Are tech firms the new movie villains?

World's End screenshot

In the hit summer film World’s End, a beer-chugging loser drives off a benevolent computer network that has come to enslave humanity for its own good. At the end of the film, as a character tells the tale by post-apocalyptic firelight, his spectacles light up with a creepy computer glow — leading in-the-know movie goers to titter at what seems a blatant reference to Google Glass. (I was unable to find the specific clip but the glasses are worn by actor Nick Frost, shown in the screenshot at right).World's End

World’s End, which also features human heroes ranting about the hypocrisy of our network masters’ professed benevolence, won’t be the year’s only dark jibe at technology companies. The Circle, Dave Eggers’ upcoming novel in October, reportedly features an idealistic woman who joins a Google-like firm where things quickly turn dystopian.

It’s probably too soon to declare that a new meme is afoot, especially as two references do not a trend make. Still, it’s hard to recall a specific tech firm being called out in popular culture through this type of criticism.

Instead, in famous films like The Terminator, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s technology itself that’s cast as a villain. And those wielding the tech are typically rogue maniacs, evil governments or military contractors like SkyNet — none of which are obviously linked to a familiar consumer company (though some in the tech press have quipped that Google and SkyNet are one and the same).

Until now, real-life tech companies usually appear in film via product placements that depict them as symbols of connection or coolness. Think of You’ve Got Mail (where AOL helps Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love) or Borat (“iPad-nano is for girls”) or Legally Blonde (where the bubbly, original law student Elle stands out with her new MacBook).

More recent films, it’s true, have been more ambiguous about Silicon Valley’s growing presence in our lives. In The Social Network, Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg comes across in some scenes as a churlish loser. And even The Internship, an Owen Wilson comedy set on Google campus (over which Google exercised lots of creative control), pokes fun at the out-of-touch ways of tech types.

Overall, though, the critical jabs in these films hardly disturb the prevailing norm of who should — and does — run society these days. Ultimately, these films do little to challenge the idea that tech company engineers are special, exalted people who belong in charge.

It’s different with the latest snipes at Google. The newest references — in film and book — depict the company as an active menace that is growing too powerful for our own good. Such complaints against Google (and the other three horsemen of a internet apocalypse) are common fodder for activists and editorial pages. But, World’s End and The Circle, could mark a turning tide —  and make 2013 the year the public gets disenchanted with consumer tech companies that have become a bigger and bigger part of their lives.

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