NEW YORK CITY: Madeleine George has an iPhone 4 and she admits, “I no longer feel frustrated or impatient. That emotion now manifests in me as a desire to check my e-mail.” In short, she has a typical, 21st-century relationship with her phone.
It’s the ubiquity of new technology that inspired George’s new play, The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, running at Playwrights Horizons through Dec. 29. The titular Watson is actually four characters: Sherlock Holmes’s John Watson, Thomas Watson (Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant), the IBM Watson computer and an original character named Watson, an IT guy. What the four Watsons (all played by John Ellison Conlee) have in common is that they’re helpers of one sort or another, defined by their relationship with other people and with technology.
“It’s a meditation about what it means to be dependent on devices and also on other people,” explains George. “We’re increasingly drawn to machines, because it’s less frightening to be dependent on a machine than on a person.” The play does not demonize technology so much as show how, even when iDevices have replaced face-to-face interaction, relying on a smartphone is every bit as risky as relying on a person.
“It’s a globalized marketplace. We know that we’re very connected to individuals living in Nigeria and Peru but we don’t know how,” George contends. “We are more dependent on things we cannot perceive than ever before in history! Similarly, we also can’t understand the human beings in our lives. The tech conundrum is a mirror of our social conundrum.” And therein lies the risk, in both man and machine. “This is just a different iteration of an ancient problem. When you’re dependent on another person or on systems you can’t understand, you’re vulnerable. It’s the human condition.”