Heartbeats and Algorithms is a chilling tale for the tech-savvy millennial: you are what you click; your search history defines you. Think you’re spontaneous? Think again. In her one-woman show, Jenny Lee examines what man vs. machine means in the twenty-first century, hinting that the Orwellian nature of the internet, where our every search, purchase and picture is recorded, can only threaten us if the information finds its way into human hands.
Banks (Jenny Lee) is an archetypal modern loner, working in the city as a coder for a hedge fund, she embodies the isolation of life in the city. Packed into her characterisation is every stereotypical trait of the young professional: a daily Pret crayfish and avocado sandwich; strained relationships with old school friends and co-workers and an unused set of gym clothes and membership to boot. Banks has created an algorithm that assesses all of her digital inputs to formulate predictions about her future. The tale harks back to Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, as Banks’ strive for intellectual advancement by creating the algorithm begins to plague her to the point of desperation. Her mental well-being is gradually corroded with every ‘ding’ of her iPhone, spurting out another eerily accurate prediction that thwarts her attempts at spontaneity.
Lee is an efficient story-teller and the script is taut, well-paced and gripping to the point that one finds themselves thoroughly ill-at ease awaiting the conclusion to Banks’ predicament. We are initially introduced to Banks through her internet profile on a coding forum, and Lee’s mellifluous voice is like the technological Everyman that rings out from the Sat-Nav, the self-service checkout in Tesco or the Underground intercom; there are slightly forlorn attempts to interact with audience members by addressing them as screen-names such as ‘Carol’, yet these addresses were inevitably dealt with awkwardly: either by silence or a nervous squeak out of some unlucky soul who had been transfixed by Lee’s stare.
The transition to the ‘real’ Banks was marked by a change from multi-coloured lighting to a white spotlight. However, the ‘real’ Banks was as insubstantial as her internet persona: there was an ever present sense of Lee as the narrator speaking through Banks rather than Lee embodying Banks, it felt that the character that she had created functioned as a device solely to convey the major themes of the piece rather than a character that one could emotionally invest in. The dénouement of the piece was disappointingly tidy as Lee offers up the ‘simple’ solution that if you delete your digital presence you will live happily ever after. As anyone could guess, it just isn’t that easy. It was a shame that there was not a conclusion that matched the intelligence of what was overall an intelligent, funny and gripping piece.
Heartbeats and Algorithms is playing at the Soho Theatre Upstairs until September 3 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.