "This is for accessibility and other benevolent things,” but then behind that sign is a factory of smoke and brimstone with a monster maniacally laughing as they gather all our information into a boiling pot of control and sublimation.


In a super helpful article on Medium titled, On Possessor, Data Mining, and Labor Alienation by Nopal Dude they press the details of the process and why we should fear it. “Data mining is central to tech. Data mining is the future of human labor. These days, one of the most lucrative businesses you can invest in or own is a “consulting” company whose only purpose is to hire low-paid workers around the world to feed algorithms, usually at the behest of some tech company. Some of these jobs are pretty straightforward: maybe you get to transcribe ads or newspaper articles, or maybe you end up transcribing voice recordings. The idea is this data will be used to improve smartphone apps aimed at disabled people or later used in the creation of innovative software. Maybe. Most of the time, however, these jobs demand tasks that get incredibly abstract and strange. It’s all hard to gauge since there is a severe lack of transparency in this industry.”


So we have the trouble of not fully understanding the roles we play in these elaborate ploys for information and control. Further, Nopal Dude explains how, due to the virtual element of the job, much of the work is outsourced, allowing for the companies in charge to under-pay their employees and avoid labor laws, restrictions, and basic human decency. This disconnection from our role in the work contributes to a larger problem and the core theme of the film according to Nopal Dude, Worker Alienation. 


Karl Marx’s Labor Alienation:

Nopal Dude draws a connection between the film’s villainous corporations and Karl Marx’s concept of labor alienation. The idea is that as the pace and intricacy of production increases, laborers gradually become detached from the products they manufacture. The emergence of factories during the later stages of capitalism transformed production into a series of interconnected processes, involving the construction of individual components that contributed to larger entities, ultimately destined for sale and consumption. He compares the work of a shoemaker, who is involved in all aspects of creation with the shoe to the work of someone making screws, screws that are later used in war tanks. They are so far removed from the final result that their contribution to a larger issue like war is lost on them. Nopal Dude  claims, “Data mining is the most extreme and abstract version of this alienation.” And completes his thorough examination of data mining and this alienation (I highly recommend the article if you want to know more and hear from someone who’s done the work) by tying it to the severity of job performance saying, “The thesis at the center of the gruesome climax is that we have secretly internalized capitalism’s promises to such an extent that, yes, it is worthwhile, desirable even, to destroy and sacrifice everything you have and are in order to excel at your job. I mean, be honest, don’t you want to be really good at your job? Isn’t that the only purpose in life?” 


That is the final message of the film, when we see Tasya finally shrug off the inconvenience of family and love of her regular life. Now, unburdened, she can finally be the perfect killing machine. This is confirmed when in the final moments, Tasya is tested as she was earlier. Only this time, she reveals no lasting feelings of regret or anything that makes her remotely a caring, feeling human being. 


Black Martyrdom:

The last thing I’ll speak on is important and unfortunately underreported . The first life we see Tasya and her company destroy is Holly’s, a Black woman whose body is commandeered by a white woman for destructive purposes. An act that leaves her dead at the hands of a police firing squad. At best, and in giving the film entirely too much credit, this is a larger commentary on racism, remarking on the cruelty of white people possessing Black bodies or benefitting from Black harm. At worst, it’s a massive and tragic oversight, the implications of harming this Black body as overlooked by the audience and reviewers as it was in the film. I found three reviews that speak on this issue, two of which simply mention it and move on after briefly praising the film on its flimsy, possible intentions. One review I found on Slant Magazine titled, 'Possessor' Review: Identity Theft as Nihilist Nightmare, writer Chuck Bowen attempts to credit the presence of commentary with a slight critique on the brevity of the moment saying, “Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate further on the racial implications of the film’s first scene, which essentially functions as a self-contained short—one of several riffs here on the alienating possibilities of the supreme mental hijack, which the filmmaker eventually contrasts with corporate data-mining, an altogether more relatable kind of invasion.”


