Soylent Green left a huge mark on popular culture. It’s entirely possible I’m skewed by my nerd circle of friends but I’d wager every single one of them know the phrase “It’s made of people!” even if they couldn’t name the source. Heck, it was parodied on The Simpsons, which is its own mark of cultural currency.
If you couldn’t tell by my tone in the reviews (and I was not hiding it) while I appreciate the film, I can’t say I like it. Our protagonist is a wretched bully, though Heston plays him as a hero; the worldbuilding is inconsistent and writing full of holes; its Malthusian intent squicks me out.
At the same time I think many of its themes are very, very important and even more pressing today than they were in 1973:
Unchecked oligarchy and corporatism self-interesting us into the Anthropocene
Cops are violent thugs
The dehumanization of a populace by authoritarians
Food and water scarcity
I think it warrants a modern reboot, and offers the opportunity to rethink these themes in the information age. It would be interesting to see a writer rethink it without hinging it all on The Big Secret. Or, diegetically, a post-information age. It would be cool to see the Thanatorium with an even starker frontstage/backstage dichotomy, á la Westworld.
If it does get a reboot, it will be an opportunity to rethink its service and interaction design as well. Because little of it fares well on close inspection.
Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
The patient’s experience is missing some important stuff, but the intake questionnaire that informs it is missing tons of things that would be needed for the service, the beneficiary’s interface has stuff it shouldn’t, the attendants’ interface makes no sense, and worst of all, the usher’s interface is deeply lacking in the controls it needs to make what we see happen happen. All of it has to be “read” for what it is meant to be rather than what it is, and that takes modern audiences out of the experience.
Fi: D (1 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
Certainly the speculative service helps sell the notion of a culture so inured to collapse that they would make it (far too) easy to commit suicide. We understand that only Thorn can hear Sol’s dying words, even if the why is utterly confounding. The warmth of the front stage workers belies the horrible truth of the back stage. None of it is particularly well art directed, other than it does feel like it was cobbled together with stuff in a bunch of 1970s garages (which kind of works, diegetically, I guess, but not enough to save it). So they don’t really help with the narrative as much as they could.
It’s worth noting that this was Edward G. Robinson’s last film. He died two weeks after wrapping his scenes, making his fictional death scene even more poignant. But that doesn’t raise the grade because that has nothing to do with the design, just our respect for the talented actor.
Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Because they’re not believable, they don’t equip anyone for their goals, even though, of course the actors act as if they do.
The beneficiaries are treated like hostile witnesses rather than wishing to see a loved one off (without having to see all the dehumanizing backstage tech)
The usher doesn’t have the controls they need in the place they need it to ensure that things go smoothly, displays to show whether he’s meeting the ecstasy meet quota (if you’re into that backworlding), or even a panic button for when beneficiaries get hostile, as we see one do.
The attendants have all the analog tools to get the patient in place and comfortable and…uh…dying properly, but not the technological ones to ensure that the patient’s vital signs are being read.
The patient is the closest one with a desireable experience, but the movie completely sidesteps the need for privacy and human connection, and misses some important worldbuilding opportunities.
Even in its time it was not thought out thoroughly, and today we have much better channels for service delivery and much more sophistication around designing for it.
Final Grade F (1 of 12), Dreck.
Enjoy this film for its cultural currency and some of its themes, but steer clear of it for its design.
Now that 2022 is almost behind us, we can breathe a small sigh of relief that Soylent Green is not true here in the year it was meant to take place. But let’s not pat ourself on the environmental back yet, we are still heading for a 2.4°C scenario and despite the small-seeming number, that’s disastrous. So no resting on laurels. There is still work to be done at a planetary level to avoid a collapse scenario where we are forced to choose between cannibalism and suicide by cinema.
Throughout the reviews of Soylent Green, I have been cautious to stick to the movie, to the interface and service design. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to tease apart one of the complex, real-world ethical questions head-on.
The Thanatorium is the singular speculative technology in Soylent Green. The film contrasts the services’ caring facade with its deceptive, exploitative, cannibalist true nature. This Big Twist was played for shock: the film ends right after Thorn, shot and bleeding out, shouts his famous line “Soylent Green is people! We’ve got to stop them somehow!”, so if there is any effect from his murderous investigative journalism, i.e. any change, it is unaddressed. The film only cares about *gasp* its tabloid zinger. (Yes I’m aware of a cut scene in which Soylent and the government issue retractions. That scene was, as mentioned, cut.)
Note that the Thanatorium visuals are also used extradiegetically to get the audience to re-appreciate their own lives and ecology. (I am still searching for a name for this literary device.) We are given 73 minutes of bleak, dirty, sweaty oppression, and breathe a sigh of relief when we are shown images of sunlit tulips and pristine nature, inspiring us after the movie is over to to go outside, hug a fruit tree and a bee, and think, “My gods. We just can’t let Soylent Green happen.” So it wasn’t just shock, but I digress.
As we rightly reject the Thanatorium’s deception, oligarchical exploitation of the working classes, and of course, cannibalism; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is something in there that is worth considering.
Since I’m not a bioethicist, I’m going to lean on Matthew Burnstein’s essay “The Thanatoria of Soylent Green: On Reconciling the Good Life with the Good Death” in Bioethics at the Movies, ed. Sandra Shapshay (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009): 275-94. In it Burnstein points out that “the good life”—on which much of Western philosophy focuses—depends on what he calls the mastery model. That is, a moral actor must have agency, and use that agency well, before we can call theirs a good life. Burnstein points out that this model operates from our adolescence throughout our lives (up to a point, read on) and even after our life, in that our possessions and remains are handled in the manner we specify. We can specify a good after-death.
