Sunday, January 18, 2009

Buffy Retrospective: "I Robot, You Jane"

In 1997, a "the Internet is dangerous" episode was par for the course. Teen magazines were full of warnings that you never really know who you're talking to online, so it would have been hard to find something innovative in such a story, but "I Robot, You Jane" pulls it off. Willow is our vulnerable teenager who becomes the victim of an Internet predator, but in a story that could only work in the Buffyverse, the predator is a demon that she scanned from a book into a computer and onto the Web. Like many of the morals conveyed in Buffy, the message is obvious, but it gets presented in a much more entertaining way.
The episode also raises the epic battle of books vs. computers. Perhaps because I am of an age where I clearly remember not knowing that the Internet existed or how to work a computer, I am of the mind that it is important to strike a balance between our reliance on print and digital information. Jenny Calendar's sheer coolness gives points to the techies, but I feel much the same way as Giles does with regard to the tangible experience of acquiring knowledge and the distinct lack of anything one could identify as "computer smell".
Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer [...] has no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be smelly. -Giles
The writers don't come down on one side or the other of this debate by making it clear that while modern technology is dangerous (demon in computer could access launch codes for nuclear missiles), so are the old ways (demon wouldn't have been in computer if he hadn't been put in the book in the first place). We also see the two elements working together when Giles and Jenny bind Moloch over the Internet using the original incantation.

I was 12 years old when this episode first aired. It makes me sad that a 12 year old watching the show today (who, frighteningly, would have been born the same year this episode aired) might not understand why Willow's phone line not ringing busy was an indication that she wasn't online and will wonder why the webcam feed is so pixelated. The concerns Giles expresses are even more of an issue today, with the advent of high-speed Internet, than they were in 1997. When I was 12, it still took work to find what you were looking for on the Internet and you had to wait, sometimes for more than a couple of minutes, for a page to load, and even longer for some things to download. Though my memories of my early days on the Internet may not have any olfactory associations, I can recall the sound of a dial-up modem and the way it felt to anxiously watch as images slowly loaded onto my monitor (often such images were Buffy publicity photos). In those days connecting to the Web meant you had to essentially disconnect your telephone, choosing one method of communication over another, and your computer had to be physically connected to the phone line. By that same token, you knew that anyone you were talking to online was also sitting at home or at the library on their computer, so there was an element of shared experience. Today, we can be "jacked in" almost anywhere and the Internet is somehow becoming even less tangible than it may once have been as touch-screen technology eliminates the need even for keyboards.

As much as I appreciate the wi-fi connection on my iPod Touch, I, like Giles, will always prefer the smell of a musty book.

Favourite Quotes:

Buffy: I mean, what if you guys get really, really intense, and then you find out that he has...a hairy back?
Willow: Well, no. He doesn't talk like somebody who would have a hairy back.

Xander: Sure he says he's a high school student, but I could say I'm a high school student.
Buffy: You are.
Xander: Okay, but I could also say that I'm an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who's to say I'm not if I'm in the elderly Dutch chat room.

Jenny: You're here again? You kids really dig the library, don't you?
Buffy: We're literary.
Xander: To read makes our speaking English good.

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