The third spoke the full truth and despair that I felt watching this Black woman’s life and legacy be destroyed at the manipulative hands of white people and white corporations. On Electric Literature, White Audiences Are Obsessed With Black Martyrdom, writer Celia Mattison shares her thoughts and their overall critique of using Black bodies as martyrs for white messages. She starts with, “I watch, over and over again, as this Black woman dressed in an unsophisticated cerulean uniform stabs the man she’s being paid to serve before dying horrifically in a hail of police gunfire.” A brief cruelty that lingers, made even more gruesome when you catch that moment of defiance in Holly. Mattison says, “She’s unable to pull the trigger, her hands trembling on the grip. Here I think I see Holly emerge, wresting control from Vos, resisting this posh, white woman from an unseen Get Out-esque Sunken Place. I imagine Holly acting on one of our most basic human instincts to self-preserve. One of our most ingrained instincts to resist white dominance.” 


Mattison questions the lack of notice by those around Holly. When we spend time with Colin, we watch as others are quick to notice him acting strangely. Tasya having only gathered necessary information on behaving as him and, understandably, missing the small nuanced pieces of a person that others who know them well would sense is wrong or different, off. Does no one notice Holly’s strangeness? Mattison even asks, if someone were to notice and report it, would anyone care to investigate?  “In the betrayal by someone who watched you long enough to package your life but not enough to recognize your humanity. It’s what makes the Sunken Place so existentially frightening. In a world where we, as Black women, are still allowed so little freedom of movement and expression, the idea that we could further have our personhood stripped from us—and that nobody would notice—is horrifying.”


Further, with Holly’s Blackness, unlike Colin, there is a confirmation of closure, “and if Vos-as-Holly failed to execute the suicide, there’s no chance of Holly leaving the building alive. Her Blackness is a failsafe. No Black person is politely escorted out of the building in handcuffs after committing murder,” explains Mattison. This interaction with authority is representative of a bigger issue, a complex and institutional understanding. I am thankful for Mattison speaking on an issue that haunted my experience of the film, tainting my and Kat’s interpretations of the film. We, like Mattison, were immediately disrupted by the violence and the decisions that must’ve led to that specific scene playing out the way it did. Mattison ends their amazing article with a heavy thought that continues to linger with me, “When I rewatch the film, I hope that, as Colin fights for control over his body, he senses someone resisted before him. Like so many others searching for self-determination, he might find that a path has been cleared by a Black woman before him. Maybe, as his hands were unable to pull the trigger and he unsuccessfully tried to regain control of his body, he recognized that someone else had been here before him.


As I replay Holly’s seven minutes, again and again, I try to tease out the lines of Graham’s short, startling performance. I want to trace when Holly emerges and Vos falls back. I want her to know that someone noticed when she was gone.

 


The Ethical Assessment of Data Mining and Brain Chips

by Kat Kushin


RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


In my section today I’ll be unpacking a few ethical dilemmas surrounding the use of technology in the way we see represented in possessor. Currently we are not equipped with the kind of technology necessary to create this dystopian scenario, at least not at the level we see it in the film. But there are technological advances in the works that could enable this kind of future if not regulated or monitored. I think considering the documented history of how corporations, the cia, the government, have in the past experimented and attempted to control people, it is within reason to be concerned about how they would operate if that kind of technology were achievable. Games have hinted at the many terrifying ways technology and our biology could be altered and integrated, as well as manipulated by those in power. Thinking cyberpunk, or metal gear. I’ll be unpacking two technology use cases, and the ethical concerns surrounding both. First we’ll be going over Neuralink, and similar tech. To provide some context, Neuralink is a company that Elon Musk owns. 