But there is a curious carve-out for death itself. It is good to build mastery over your life, we say, so you can lead a good one. It is good to exhibit mastery over one’s things after your life, we say. But the manner of your death? No no no. You must not choose that. Psychologists and physicians are the only ones who can make that call for you, and only in certain circumstances. Burnstein calls this carve-out “moral gerrymandering,” and it’s a pretty illuminating phrase: Why would we not apply the mastery model here?
There are good reasons to take caution with permitting “easy” suicide, putting aside supernatural objections as well as the obvious need to prevent murders that are disguised as suicide.
Suicide is an irreversible decision, and sometimes our perceptions of things in the moment are exaggerated and even wrong. What feels like hopelessness may improve if we just gave it time. It would be tragic if a person gave into the grip of temporary despair with an irreversible decision, and never got a chance to change their story. So, yes, we should put some guidelines around such an act. We should provide universal mental health care and try to ensure that people are in crises have places to turn. But the moral gerrymandering around death means that we most often forbid suicide outright, and when it is permitted, it’s prohibitively constrained.
In my home country of the USA, there are currently 11 states that permit physician-assisted suicide (PAS). (Around the world PAS is legal in a number of countries, but I am less familiar with those laws even in passing.) The rules around PAS are deliberately restrictive. You have to prove you are of sound mind and that your incurable disease will kill you within 6 months. A person with a slow-burn incurable disease—especially one where the mind will go before the body—is mostly doomed to just…suffer through it, at emotional and financial toll to themselves and their loved ones. There are Patient Instructions/Advance Directives that people can use to clearly state directives for medical instructions for different situations, but one cannot issue a directive that breaks the law, like asking for euthanasia, and drawing up legal documents can be financially prohibitive. So for many there are still massive impediments to having death with dignity, or what Burnstein calls “the good death.”
A dear friend of mine is going through this very thing right now with a loved one, and while it’s not my place to tell their story, it is heart-wrenching and inhumane to hear play out.
There are some good real-world models. Dignitas is an association in Switzerland that offers life counseling and death with dignity services according to Swiss law. Travel can be prohibitively costly for anyone who does not already live there, and any person who is present with them at the time of their death may face harsh legal consequences upon returning home. It would be more humane if other jurisdictions would take steps towards enabling their own death with dignity policies, and undoing the moral gerrymandering that says we must only die according to the dictates of chance.
Even in the misguided Malthusian fiction that is Soylent Green, what is presented as a horror is quite rational. Without the thanatorium, Sol has a Sophie’s Choice between starvation and cannibalism. A gentle, pleasant suicide is a welcome third option. What is wicked in this speculative service is that they use his cadaver without his consent and hide the truth of their product from the population at large, so that oligarchs on “the board” can continue to live out the last days of the earth enjoying showers, exploited sex workers, air conditioning, and food that is not made of humans. In short; It’s the oligarchy, not the suicide services, that is the villain, though the film spends its calories on the shockeroo moment.
When considering this model for the real world, we should take great exception to the no-questions-asked expediency seen in Soylent Green. We would want such a service to be slow, deliberative, and life-affirming, with counseling and assistance programs to help people overcome crises of all sorts and palliative care. (As Dignitas does.) And then, yes, additionally, self-determination suicide services. But not walk-in “suicide booth” stuff.
So as we put the reviews of Soylent Green to rest, let’s not take that shock at face value. The Thanatorium—without the casual expediency, deception, cannibalism, and oligarchy—is a model worth considering.
The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the patient themselves. Since there aren’t any technological interfaces, this will be a review of the service design from the patient’s and Soylent’s perspectives. If you’re only into this blog for technological interfaces, this is a post to skip, as it’s going to be about set design, lighting, props, signage, and ritual design, among other things.
Part of how we measure the efficacy of an experience is by checking whether it helps its user achieve their goals in the ways they would like them achieved. So let’s say that Sol’s goals are to take advantage of the service to have a good death, i.e. to pass painlessly and with dignity, and to have his belongings passed along according to his wishes. He wants psychological comfort as well, which in this case means helping him psychologically transition from the world he is leaving behind by setting up a liminal space for the ceremony, pointing toward notions of eternity and away from the horrible world he is leaving.
We are going to completely bypass the script question here about why Sol doesn’t bother to communicate to Thorn the Dark Secret in his goodbye note, but then does tell him when he happens to join him at the Thanatorium. That is what it is.
After Sol learns that his options are cannibalism or starvation, he makes the decision to die with dignity. To enact this wish, he dresses in his Sunday best, heads to the state-sponsored Thanatorium, officed in a low-rise building at the end of a wide street in downtown New York City.
Authors Islam Abohela and Noel Lavin insightfully note in their 2020 paper, The Height of Future Architecture: Significance of High versus Low Rise Architecture in Science Fiction Films, that the horizontality of this building contrasts earlier, vertical sci-fi visions of the cityscape as lofty and aspirational. In short, the building is in a horizontal repose suitable to its purpose. Further, the bright illumination spilling out from its frosted-glass doors onto the street helps to sell its next-world-ly promise, especially as the terminus of a dark road.
At Sol’s approach a young worker opens the door and welcomes him. (How did she know of his approach, given the frosted glass? Let’s presume cameras, though we see no hint of this.)
