Beeban Kidron’s latest documentary, InRealLife, opens with a portrait designed to shock its audience. Two fifteen-year-old boys are describing their use of Internet pornography – reliving a video in which a woman gives such a fast and vigorous blowjob that the guy on the receiving end comes “in like 20 seconds”. They turn and sweetly ask Kidron – the woman who brought us Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason - if she’d like to see it. She says yes.
Taking us beyond their humorous amazement at the extreme variety of sexual practices presented on the Internet, Kidron brings us into the inner worlds of these boys, and the effects that they feel pornography is having on them. They’re self-aware and articulate: they explain that they do want most girls to act in the same sexy way that they see in the pornos, but worry that occasionally, when they actually feel something for a girl, they will find that they’ve already been "damaged’"by other boys who have taken advantage of them.
But Kidron doesn’t really seem interested in the boys’ intelligence, or the fact that, recognizing this, they have the capacity to change. She seems to have already made up her mind that the internet, and digital technologies, are universally pretty bad things. Her next vignette follows the story of a teenage girl, who, having lost her Blackberry, effectively prostitutes herself to get it back. Her mother finds out and buys her a new phone, but this is then stolen by a group of boys on a train. The girl follows them to their house, and ends up performing sex acts on them in order to get it back.
For Kidron, it seems undeniable that the girl’s attachment to her Blackberry, and her constant need for digital interaction, are what led her down this dangerous path. Unfortunately, in this case, her assumption is quite hard to refute. Yet it’s a bleak tale, and one which, rather than presenting new norms in the way that people interact, leaves you wondering: ‘Where did she find these people?’. The mounting sense of doom for teens today is compounded by a gang of talking heads who warn that incessant communication prevents the development of a person’s sense of who they are: the girl, here, is put up as a hollow shell of a person, with no sense of self-preservation or self-respect because she has no self to preserve or respect. There’s never any question in the film that all her interaction allows her, in fact, to reflect on and understand herself more deeply, and there’s no recognition that people often discover more about themselves by speaking to other people, even if this is through BBM.
The one ray of light in InRealLife comes from the story of Tom, a gay teen living in the north of England, who, when we first meet him, has not yet come out to his parents. Amazingly, he’s managed to keep a long-term relationship with another boy under wraps for over a year: they’ve met on the Internet, though not in the real world. Here, finally, we see the flip-side of all this abstract interaction – the ability to develop a sense of who you are online, while sat in a physical world that might prevent you from doing so. And in spite of this, Kidron manages to approach their relationship in the same patronizing “I can’t believe what I’m hearing” manner with which she interviews her other subjects. When the young lovers finally meet, they’re shown entertaining themselves by rubbing their phones back-to-back as a way of transferring files. The fact that Kidron lingers on this image looks as though she’s taking a dig at the boys, staging their phone-frottage as a poor substitute for physical intimacy “in real life”.
Kidron’s film is ambitious – she certainly pulls together some brilliant digital theorists (including danah boyd, Cory Doctorow and Julian Assange), and travels as far as the North Pole in an attempt to understand how the Internet works, and what it might be doing to change us. There is even a coda at the end, thanking the hundreds of teenagers and their parents who contributed to the making of the film. Yet while this should be a mark of the depth of research that has gone into this documentary, it instead reveals the opposite: that the makers of this film approached it with an idea firmly lodged in their heads, and have had to search far and wide for information with which to support it.
Rather than exploring and sketching out the new norms of social interaction in the digital age, Kidron’s documentary gives us the most extreme divergences from these emerging standards. She wants us to perceive the Internet as she seems to understand it: as a force which has the power to profoundly degrade people’s offline lives. What we see if we look beyond this, though, are not teenagers passively moulded by their online interactions, as David Cameron might want us to believe as part of his limp-fisted campaign against web porn, but the fact that respected establishment figures (Kidron was created a life peer and introduced to the House of Lords in 2012) – and even those such as Kidron who are devoted to understanding the changing, networked world – are still severely blinkered by their own unexamined prejudices.