The Greatest Bond Villain of All: Technology

The tension between technology's dual role as both a spy tool and a threat is the real star of the new Bond film.

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MGM

Tech has always played a prominent role in the Bond franchise; it's a key element of the plot formula: Bond opens with a chase scene, the core mission is revealed, and then Bond meets with Q for the latest and greatest gadgets that will no doubt be instrumental to his success later on in the film. Entire books have been written about Bond gadgetry. It's even been argued that the fictionalized state-of-the-art gadgets have often inspired or are at the very least predictive of future advances.

But since the Craig-era franchise refresh, technology has taken a backseat to more subtle character development. Between our smart phones and the proliferation of sensors and connected devices, the novelty of gadgets is perhaps starting to wear off. We can even pick up toy drones to conduct our own low-grade spying with connected video feeds. While our iPhones thankfully don't carry detonator apps, there's perhaps a limit to what Q can come up with next, which perhaps explains his absence in the last two films. And in this latest installment, Skyfall is filled with retro technology and nostalgia for the "old way" of doing things. No five-blade disposable for Mr. Bond; a whole scene revolves around using a straight razor to shave. It would be easy to dismiss this old school nostalgia as a nod to the classic Bond films to mark this 50-year anniversary of the franchise, but Bond's interest in old-school technology goes deeper than kitsch.

Skyfall tackles the role technology plays as a tool and as a threat. The most recent Global Risks report from the World Economic Forum extolled the "Dark Side of Connectivity" and so in an effort to reflect our modern preoccupations and insecurities, Mendes cast the latest Bond villain as not a leader of a nation state, but a lone hacker, operating on an abandoned, post-apocalyptic island somewhere in the South China Sea. Javier Bardem's character Raoul Silva is a wronged MI6 spy with a big grudge, racks upon racks of servers, and the ability to cut out critical infrastructure with a just few keystrokes. He's every Chief Security Officer's worst nightmare: the insider threat. Silva uses his advanced knowledge of the intelligence organization to plot an intricate attack against what should be the most secure of government agencies. He hacks into M's computer, hijacking her screen with a message threatening to release the names of undercover NATO agents planted in the middle east. Borrowing from hacktivist iconography, a calavera skull serves as Silva's visual signature. Silva's laptop becomes a literal trojan horse inside headquarters justifying every security professional's fear of plugging in found USB devices.

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Bardem as the hacker insider threat, flanked by his glowing servers. (MGM)

If Bardem is our new black hat Bond villain, Q is his white hat counterpart. Breaking from the slapstick formula, the introduction of the new Q is one of the more poignant scenes of the film. Q, played by Ben Wishaw, finds Bond sitting in front of Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire" in the National Gallery, eliciting a not so subtle exchange on its reflecting Bond's recent setbacks. We're as surprised as Bond: Q has traded his lab coat for a geek-chic cardigan, floppy hair, and retro hipster glasses. The two go back and forth about Q's age, experience, his pimply complexion. In defense, Q claims that he "can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of earl grey than you can do in a year in the field." He hands Bond a simple tracking radio and a handgun biometrically matched to only work with his palm print, and Bond is unimpressed. Q explains that MI6 has more important work to focus on than to come up with fancy field tech gadgets these days. He values knowledge work rather than grunt work, and has invested his time in developing encryption technologies rather than exploding pens.

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Presented by

Sara M. Watson is a technology critic and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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