With the door open, Sol feels the air conditioning pouring from inside and says, “It feels good.” She replies, “Yes, sir. Won’t you please come in?” He hesitates a moment with the gravity of it, but proceeds. Inside he walks through a turnstile and the greeter escorts him to one of the intake queues.
Worldbuilding question: The New York City of Soylent Green is oppressively hot and overcrowded. You would imagine that people would want to feel that refreshing cool air themselves, even if they weren’t there to suicide. I would expect people to be laying on the sidewalk there near the doors on the off-chance to feel a cool breeze. But the street leading to the Thanatorium is vacant. Why is this so? You might think well, it’s an authoritarian state, and curfew is probably enforced brutally. But then why is Sol allowed to just amble his way there? It would have been a nice beat to have seen Sol approached by an angry cop and challenged, only to have Sol point up the street to the Thanatorium, to which the cop softens and nods, allowing Sol to continue. This would have signaled that, despite curfew, the Thanatorium is open 24 hours a day, 7 days for “business.”
Taking a moment to appreciate the set design, the placid blues and non-descript “plop art” backdrops sell this space as a hospital rather than, say, an airport terminal, or church. It could have gone all “heavenly gate” but that would have been too soon in the patient experience, and lacked the personalized immersion that leads to…uh…the ecstasy meat (a gross, backworlded concept introduced in the beneficiaries post). The service keeps its powder dry to maximize that main event and thereby its output. So this design wins for being both familiar to the patients and effective for Soylent.
The film cuts away to show Thorn returning home to find Sol’s goodbye letter, and then running to the Thanatorium. When we cut back to Sol, he is in the middle of answering some questions by the intake staff, i.e. His favorite color and genre of music. Sol responds and the intake personnel marks his answers on a reusable plastic form. Before signing, Sol wants to confirm that the ceremony will last, “A full 20 minutes?”
This scriptwriting moment bears a mention. This comes across as a negotiation, but what is being exchanged here? And what could Sol do with a guarantee when he won’t be there in case this mustache reneges on the deal? Nothing, of course, but it really sets up the transactional nature here. One’s death is so cheap in the world of Soylent Green that one can use it as a bargaining chip. Dark.
There’s a lot that we don’t get to examine in this intake experience because the scene is cut, but per Sol’s goals identified above, we have to imagine it would include questions about his beneficiaries and privacy. Additional questions appear in the text below.
The usher comes and retrieves Sol, making small talk and escorting him down halls, past the beneficiaries’ observation room, to “theater 11,” which is the death chamber to which he’s been assigned, with attendants waiting there standing aside a bed in the center of the room. The inclusion of “11” reminds us that there are many such theaters in the Thanatorium. It would have been nice for the beneficiaries only room to have had a similar number, i.e. “Observation 11: beneficiaries only,” linking the two together for the users and the audience.
We’ll get back to Sol’s experience in a moment, but first a note on the floor markings and the architecture.
I first thought the red line on the floor might have been wayfinding lines like you see in some hospitals. If it was a particularly busy day, and the patient ambulatory, the intake personnel could say, “Follow the red line on the floor to theater 11.” But, a glance at the scenes that precede this show that these markings are only present in the antechamber leading into the theater and the theater itself. So it serves as more of a decoration, a red line leading to a red circle in the middle of which is a white gray, and black circle. The end of the line in two senses.
This sense of the terminus is reinforced by the design of the room. The small passageway down which Sol walks joins with the more expansive theater, creating a sort of “reverse womb” implying a balance between the beginning and end of life. It’s not critical that patients pick up on any of this, of course, but all contributes to a sense of liminality; of interest to both Sol and Soylent.
So all good, but I wish the lighting here had echoed the approach to the building. It should have been a glowing pool of light at the end of a dark passageway, rather than the even overhead lighting reminiscent of a school cafeteria that we see in the film. Pools of light in the center combined with many flickering pinpoints of light at the periphery would have increased the sense of other-worldliness and unified the approach to the building with the entrance to the theater, creating a rhythm of self-similar spectacle. It also would have let the scale of the 180° screen become apparent only once the ceremony started, adding to its thrill and overwhelming scale.
The attendant behavior
In service design, the behavior of the frontstage staff is of particular concern, as humans are good at reading other humans for cues about unfamiliar things. In this case, the attendants are silent, wear beatific expressions, and move with a dance-like deliberateness throughout their parts. It is perhaps the most effective cue-of-transition for the patient. The outfits are a little goofy, but borrow semantically from western Christian liturgy, so are kind-of appropriate. If the patient were atheist or from a different religious tradition, other costumes with different signifiers would be more appropriate.
It’s also of note that not everyone is comfortable with being touched by strangers. It signals a warmth in the scene, but might feel threatening to some patients. Another question to add to the intake questionnaire.
Once Sol is in the theater, the attendants greet him with silent handshakes, lead him to the bed, and begin to help him disrobe. This segment bears many questions.
Why does he need to be naked?
I get why he is disrobed here, from Soylent’s perspective. I’ve never been a mortician, but it does seem that getting the clothes off of a living person would be easier than getting it off a dead person, why make the task harder for Soylent employees down the line? Just work it into the ceremony, some product manager says. And from Sol’s perspective, he’d like to see his clothes being taken away in a nice basket with some assurances that the clothes would be washed and given back to the community; an additional assurance that he’s doing a good, selfless thing in this world with dwindling resources.