The goal of Musk and the Neuralink project is to merge the human mind with Ai, which presents a lot of potential, as well as threats. The technology in theory would have the capability to alter the way neurons interact within the brain, and the signals that allow us to move, think and more. The goal is to essential merge the human brain with technology, which could either deliver life changing results in a positive or negative way. A big piece of the chips intent is to decode and understand the neural spikes and translate that information into something readable. To give us a more clear picture of the way the human brain operates. There are ways this could be manipulated in a futurama or black mirror esque horror scenario. It also very possibly provides a Chronenburgian type hijacking. At the very least a cyberpunk one. But what we see in the video, is the way the neuron spikes are tracked and decoded in a Macaques’ brain as they play a game on a computer screen. The monkey has two chips in their brain, and they track the neuron spikes in attempts to decode them. Neuralink. They have apparently made it so the monkey can control the game with it’s decoded neural activity, in essence their mind. To understand the decoded material and the brain enough that you can cut out the physical requirement, and instead can control the tech with the mind. 


The claim is also that they are seeking out patients who have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis ALS, and illnesses or injuries that cause paralysis, to test the capabilities of whether or not the neuralink can restore the connections between the signal sent by the brain and its pathway to the limbs and other areas of the body. Additionally, using the connection to technology, prosthetics, and other tools that could be brain activated. 


This could extend out to being able to replay memories in the mind, offer capabilities for watching videos with the mind, or offer thought-based connections with the internet (makes me think of actually entering a simulation, like that of countless animes, Striking vipers, and other media). 


This kind of technology would be really amazing imo IF we did not live in a capitalistic and oppressive society. If there was ANY trust for those in power to not manipulate and distort this power, I think this would be an amazing development. Considering who is in charge of developing it though, I do not believe this will stay what it is claimed to be made for. 


The passage explores the potential implications of implantable brain chips, considering both the beneficial and concerning aspects of this technology. It    discusses various applications, including aiding individuals with disabilities, enhancing cognitive abilities, and enabling direct interfaces between the brain and computers. The text highlights ethical, social, and psychological considerations associated with the development and implementation of such technology.

Key points include:

  1. Beneficial Applications: Implantable brain chips could potentially assist individuals with disabilities, enhance sensory perception, memory, and cognitive abilities. They could also enable invisible communication and provide consistent access to information.

  2. Ethical and Social Concerns: The passage raises several ethical dilemmas, such as safety issues, informed consent, privacy concerns, and the potential for societal inequalities. It discusses the psychological impacts of altering human nature and blurring the boundaries between individuals and technology.

  3. Cost and Accessibility: The text acknowledges the potential cost-effectiveness of implantable brain chips and discusses the stages of adoption, from therapeutic use to enhancement. It raises concerns about access to this technology, particularly regarding inequality and the widening gap between socio-economic classes.

  4. Control and Surveillance: The passage warns of the potential for totalitarian control and governmental surveillance facilitated by implantable brain chips. It discusses the implications for individual autonomy, privacy, and security, particularly in military and criminal justice contexts.

  5. Regulation and Policy: The passage emphasizes the need for comprehensive evaluation and regulation of implantable brain chip technology. It calls for interdisciplinary collaboration and public discourse to address the complex ethical, social, and technical challenges associated with its development and implementation.

Overall, the passage underscores the importance of critically assessing the potential risks and benefits of implantable brain chips and making informed decisions about their future direction and regulation.


The passage discusses a clinical trial involving deep brain stimulation (DBS) for treating severe depression, focusing on the challenges and ethical dilemmas encountered during the trial and its aftermath:

  • Background of the Trial: Neurologist Helen Mayberg initiated a trial in 2003 to test DBS treatment for severe depression by implanting electrodes in area 25 of the brain. The trial, sponsored by St. Jude Medical, involved a 200-person clinical trial called BROADEN.

  • Trial Failure: Lancet Psychiatry reported the trial's failure after a 6-month study in 90 participants failed to show significant improvement between the active stimulation group and the control group.

  • Implant Maintenance: Despite the trial's failure, some participants chose to keep their implants. The ethical dilemma arose regarding who would take responsibility and pay for their ongoing care, as well as any additional surgeries needed in the future.

  • Financial Responsibility: Participants who chose to keep their implants bore the financial responsibility for their maintenance and any future surgeries. Mayberg advocated for lower costs for her patients and worried about their care if she were no longer around.

