What if all of the computer revolution of the 20th century was replaced with the emergence of murderous ghosts that could only be fought off by young people with swords and iron chains? Would this lead to civilizational chaos? Would authoritarian governments arise to wage a “War on Ghosts,” indoctrinating and enlisting the youth to go to their deaths, fighting an unknown and undefined enemy? Would people return to the faith of their fathers, ponder death more seriously, and seek some kind of collective atonement for the punishment that God has obviously dealt them?
Or would life go on more or less the same way, except that kids aren’t glued to their smartphones and a few of them take on the adventure of fighting the ghosts? This is the premise for the popular new series on Netflix Lockwood & Co., which centers on a trio of teenage ghostbusters striving to stay in business while investigating the biggest case of their lives.
While fun and well executed, the plot and characters of the show are not quite as interesting as the unusual setting. With each episode and a paucity of context clues, the audience is left guessing just what year it is in the show. The absence of screens and the preponderance of newspapers and magazines give the show a retro feel that seems like it could fit into any decade between 1950 and 1990. However, certain remarks made by the characters indicate that the show takes place in an alternate present-day universe.
From a storytelling angle, this is obviously ideal since it allows the creators to explore conflicts that could otherwise be easily resolved by the characters having smartphones, but it also opens up some interesting avenues of social commentary.
First, it considers what’s possible for young people without their smartphones. As one might expect, they can grow up and start contributing to their society much faster. They don’t have the luxury of idling away in their bedrooms, crafting the perfect social media profiles and thinking of what everyone owes them. They need to find work, pay the bills, and deal with any personal hangups they might have. Granted, they are still naive, reckless, and occasionally in need of direction, but this is a consequence of their age rather living in an environment that infantilizes them.
Although the idea of three young people working together to make money doing a dangerous job and living on their own, Lockwood & Co. makes a plausible case that it could very well happen. Material self-reliance is actually possible when a person has the will. And Anthony Lockwood, the main character and owner of the business, is admirable, even heroic, because he continuously fights off the pressure to shut down his operation and defer to the official government agency of ghostbusters DEPRAC (the Department of Psychical Research and Control).
From a broader perspective, the series suggests that replacing computers with ghosts would mainly lead to cosmetic differences while leaving much of modern secular society intact. Many commentators, myself included, tend to attribute most political and cultural changes to the rise of digital technology. Then again, it could be that we’d have the same bureaucracies running civilization, the same class divisions, the same moral relativism, the same sensationalist media, and the same manipulated masses. Sure, we’d have cassette tapes, card catalogues, landline telephones, and cool ‘80s goth music (side note: the show has an excellent soundtrack), but life’s challenges and people's behavior would mostly be the same—in cinematic terms, the world would look more like retro environment of Stranger Things than the dystopias Hunger Games or Divergent.
Ironically, the arrival of killer ghosts seems to have a similar effect as digital technology in dividing the generations and extolling the cult of youth. As with today’s older and younger generations struggling to understand one another because of the former growing up without computers and the latter being essentially raised by them, a generational chasm exists in the show between adults who remember the times before “The Problem,” that moment when ghosts began to terrorize the world, and have no way to fight it and the young people have grown up in this dark time and can fight actually fight it. This in turn leads to a kind of envy that the old have for the young. In both cases, adults feel the need to appeal to the young by either adopting their ways and/or exploiting their advantages.
The fact that something like “The Problem” or the Internet Revolution of the 21st century exacerbates the atomization and existential crises of modernity (rather than a collective return to God and moral living) indicates that there's something wrong in today’s culture and its values, not its technological capabilities. No young person should grow up in a loveless world that leaves them orphans and consigns them to a largely futile existence of upholding an outdated and oppressive system. They should at least aspire to live in a world of renewed beauty, truth, and goodness—three things that are notably absent from our world as well as the drab, haunted world of Lockwood & Co.
Besides allowing a little more hope and joy into the lives of the young, a reconsideration of our cultural values and relationships can reverse the stagnation that holds back human potential. The young can’t innovate or build up civilization if they are preoccupied with fighting literal or virtual ghosts. They must be free to develop and channel their creative energies to more constructive ends. While this may not be as entertaining as fighting ghosts or watching kids fight ghosts, it should be goal we’re all striving for. Hopefully in future seasons, the protagonists in Lockwood & Co. can finally solve “The Problem” once and for all so that they and the rest of their world can get back to living normal happy lives and move forward to a brighter future.
Photo Credit: scifinow.co. uk