But then there are the pants. Maybe it’s me, but there is not a dignified way to remove one’s pants around other, clothed, people. Did they help him out of his pants? Did he do that and just hand the clothes to them? Is he just in his underwear? All of it seems awkward.
I think the service could take a privacy clue from hospitals, public pools, and spas: provide a small room where a patient can undress themselves and switch into a robe. This would also be an opportunity to get a shower, which the movie demonstrates is a cherished luxury in the world of Soylent Green, another reward to lure citizens. Water is in short supply in the world of Soylent Green, but the corpses that are sent en masse to The Exchange for processing don’t get otherwise cleaned, so it would be another nice, hygienic worldbuilding hint.
In the scene, the disrobing is taken as a solemn moment, but Sol is distracted from thinking too hard about it by the appearance of an orange floodlight.
That orange floodlight
During the disrobing, a floodlight of Sol’s favorite color illuminates. I complained briefly about this in the prior post, but what’s causing this light to come on? The usher is back at intake, so it’s not him. Maybe the light is on a timer, but that seems hard for the attendants to manage against the other things that need to happen.
Also, why does it come on at this moment in the ceremony? It might be a deliberate distraction for Sol, meant to focus his attention on the meaning of the ceremony rather than the mundane disrobing, but if so, you might think that the light should illuminate before the disrobing begins. But recall that it’s only happenstance that Sol’s favorite color is the warm and flattering orange. If a patient’s favorite color happened to be blue—which is the most popular color around the world—it would grant everything in theater 11 a cool, detached appearance, and give the patient’s own skin a deathly pallor. Not great for the experience.
Much better would be to keep the custom-color flood light off until the overture begins—when the patient’s attention is not drawn to themselves but focused on the chamber around them—and illuminate it with the rise of the music, in response to the usher’s controls. This would maximize the impact of the color on Sol’s emotional state while not making his own skin and the attendants look off-putting.
Getting onto the bed
Once disrobed, the attendants help Sol onto the bed. How they do this is left off-screen, but it’s a non-trivial problem since as you can see in the screen shot, Sol is 5’7″ and the bed height is well above his waist. Hopefully there’s a set of retractable steps under the bed skirt that can make this accessible to Sol without his having to be hoisted up by the attendants, which would be undignified.
Once in bed, the attendants provide the “hemlock,” (which is what I’m calling the deadly draught they provide in homage to the death of Socrates) and Sol drinks.
We don’t see the glass in the room prior to its being handed to him, but I imagine since this is the point of no return, it bears some attention. Should it be waiting already poured, or should he watch it being poured? Should be pour it himself? If poured, should it be from a gold, porcelain, or glass pitcher? Should there be a tray? Where should all this be staged?
For materials, gold is a good funereal symbol for never tarnishing, but might be too tempting a theft target for poverty-stricken citizens. Stoneware has a nice connotation of being of-the-earth, but is a poor choice for being opaque and here implying its contents are something to be hidden. So I’d recommend a simple glass pitcher that emphasizes clarity. The Toyo pitcher shown below has no handle and so requires two hands to operate, granting a ceremonial, human feel to the act of pouring. While we’re at it, ditch the footed highball glass for a stange or zombie glass to match the pitcher’s simplicity. Have them sitting on an end table on a tray at the side of the bed in their own pool of light and have the attendant pour and hand the glass to the patient. When they depart the chamber one attendant can take the tray out with them for cleaning, and the other can push the end table back under the bed.
Another argument for delaying the floodlight until the overture is that light can change the apparent color of the drink. It just so happens that Sol’s orange flatters the amber color of the draught, but if his favorite color had been, say, red, it might have made the drink look like a wicked ink. Keep the floodlight off to keep the apparent color of the drink something pleasant and unthreatening.
Sol makes no expression in response to the taste of the hemlock, so we have no clue how it’s flavored, but it’s in everyone’s interest that it be palatable, if not pleasant. It would have been a nice touch at intake to ask him to select from a menu of favorite flavors as well, especially to hide the taste of whatever other drugs need to be mixed in.
Once Sol has imbibed the draught, he lies back on the wedge pillow and the attendants draw a sheet up to his chest.
As the orange floodlight dims to a candlelight whisper, Sol waits for the overture to begin as the attendants depart.
Alone at last, Sol is treated to an audio overture as the drugs work through his system. The music is the principal theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” He stares up at the ceiling, bathed in his favorite color, listening to his favorite music unaware that things are about to become even more spectacular.
The overture complete (and, per my ecstasy meat theory, the MDMA and opiates have kicked in) the audio-visual presentation starts. The music changes to the first movement of Beethoven’s “Symphony #6 (The Pastoral),” and a very wide-angle video presentation begins on the wrap-around screen above him, starting with a verdant field of tulips blowing in a breeze.
It later transitions to images of fauna, other flora, wholesome livestock, and sunsets—all romantic scenes of a highly-selective-memory of Earth’s heyday. It’s important to remember that audiences in 1973 may have heard of a Cinerama display like this, but few of them had seen it. And the 180+° screen seen in the film dwarfs the original Cinerama 2.65:1 display ratio. So though folks today may yawn at this in comparison to IMAX or Oculus AR displays, at the time this would have seemed very sci-fi.