  • Long-term Planning: Ethicists and neurologists emphasized the need for long-term planning in DBS research, given the growing funding available. NIH requires applicants to include a long-term plan for patients in funding applications but does not provide prescriptive guidelines.

  • Challenges and Ethical Considerations: Challenges include determining when to start high-stakes trials, refining targeting techniques, and addressing the possibility of hypothesis failure. Ethical considerations include ensuring proper consent from participants and assessing the long-term effects of stimulation on the brain.

  • Future Directions: NIH is supporting nine early feasibility trials for brain stimulation treatments, including two for depression. Researchers continue to grapple with ethical dilemmas and the complex nature of brain stimulation therapy.

Overall, the passage highlights the complexities and ethical challenges inherent in DBS research and emphasizes the need for thoughtful consideration of long-term implications and participant care.


The next thing we’ll be unpacking is data mining and the way Amazon and other mega corporations use and manipulate our user data…for reasons? Reminiscent to what we saw in the film. Additionally this data is used by the government and law enforcement when hit with a warrant. Similarly Meta has also been flagged for this. 


Data mining is most commonly defined as the process of using computers and automation to search large sets of data for patterns and trends, turning those findings into business insights and predictions. Data mining goes beyond the search process, as it uses data to evaluate future probabilities and develop actionable analyses.


The article highlights how Amazon gathers data from various sources, including its retail site, Prime Video, GoodReads, Audible, Twitch, and Whole Foods. Concerns are raised about the potential misuse of this data for targeted advertising and surveillance purposes.

Specific examples are provided, such as Ring doorbell cameras sharing recordings with law enforcement and Echo devices allegedly collecting data without user consent. The recent acquisitions of One Medical further expand Amazon's access to consumer data, raising concerns about healthcare. They had a deal with iRobot that fell through but the concern there was the risk of home mapping. The technology of home mapping is already possible through the use of Wifi routers and other forms of technology, not specific to amazon. 

Critics argue that Amazon's market dominance and data collection practices contribute to antitrust concerns and threaten consumer privacy. The article mentions ongoing legislative efforts to address these issues, including proposed antitrust bills aimed at restraining dominant digital platforms like Amazon.

In the article they quote someone named Greer, saying "People tend to think of Amazon as an online marketplace, but really, Amazon is a surveillance company," Greer told Insider. "[E]very aspect of their profit is derived from their ability to amass and leverage data."

Amazon's surveillance of its employees is well-documented, from its "time off task" metric that measures productivity to monitoring its delivery drivers with AI cameras. Such strict standards that employees report being scared to take bathroom breaks, lest they fall behind, drivers and warehouse workers have reported.



Amazon terminates iRobot deal, Roomba maker to lay off 31% of staff (imagine Amazon having access to your house data via the roombas)


Ethical Concerns in Data Mining

There are three chief concerns in data mining and use:

  1. Transparency: Customers should have a certain amount of visibility into and control over how their data is collected and used. Companies should be forthcoming with their data collection and use practices and ask permission before acting rather than asking for forgiveness after the fact. However, transparency with opt-in or opt-out procedures is not sufficient. Customers should be presented with and asked to explicitly consent to specific language around data access and usage in order to make informed choices. Mass broadcasts of fine print opt-in messages are not solving today’s data collection and usage transparency concerns.

  2. Personal data: Currently, there is no industry or political standard in the U.S. regarding the legal parameters or definition of personal data. Today, businesses operate largely with sector-specific regulations and their own beliefs about what constitutes personal data. Often, these ideas center around legal consent, rather than types of data and how companies can and cannot use them. This latitude presents risks to customers.

  3. Governance: Even in the EU, where the GDPR offers a more comprehensive legal framework for data practices, control within companies is just as essential to protecting consumer data. There must be leaders assigned to policy development, supervision and enforcement. Without proper governance, ethical lapses and legal troubles are inevitable.

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