"I wanted to tell a story that bridged two worlds of social media culture," says filmmaker Alexey Marfin. "On one hand, there's this world of the perfect profile: a world of narcissism, a world where we love ourselves and create online profiles on social media to share a perfectly curated 'pet' image of ourselves with everyone else. That's what it is, basically, the Facebook profile—creating a little pet that kind of looks like you, kind of has the same tastes and interests as you, but all in a very controlled and artificial way."
Marfin is talking about his short science fiction film Blue-Eyed Me, which after making the rounds of the international film festival from Berlin to Brooklyn, is now available to watch online. In the way that only science fiction can, it takes his metaphor of the Facebook profile as pet to its most literal and physical conclusion.
The movie depicts a start-up called myFish that allows you to buy a genetically engineered goldfish that's been spliced with your own DNA, so that it mirrors some of your features, such as eye or hair color. It opens on myFish owner Maria as she obsesses over how unique it—and her—are, before shifting to near-future China to give us a glimpse of the company's manufacturing and distribution operations. By the end of the film though, in a subtle twist, Maria discovers her fish might not be as unique as she first thought.
"On the other hand, there's a whole industry cashing in on this self-love," continues Marfin. "Data brokers like Acxiom buy hoards of this personal data; categorizing and manipulating our 'likes' and 'check-ins' for market research and targeted advertising, effectively commodifying us and our lifestyles. For example, in 2014 our medical details were worth around 25 cents, whereas our shopping details were worth only 0.1 cents. In total, a person is worth around 1 US dollar, digitally. So the second part of the story is about de-personalizing the personal: looking at the same 'uniqueness', but now from a very un-individual and commercialized perspective."
Blue-Eyed Me was made while Marfin was part of Unknown Fields, the now infamous 'nomadic design studio' run by Kate Davis and Liam Young that travels to remote locations around the world to uncover the increasingly science fictional realities behind globalization, and to find inspiration for making films and art installations.
"We visited the supply chains of China and SE Asia, and explored the origins of a consumer world that's 'made in China', explains Marfin. "My own interest was what it meant for individuality, uniqueness, and self-image at the site of such accelerated consumerism and commodification, compared with the Western world."
"I visited a genetics lab in Shenzhen. The first thing we saw was a fish tank. In one half was a medium-sized fish, I think it was a grouper, and in the other half was the same fish, but several times the size. The second fish grew 4 times as fast and got 3 times as big."
"In that sense, there were a lot of things that all contributed [to the film's concept]. Perhaps the most literal connection were the pet fish markets of Kowloon, where fish in little bags—almost sandwich bags—hang in alleys and on street corners. All different colors, species, and so on. But just as an important an inspiration for me was the giant wholesale market in Yiwu—where little factory outlet booths sell everything from kitchen sponges and colored contact lenses to full-sized oil replicas of the Mona Lisa and tea sets. I think nearly every home in the western world has something that came from Yiwu. I saw this as the perfect analogy to what I was looking at with the digital commodification of identity."
"Kind of as a logical extension of the commodification of everything and anything, I visited a genetics lab in Shenzhen. When we arrived there, the first thing we saw was a fish tank, split down the middle. In one half was a medium-sized fish, I think it was a grouper, and in the other half was the same fish, but several times the size. The second fish grew 4 times as fast and got 3 times as big."
Having travelled with Unknown Fields myself on a later trip to Shenzhen and Yiwu, it's easy to understand how both baffling and inspiring the vast Chinese manufacturing complex can be, especially to visitors from the west, where large scale industrial production has declined to the extent that it starts to look alien and unfamiliar. Which begs the question—if the reality of what Marfin saw in China was so unusual, why the need to depict it with science fiction?
"The difficulty, I think, with talking about these social media issues directly is that we're constantly hit by these 'revelations' that are supposed to be shocking, but, frankly, aren't; we know that someone's trawling through our private messages on Facebook, or that someone's making money from knowing our shopping habits on Amazon, but it doesn't really bother us. I think science fiction is great for this, as it lets the story be both a metaphor for what's going on today, and an extrapolation into the future."
"A genetically modified pet that looks like its owner could be an analogy of our relationship with social media and our digital self-image, or it couldalso be a future projection of Zuckerberg's Law of Sharing, which says that shared content each year doubles—both in amount, but also in richness (e.g. from text to photo, from video to virtual reality, from digital data to biological data, and so on). But in any interpretation it's relatable to our lifestyles today. That balance between the bizarre and the relatable—that's the real strength of science fiction as a genre for me."
Having recently relocated from his native London to LA, to teach a course on fiction and entertainment alongside Liam Young at the architecture school SciArc, Marfin is also putting the finishing touches to the follow up to Blue-Eyed Me.
"I'm doing another short film—I'm still looking at social interactions in internet culture, but this time it's not science fiction. It's a psychological drama exploring the ideas of internet/media overexposure and desensitization, in a story about a guy who, in attempt to feel something, goes too far and erodes the boundaries between his virtual indulgences and real life."