From our vantage point, it all seems a little cruel, bathing Sol in scenes of what he cannot have and what for him will never be, but maybe it points at an afterlife where the things you recall fondly will be yours again, in abundance. (Hey that seems like a formula for every afterlife story.) Mixed with the drugs in Sol’s system, it would help flood his mind and body with euphoria and all the pleasant neurotransmitters that entails.
At a few minutes into the presentation, the SPEAKING PERMITTED light of the beneficiaries interface begins blinking, and the patient is able to talk to their loved ones. This would interrupt the spectacle of the display, but add a flood of additional emotions (and thereby hormones) from heartfelt declarations of love and farewell. Immediately afterward “Morning Mood” from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite #1” plays as biophilic videos play: Alpine mountainscapes with grazing donkeys, tarns with floral banks. Finally it segues to scenes depicting the end-of-a-day: A sunset over waves crashing on the black rocks of a pristine West Coast beach, another sun sets through gaps in swiftly drifting clouds.
The screen fades to black as “Aase’s Death” plays from the “Peer Gynt Suite.” In the film, this is the point where Sol shares the Dark Secret and tells Thorn he must go the Exchange and provide proof to the elders. (Ugh. Screenwriters, again, if this was so important, why did he wait until this moment—which he was not sure would come—to convey this information? It makes no sense. But I digress.)
The camera is all close up in their faces for this final beat, so we don’t know what is playing on the screen, but I’d like to think it’s images of stars and nebulae to evoke not just the end of a terrestrial day, but a connection to things that by comparison seem eternal, everlasting.
The dialogue makes me realize another signal is missing for Sol, that is, how does he know when the audio channel to the observation room is open? Now, it would be nice if the audio channel were tied to the state of the viewing portal. That is, audio is connected when the portal is open and they can see each other; and off when the portal is closed. But, we know that Soylent wants the usher to have control of the channels to silence either party at will, so in lieu of that, let’s give some signal to Sol near the observation window to let him know when the audio channel is open. It should look akin to the interface on the other side in the observation room, but it would have to be redesigned for a 10-foot rather than 2-foot experience. It would also have to not be distracting to the patient when their attention is on the cinerama, so a dim, backlit visual might be enough for sighted users. Separate and custom-designed rooms should be built for differently abled patients.
After his plea to Thorn, Sol finally passes, marking the end of his experience with the Thanatorium.
All told, Sol’s experience suits his goals fairly well. He wants a sense of dignity, spectacle, importance, connection to his loved one, and otherworldliness that he receives. There are little things to fix throughout, as mentioned in the text.
My biggest criticism is of being physically separated from loved ones, when a held hand might take the edge off of the fear of death and add a nice dose of oxytocin to the result, but Soylent’s interest is more about maximizing control of the end product, so this, full of risk, would not make it into the final design.
The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the attendants to the patient. Forewarning: This is the role we have the least information about. These Thanatorium personnel are there to assist the patient in their suicide, and deal with the body after the ceremony is complete.
The attendants have many goals and tasks to accomplish with each patient:
Help set the patient at ease so they complete the ceremony
Welcome the patient warmly
Assist them with tasks
Help them disrobe
Get them onto the gurney
Provide the hemlock
Set the patient in place for the cinerama experience
Press the gray buttons (which I interpret as ensuring medical monitoring, see below)
Set a liminal mood
Remove the clothes for donating and cup for cleaning
Leave the patient during the cinerama
Return to the body when the patient has passed
Usher the gurney through the portal
Nearly all of this is manual, with no speculative interfaces to speak of. A service design approach would look at this entire touchpoint, though. So, some quick notes.
Note their uniforms. Rather than the Guayabera shirt that the usher wears, the attendants wear vestments—white robes with goldenrod cuffs and cinctures around their waists. They even wear sandals to convey a sort of biblical, old-world holiness. It’s goofy and cheap, and kind of perfect.
Their manner is solemn, never speaking and performing their tasks with a sort of dance-like deliberateness. The behavior helps set off the space as liminal, somewhere not-quite like the world outside. No notes on the frontstage choreography.
The lighting begins a little flat, like overhead fluorescents in a school cafeteria. Maybe this is to give the patient a sense of certainty, of complete information about the room; but for my money the whole thing would seem more liminal with more dramatic lighting: A warm pool of light around the bed, maybe tiny amber incandescent bulbs flickering in a ring around the walls, like candles or stars.
There are some things we don’t get to see about the ceremony, like where the hemlock is stored and how it is presented to Sol, or how he gets up on a bed that’s above his waist, or what they do with his clothes. Or even—and this bit really bugs me—how the light changes from white to Sol’s requested orange at that moment. It’s not the usher, who is in the foyer about to intercept Thorn, and not the attendants, whose attention is on Sol. Maybe it’s on a timer, but that makes little sense. I really have to chalk it up to another movie-making error. Anyway, we’ll get to all this in the patient’s experience post, next.
For now let’s note that after the patient drinks the hemlock and they ease him back, we finally get to the one interface.
The ominous, inscrutable gray buttons…
Before departing the chamber, one of the attendants reaches down to a small metallic panel at the head of the bed. It consists of two square pushbuttons on the right, and a dial (or a plunger?) on the left.
The attendant presses and holds both of the buttons simultaneously for about three seconds. In the movie this attendant then gives the other a knowing glance, and they depart.
What the hell is this interface meant to be?
