The children of Silicon Valley tech workers—the preadolescent offspring of Apple engineers and Cisco consultants, restaurant cooks at Google and PR managers at tiny start-ups—sit dressed in dark jeans and freshly washed hoodies, describing the world as it will look and feel seventy or eighty years in the future. The questions that prompt these predictions come from behind the camera in the bemused, encouraging voice of the filmmaker Mike Mills. Mills asks the kids about their relationship to technology and how it will shape the world they’ll inherit: will there be more or fewer poor people in the future? Will people be smarter? How will nature change?
The children’s answers are charming—as any speculative conversation with a curated group of eight- to eleven-year-olds is bound to be—but as they raise questions about the environmental, economic, and social legacy of Silicon Valley’s comprehensive influence on their lives, their predictions take a darker turn. The film, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone, was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and appeared as part of a temporary installation Mills created in a vintage costume shop in Los Altos, California, where he also produced a broadsheet reprint of a 1976 issue of the Los Altos Town Crier combined with “official documentation of the formation of the Apple Computer Company.” That exhibition closed in March, but the film is now available to Believer readers through May 1, 2014 at believermag.com/mikemills
Mills, whose feature-film credits include Thumbsucker and the Oscar-winning Beginners, started his career making experimental documentary shorts like Deformer and Paperboys (about skateboarder and artist Ed Templeton and a group of Minnesota paperboys, respectively). As Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, the SFMOMA project’s curator, points out, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a part of this lineage of portrait films, and like those two early shorts it offers “an empathetic view of suburban America” in its current iteration.
This conversation between Mills and Gideon Lewis-Kraus occurred during his recent visit to San Francisco for a screening of the film.
THE BELIEVER: What one immediately notices in the film is that this is a pretty ethnically diverse group, but it seems, given that one knows this is taking place in Los Altos, that they’re pretty socioeconomically homogenous. I counted just two working-class jobs among the parents, and I’m curious how you made those decisions about casting and what kind of group of kids you wanted to come up with.
MIKE MILLS: Our rule was that the parents had to work in Silicon Valley. And most of them lived around Los Altos, but there were a few from San Francisco or Oakland, but the parents worked in [Silicon Valley]. And the idea was to get the spectrum of laborers there. There were a few parents who worked in sales, but as day laborers they didn’t have full contracts. But it was really hard to get people who worked in janitorial services, or gardeners. We were actually lucky to get one kid whose dad was a cook at Google.
You talk to the human-resources element of those companies and they just do not want to connect you with that arm of their company. We tried to independently get hold of a gardening service, and they didn’t want to talk, either. There’s such secrecy around Silicon Valley, so they don’t like to talk about who they work for, and they certainly don’t want you to get in contact with their kids. And of course there’s a natural aversion to a stranger calling who wants to talk to your children. [Laughter]
BLVR: What sort of answers did you expect from asking these kids about the future? What were the surprises?
MM: I did some tests in LA with friends’ kids, just to warm up to interviewing kids and to get my kid-brain on. My friends’ kids in LA, they’re all Silver Lake, liberal, hip, decently well-off kids, and they’re all wearing really rose-tinted glasses compared to the Silicon Valley kids. So my initial clichéd assumption was that these kids were going to be very tech-centric and kind of ignorant, maybe, or aloof, or oblivious. I interviewed my friends’ kids and they’re all wildly utopian, and I thought, Wow, maybe these kids are just much more sheltered than I anticipated. Then when I interviewed the Silicon Valley kids, there was more of a spectrum, though I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the older kids had a fairly well-informed and negative outlook on our future. There was this shocking combination, this contradiction of tech-hunger and tech-covetousness mixed with a deep feeling that tech is going to make us dumber, fatter, uglier, and less connected to nature, less connected to each other, where they’re not going to talk to their grandchildren in person; they’re not going to know nature at all.
BLVR: At one point you ask the kids whether computers will have feelings—you’re basically asking them their thoughts on the prospects of artificial intelligence. One girl starts answering this question about computers having feelings and she gets into the idea of computers being in charge. And then she says that what we need is not a computer in charge; what we need is a kind of dictator who’s in charge who has a profound feeling for people.
MM: She said what we need is a benevolent dictator: someone who cares very much about people and can come up with solutions we all can follow. And to me she was talking about Steve Jobs. She talked about Jobs a lot, and how Steve Jobs is basically the Second Coming and how he created the world we live in now. Later she talked about creativity, how your spark dampens really fast, and I found that to be a sort of unconsciously Silicon Valley notion: the idea that you get in while you’re young, that creativity is only for when you’re young—then you need to cash in and you can become a cash manager when you’re thirty and older. She’d really internalized a lot of the Silicon Valley ambition and concepts and made them primordial in a ten-year-old mind.
BLVR: One of my assumptions, I realized as I was watching it, was that these kids were from Los Altos—my mistake, I know now—and that they were going to seem a little more entitled than they were. And maybe it’s the generosity and the sympathy of your editing, because clearly this is a film in which you really like these kids, at least most of them. To me the film has a very warm feeling about it, and I thought, for all I know, that you edited out all the stuff about “we went to Switzerland and I brought my seven iPads.”
MM: I like to film people I connect with. I don’t like to throw people under the bus. I’m not into satire. Maybe a lot of issues around entitlement become more visible and exposed and part of your interaction with them at a later age, but it wasn’t a big part of my experience of these kids. I didn’t do a lot to make them nicer in the editing.
BLVR: The climactic moment of the film is when you ask what single object a kid would keep if they had to give up everything else.
MM: I didn’t anticipate it being such a hard question. I asked them if they could keep only one thing, what was the thing they would keep, and they all got kind of sweaty and breathed a lot and panted and hemmed and hawed and [sucks in breath nervously]. Most of them said they’d keep some piece of technology, whether it was their phone or their iPad. Out of everything they had, a lot of them said they would keep whatever type of game console they used. There was a wonderful girl, Morgan—she’s the one with the very white-blond hair and the pink gingham shirt—she said her iPad. Even though that goes against my philosophy, she said, because I think that’s what’s going to ruin the world, but, yeah, I’d probably keep my iPad. And to me that felt true for all of us: we’re all keeping our iPads, even though we know it’s screwing us. But a kid hasn’t developed the structures and subterfuges with which to hide their contradictions. But she was feeling it, and she expressed it, and it leaked out and she articulated it.
Special thanks to Mike Mills and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for making A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone possible, and available exclusively to Believer readers until May 1, 2014. You can also hear an extended version of this conversation on the Believer’s weekly podcast, the Organist, at kcrw.com/believer