From a Facebook post published on 16 July 2017, lightly edited:
Watched Instalado, an independent sci-fi film written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana. I didn’t like it because of shoddy world-building and character development, but it wasn’t a waste of time.
Instalado (2017) imagines a world in which traditional education is being phased out by the worldwide adoption of new technology that enables individuals to purchase, download, and install knowledge into their brains, thus literalizing “the marketplace of ideas.” In this world, knowledge across a variety of disciplines — from the hard sciences to the social sciences and humanities, including art and languages — is packaged as certified courses or degrees. In this story, predominantly set in the State of Central Luzon, specifically Pampanga, the technology of “installation” is controlled by transnational corporations, local capitalists, and, funnily enough, the Catholic Church.
The film explores a number of conflicts, primarily the commodification and inaccessibility of education; its opening scene is a student protest movement condemning the cost of installation (one course costs 100 to 200 thousand pesos to install; one ought to have at least two courses to get more than an entry-level job) and the government’s withdrawal of support for traditional education, causing many schools to close and teachers to lose their jobs.
It also depicts the developmental problems that come with adolescents leaving the traditional school system to become “instalados,” after which they can enter the workforce and virtually stop being children; one of the main characters, Danny, holds a senior management post at the age of 14, and acts as cynically as any garden-variety douchebag CEO. Related to this is generational tension between young instalados who simply paid for knowledge and got in four hours what people usually study for four years, and older workers who graduated in the traditional way. Companies prefer to hire instalados, and instalados generally prefer to download profitable rather than personally meaningful or socially relevant courses, in part because they need to recoup the cost of installation, but also because many of them are too young or too blindered to know what they really want, or how to make a life beyond providing themselves and their families with material comforts.
Its numerous plot threads and focal characters prevented the film from delving deeply into any of its narrative elements, or covering plot holes. As a sci-fi story, it is unsatisfying: its novum (installation) and the way this technology has transformed the material and cultural structures of the world was not clearly thought out; I felt that not enough research was done to make more believable the science that makes installation possible, and the effects it has on psychology, both individual and social. For instance, it fails to engage with questions about the limits of the human mind, semantic and episodic/autobiographical memory and their effects on personality, or declarative vs. procedural memory; it’s rather difficult to believe that procedural memory — knowing not just What, but How To — can simply be downloaded, especially when the knowing-how-to consists not in conscious remembering, but in something that comes more “automatically” through long and repeated practice, like biking or painting or playing the violin. One minor character, an Aeta, wants to get a course in law installed, so she could help her tribe fight for their land rights; is knowledge of the law all it takes to become an IP rights lawyer, to argue and write, to negotiate the grossly uneven playing field of politics, with acumen?
Perhaps my biggest problem with Instalado is how it never problematizes the sufficiency of installation for the development of competencies. Thus it glosses over a significant critique of the consumerist notion of education, one which maintains that learning is not simply an act of consumption — that is, paying for tuition demands something of the “buyer” before s/he can enjoy what s/he paid for, in a way that is very different from when one pays for a latte (I can enjoy my drink the moment I claim it from the counter and hand over the receipt for the barista to stamp; I cannot enjoy the fruits of my knowledge unless I work hard to build it).
Instead, the film conceptualizes knowledge as mere information for transmission, as if the very process of learning were not the important aspect of education. In so doing, it cheapens its own critique of the commodification of something whose substance and value is difficult to pin down, to quantify. Learning is irreducible to the acquisition of information per se, for it largely depends on building the mental architecture and capacity to organize facts, observations, and suppositions in a meaningful and coherent way; in this sense, knowledge-construction is inseparable from society, from power, from identity, positionality, and ideology as worldview. Knowledge is praxis.
So, does installation confer not just knowledge as an aggregation of discrete facts, but also knowledge as “justified true belief,” as something embodied, or as a function of politics? The film is vague about the nature of its central sci-fi element. If this question were explored further in the film (not necessarily through explicit narration, of course), then the viewers would be able to think more about why the Catholic Church tries to corner the market for this technology, why companies prefer instalados to traditional graduates, or why instalados need multiple installations to get good jobs. Because if one thinks about it, traditional education, which occurs through a long period of time and involves consistent and difficult work and interaction with others, actually offers more latent benefits — not just habit- and values-formation, but social and cultural capital — that instalados don’t get by what amounts to a minor non-invasive surgical procedure. One cannot download diligence or focus or five months of sitting next to your crush and future co-author in class.
The above just expresses my dissatisfaction with conceptualization. There’s also the matter of storytelling, including flat characterization and abrupt shifts in character focus that precluded the development of conflicts and motivations, which made it difficult for me to empathize with any character, even with the girl who ironically got a degree in education installed so she could teach poor kids in the barrio. (That production value is not the greatest is understandable. That the acting is sometimes over the top is understandable.) All in all, the premise of the story is interesting, but the execution lacked nuance, complexity, and coherence. Nevertheless, it’s still worth seeing, especially for grade school or high school students who must think about what higher education is for (aside from, you know, getting a nice job, earning money, buying stuff, etc.).