It’s quite unclear what state change this interface is meant to make, or why it needs to be a two-handed switch, when these sorts of things are mostly used for safety. My best guess is that since the drinking of the hemlock is the point of no return, and since the observation window is closed during that sequence so grief-stricken beneficiaries can’t interrupt; the two-handed switch is the silent signal from the attendants to the usher that everything is cool and they can open the observation window for final farewells. That’s low-confidence backworlding, though, since in the movie we know the usher is not present in the observation chamber at this time, but in the foyer of the thanatorium about to intercept Thorn. So, take this with a grain of salt.
But, if that’s the usual purpose, why have one panel with the two buttons? It’s a bit silly because they are close enough to be mashed by a single palm or even hip. It would make more sense if each attendant had their own button on each side of the bed, which they had to hold down. Have each button illuminate small green bulbs, and then jump-cut to the usher’s interface where two identical green bulbs labeled READY both illuminate. Then the usher can open the window and the beneficiary interface can switch to SPEAKING PERMITTED. This would make that weird interface moment make at least some sense.
Oh, and the dial? I have no idea. It’s unlabeled. Could be to control the bed height, or audio volume, or the brightness? Why one and not the other? There’s no way to tell and nothing makes a lot of sense given the rest of this scene. Provide your best guess in the comments, if you like. Otherwise my recommendation is to remove it.
One thing that seems to be missing the scene is some acknowledgment that the attendants are the ones to ensure that medical monitoring is operational, and do some troubleshooting if not. The monitoring is important, because the usher will await the clinical death signals before ending the cinerama and opening the observation window again for final viewing by the beneficiaries.
To help signal this, I recommend adding to the scene a quick shot of the surface of the bed before Sol lays down, showing inset silver disks, hinting at something like ECG electrodes, and then adding a panel at the head of the bed that an attendant can pull out to reveal the clinical death gauges described in the usher’s interface post.
The attendant can then close the panel, give the everything is in order look to the other, and the two of them depart for their break room, or jump seats, or watercooler; wherever they go for the interim.
A final viewing
Once the patient passes, the attendants come in and push the gurney along its track into the portal. But this is for show, as the gurney is on a track, and after it leaves the theater to the “backstage,” it is pulled along by a mechanized track in the floor. So it could just be automated. But seeing the attendants moving it along gives the beneficiaries some last bit of theater that the body will be respectfully dealt with.
The thanatorium is a speculative device for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the interface for the usher. This Thanatorium personnel is there as a stage manager of sorts, both to help the patient and the beneficiaries go where they need to go, ensure the beneficiaries do not do what they must not, and run the tech aspects of the ceremony.
Note that—as I backworlded in the last post—these notes presume that the reason the beneficiaries are separated from the patients are to prevent them from trying to stop the event, and to minimize distractions during the cinerama display for gross biochemical reasons. Also recall that we’re having to go with a best-guess as to what the usual experience is, since we only see Thorn’s tardy thuggery in the film.
The usher’s tasks
Based on what we see in the film, the usher has a lot to do for each event…
Receive the patient’s preferences (music category, color, whatever other questions intake asked before we join that scene) from the intake personnel
Escort the patient to the “theater” and the beneficiaries to the observation room
Set the color of the light and the music to the patient’s preferences
Close the portal for the hemlock drinking
Open the portal for last farewells
Close the portal for the cinerama display
Start the cinerama display
Get help if the patient gets up or otherwise interrupts the ceremony
Wait for when the patient dies
Open the portal to view the body’s being shuttled away
Ensure the beneficiaries behave, answer any questions
Escort the beneficiaries back to the lobby
The interface barely touches on any of this
With all that in mind, we can see that this interface is woefully ill-equipped for any of his tasks. In the prior post I argue that the features for speaking to the patient—the speaker, the audio jack, and the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator—should be separated from the usher’s stage manager functions. So we’re only going to pay attention in this post to the row of backlit rocker toggles labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, CHAMBER 1 and a little bit of the authorization key that looks like a square metal button in the screen cap above. And note I’m going to make suggestions that are appropriate to the early 1970s rather than use either modern real-world or speculative interface technologies.
First, that authorization key is pretty cool
The fact that it’s a featureless, long metal cuboid is so simple it feels sci-fi. Even the fact that its slot is unlabeled is good—it would help prevent a malicious or grief-panicked user from figuring out how to take control. You could even go one step further and have a hidden magnetic switch, so there’s not even a slot to clue in users. Production designer note, though, this means that the panel needs to be wood (or something non-magnetic) rather than a ferromagnetic metal. Aluminum, maybe, since it’s paramagnetic, but you also don’t want anything that can scratch or wear easily and give away the position of the secret spot.
But, the buttons don’t match the scene
The PORTAL button never changes state, though we see the portal open and close in the scene. AUDIO is dim though we hear the audio. Maybe dim equals on? No, because VISUAL is lit. There’s some gymnastics we could do to apologize for this, but Imma give up and just say it’s just a moviemaking error.
And they are poorly clustered
Why is CHAMBER 2 before CHAMBER 1? Why are the three AV buttons split up by CHAMBER 2? A more reasonable chunking of these would be PORTAL on its own, CHAMBER 1 & CHAMBER 2 together, and the remaining A/V buttons together. These groups should be separated to make them easier to identify and help avoid accidental activation (though the stakes here are pretty low.)
The PORTAL button is the wrong type and orientation
Look close at the screen shot and you’ll see that each button consists of three parts. A white, back-lit square which bears the label, and two black pushbuttons that act like rocker switches. That is, press the upper one in, and the lower one pops out. Press that popped-out lower one in, and the upper one pops out again. When the lower button is pressed in, the button is “on,” which you can tell because those are the only ones with the upper button popped out and the back light illuminated.
