I have no need of that hypothesis: Devs and Philosophy on Television

I very nearly skipped Devs. It sounds weird to say it. This show should have called out to me. It’s written and directed by Alex Garland, and I am a fan of his work as a writer and director. He made Ex Machina and Annihilation. He also wrote the screenplays for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Add to that the trailer, which is weird and dreamlike, interspersed with surreal images and a hard science fiction backbone and you have something that I should very much want to see. And yet, TV is just too much these days. There’s so damn much of it, and it’s all such a commitment just to be let down in the end. I almost skipped it.

I am so glad that I didn’t.

Before we go any farther, this is your warning that there will be spoilers here. Turn back now, or forever hold your peace.

Devs is presented as a mystery.  At the start of the show we meet Lilly (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman), a young couple who both work for a large tech company called Amaya. Lilly works in encryption and Sergei works in A.I.  Sergei is given a large promotion, the chance to work in a division called ‘Devs”. We learn that Devs is very secretive. No one knows what they do there.  Sergei is led to Devs by Forest ( Nick Offerman), the CEO of Amaya.

Sergei is brought into s strange facility. It’s surrounded by a faraday cage and a vacuum field. The entire thing is very futuristic, quite lovely, and exceedingly strange. Once inside, he is placed at a computer and told to take his time reading code. Forest assures him that he will come to understand what is required of him.

Sergei is shocked by the code that he reads. He secretly records it using his watch. Forest confronts him. He tells Sergei that he understands that he had no choice, and that he absolves him. Forest then has the head of security kill the young man.

Lily begins to worry when Sergei doesn’t return home.  This sets up the mystery that, I assume, will serve as the spine of the show. It isn’t what it’s about, though. For what the show is about, you have to listen to Forest.  He tells Sergei, just before Sergei is suffocated with a plastic bag, that free will is a myth. That life is “on tram rails”. That belief seems to be at the center of this tale.

Over the course of the first two episodes we get glimpses and hints of what is going on at Devs, what they are creating (but not the why of it – that will have to wait, although I have a hypothesis). They seem to be constructing Laplace’s Demon. A thing that can, though sheer computing power, predict every action and reaction of the entire universe.  Determinism posits that as all things are governed by physics, and as cause and effect can be formulated, a being with enough raw computing power and perfect knowledge of the initial conditions of the universe should be able to predict every event that has or will occur.  That seems to be what Devs is doing.

We see them creating “backwards projections” of the past. This would be the sensible way to test the program. Since we know certain past events with certainty, you run the program backwards to see if it predicts those events. This confirms that it works correctly before you use it to look into the future.

This is heady stuff for television.  Philosophy isn’t really something you expect from what is been called The Idiot Box, but then I guess that times are changing. TheGood Place (which featured a lovely cameo from Nick Offerman) just finished it’s near perfect run, and that show was about Ethics as much as anything else.  So, maybe peak TV has brought us into the land of philosophical TV as well.

Two episodes in, Devs is very exciting. It has Russian spies, a Mystery story, a tale of grief, and slightly futuristic technology, beautifully imagined and designed sets, and strong cast performing at the top of their game. It has a lot to commend.

I have no idea if it can maintain this quality, but I very much hope it can. Laplace’s Demon could tell us how it’s going to end.

You can see some of my random thoughts about Devs here.  

Devs is available on Hulu.