If you think you have free will, Alex Garland's Devs could have you believing otherwise.
Novelist, screenwriter and director Alex Garland, whose credits include 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Ex Machina, explores the idea of a deterministic universe in eight-part series Devs (SoHo, Sky 010, Thursday, 8.30pm).
It’s a stylish techno-noir centred around a quantum computing company outside San Francisco called Amaya. “Devs” is short for “developers” and the story begins with Sergei (Karl Glusman) being offered a role within the exclusive developer division of the company, which is housed in a heavily shielded structure in the middle of a forest.
Sergei is taken there by Amaya’s shaggy, guru-like chief executive, who is actually called Forest (Nick Offerman). However, what happens after that sets in motion a series of events that may or may not have already been determined.
Sergei goes missing and his girlfriend, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a maths genius who works at Amaya in encryption, begins to believe that the company is involved.
The series is partly about the future of predictive computing – after all, we’re already at the mercy of algorithms that are working out what music we’d like to listen to next or what shoes we’d like to buy. More seriously, we now know that the behaviour of social-media users can be manipulated by bad actors.
“The devs are making a machine that takes the premise that the universe is determinist, that is to say that everything that happens is the result of cause and effect,” Garland told an interviewer at New York Comic Con. “So they’re working on a machine that can help them unpick the nature of cause and effect on a massive scale.”
Of course, this opens up a whole can of worms. “If you were to take a deterministic way of looking at the world, one of the consequences would be that you don’t have free will.”
Garland himself thinks that “we probably don’t have free will” and the point of the story is “what is it like to be alive in a universe in which cause and effect have a total relationship? And if science offers up something to you that truly does change the way that you intuitively think of the world, what effect does that have?”
This article was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.