Rocker switches are good for things with two mutually exclusive states, like ON and OFF. The PORTAL button is the only one for which this makes unambiguous sense, with its two states being OPEN and CLOSED. But, we have to note that it is poorly mapped. The button has a vertical orientation, but the portal closes from right to left. It means the usher has to memorize which toggle state is open and which one is closed. It would more usable to have an inferrable affordance. Cheapest would be to turn the button sideways so it maps more clearly, but an even tighter mapping would be a slider mounted sideways with OPEN and CLOSED labels. I don’t think the backlit status indicator is necessary here because there’s already a giant signal of the state of the portal, and that’s the adjacent portal.
What do EFFECTS and CHAMBER even do?
What does the EFFECTS button do? I mean, if AUDIO and VISUAL have their own controls, what’s left? Lasers? A smoke machine? Happiness pheromones? (I’m getting The Cabin in the Woods vibes here.) Whatever it is, if there are multiple, they should have individual controls, in case the patient wants one but not the other, or if there’s any variability that needs controlling.
Also what do CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2 do? It’s very poor labeling. What chambers do they refer to? Maybe the observation room is chamber 1 and the theater is chamber 2? If so, different names could save the usher’s having to memorize them. Also, what do these switches control? Lights? Door locks? We would need to know to really make design recommendations for these.
The AV controls are incomplete
Which takes us to AUDIO, and VISUAL. Each of these is missing something.
Sure, they might need ON/OFF controls as we see here. But how about a volume control to accommodate the hard-of-hearing and the sound-sensitive? How about a brightness control for the video? These could have an OFF state and replace the toggle switches.
We know from the movie itself that the service has offered Sol his choice of music genre. Where is the genre selector? This is a non-trivial problem since the number of genres is on the order of 1000. They probably don’t offer all of them, but at intake they do ask Sol his preference as an open-ended question, so it implies a huge selection. Radio band selectors would have made sense to audiences in the 1970s, and signal a huge number of options, but risk being “out of tune” and imply that it’s broadcast. So either have a small number of options with a 15° rotary switch (and rewrite the intake scene so Sol selects from a menu) or three 10-digit rotary switches with a “commit” momentary button, and have a small reference booklet hanging there.
I also want to believe that the theme of the video can be selected. Sol has chosen “nature” but you could imagine patients requesting for their end-of-life ceremony something else like “family,” “celestial,” “food” (given the diegesis, this should be first) or even “religious” (with a different one for each of the world’s twelve major religions). So it would make sense to have a video theme selector as well, say, on the order of 20 options. That could be a 15° rotary switch. Labeling gets tough, but it could just be numbers with an index label to the side.
I’m going to presume that they never need scrubbing controls (REWIND or FAST FORWARD) for the AV. The cinerama plays through once and stops. Sudden rewinding or fast forwarding would be jarring for the patient and ruin the immersion. Have a play button that remains depressed while the cinerama is ongoing. But if the patient passes more quickly than expected, a RESET button would make sense. So would a clock or a countdown timer, since Sol had confirmed at intake that it would be at least 20 minutes, and to let the usher know how much time they have left to get those neurotransmitter numbers up up up.
Some controls are straight up missing
How does an usher set the lights according to the patient’s preferences? They ask at intake, and we see Sol’s face washed with a soothing amber color once the attendants leave, so there should be a color selector. Three RGB slide potentiometers would provide perfect control, but I doubt anyone would quibble that the green they’d asked for was #009440 and not #96b300, so you could go with a selector. The XKCD color survey results show that there are on the order of about 30 colors, so something similar to the video-theme selector above would work, with a brightness potentiometer to the side.
These controls ought to be there
The patient experience is a bit of a show, so to signal its beginning and end, there should be lighting controls for the usher to dim and raise the lights, like in a theater. So let’s add those.
Also, the usher has a minor medical task to accomplish: Monitoring the health of the patient to know when they’ve passed. The three metrics for clinical death are a cessation of all three of…
…so there should be indicators for each of these. As discussed in the medical chapter of the book, this is ideally a display of values over time, but in the resource-poor and elecromechanical world of Soylent Green, it might have to be a collection of gauges, with an indicator bulb near the zero for when activity has stopped. A final, larger indicator bulb should light when all three gauges are still. To really underscore the morbidness of this interface, all those indicators should be green.
If you buy my backworlding, i.e. that part of the point of preventing interruptions is to maximize the dopamine and serotonin being released into the patient’s body, there should also be status indicators showing the level of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s bloodstream. They can be the same style of gauges, but I’d add a hand drawn arrow to some point along the chapter ring that reads “quota.” Those indicators should be larger than the clinical death indicators to match their importance to Soylent’s purposes.
Lastly, thinking of Thorn’s attack, the usher should have a panic button to summon help if the patient or the beneficiaries are getting violent (especially once they discover they’re locked in.) This should be hidden under the panel so it can be depressed secretly.
Where should this panel go?
As described in the beneficiaries post we’re going to leave the communication interface just below the portal, where they are now for those fleeting moments when they can wish the patient goodbye.
And there’s no need to put the usher’s controls under the nose of the beneficiaries. (In fact with the medical monitoring it would be kind of cruel.) So let the usher have a lectern beside the door, in a dim pool of light, and mount the controls to the reading top. (Also give them a stool to rest on, have we learned nothing?) Turn the lectern such that the interface is not visible to beneficiaries in the room. This lets the usher remain respectfully out of the center of attention, but in a place where they can keep an eye on both the patient when the portal is open, and the beneficiaries throughout.
In total, the lectern panel would look something like this…
…and the scene could go something like this…
Interior. Thanatorium observation room.
The Usher escorts Thorn into the room. Thorn rushes to the portal. The usher steps behind a lectern near the door.
It’s truly a shame you missed the overture.
The Usher slides a switch on the lectern panel, and the portal closes.
I want to see him.
Usher, looking down at his interface
That is prohibited during the ceremony.
Worm’s eye view. Thorn takes a few steps toward him and knocks the lectern to the ground. It falls with its interface in the foreground. In the background, we see Thorn slam the usher against the wall.
Well I can assure you, open that damned thing right now, or I swear to God you’ll die before he does!
The usher falls to his hands and knees and we see him slide the switch to open the portal. Thorn steps back to it, and the usher gets on his feet to right the lectern
The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the least complicated of the bunch, the beneficiaries.
We have to do a little extrapolation here because the way we see it in the movie is not the way we imagine it would work normally. What we see is Thorn entering the building and telling staff there to take him to Sol. He is escorted to an observation room labeled “beneficiaries only” by an usher. (Details about the powerful worldbuilding present in this label can be found in the prior post.) Sol has already drunk the “hemlock” drink by the time Thorn enters this room, so Sol is already dying and the robed room attendants have already left.
This room has a window view of the “theater” proper, with an interface mounted just below the window. At the top of this interface is a mounted microphone. Directly below is an intercom speaker beside a large status alert labeled SPEAKING PERMITTED. When we first see the panel this indicator is off. At the bottom is a plug for headphones to the left, a slot for a square authorization key, and in the middle, a row of square, backlit toggle buttons labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, and CHAMBER 1. When the Sol is mid-show, EFFECTS and VISUAL are the only buttons that are lit.
When the usher closes the viewing window, explaining that it’s against policy for beneficiaries to view the ceremony, Thorn…uh…chokes him in order to persuade him to let him override the policy.
“Persuaded,” the usher puts his authorization key back in the slot. The window opens again. Thorn observes the ceremony in awe, having never seen the beautiful Earth of Sol’s youth. He mutters “I didn’t know” and “How could I?” as he watches. Sol tries weakly to tell Thorn something, but the speaker starts glitching, with the SPEAKING PERMITTED INDICATOR flashing on and off. Thorn, helpfully, pounds his fist on the panel and demands that the usher do something to fix it. The user gives Thorn wired earbuds and Thorn continues his conversation. (Extradiegetically, is this so they didn’t have to bother with the usher’s overhearing the conversation? I don’t understand this beat.) The SPEAKING PERMITTED light glows a solid red and they finish their conversation.
Sol dies, and the lights come up in the chamber. Two assistants come to push the gurney along a track through a hidden door. Some mechanism in the floor catches the gurney, and the cadaver is whisked away from Thorn’s sight.
So that’s Thorns corrupt, thuggish cop experience of the thanatorium. Let’s now make some educated guesses about what this might imply for the regular, non-thug experience for beneficiaries.
The patient and beneficiaries enter the building and greeted by staff.
They wait in queue in the lobby for their turn.
The patient is taken by attendants to the “theater” and the beneficiaries taken by the usher to the observation room.
Beneficiaries witness the drinking of the hemlock.
The patient has a moment to talk with the beneficiaries and say their final farewells.
The viewing window is closed as the patient watches the “cinerama” display and dies. The beneficiaries wait quietly in the observation room with the usher.
The viewing window is opened as they watch the attendants wheel the body into the portal.
They return to the lobby to sign some documents for benefits and depart.
So, some UX questions/backworlding
We have to backworld some of the design rationales involved to ground critique and design improvements. After all, design is the optimization of a system for a set of effects, and we want to be certain about what effects we’re targeting. So…
Why would beneficiaries be separated from the patient?
I imagine that the patient might take comfort from holding the hands or being near their loved ones (even if that set didn’t perfectly overlap with their beneficiaries). So why is there a separate viewing room? There are a handful of reasons I can imagine, only one of which is really satisfying.
Maybe it’s to prevent the spread of disease? Certainly given our current multiple pandemics, we understand the need for physical separation in a medical setting. But the movie doesn’t make any fuss about disease being a problem (though with 132,000 people crammed into every square mile of the New York City metropolitan area you’d figure it would be), and in Sol’s case, there’s zero evidence in the film that he’s sick. Why does the usher resist the request from Thorn if this was the case? And why wouldn’t the attendants be in some sort of personal protective gear?
Maybe it’s to hide the ugly facts of dying? Real death is more disconcerting to see than most people are familiar with (take the death rattle as one example) and witnessing it might discourage other citizens from opting-in for the same themselves. But, we see that Sol just passes peacefully from the hemlock drink, so this isn’t really at play here.
Maybe it’s to keep the cinerama experience hidden? It’s showing pictures of an old, bountiful earth that—in the diegesis—no longer exists. Thorn says in the movie that he’s too young to know what “old earth” was like, so maybe this society wants to prevent false hope? Or maybe to prevent rioting, should the truth of How Far We’ve Fallen get out? Or maybe it’s considered a reward for patients opting-in to suicide, thereby creating a false scarcity to further incentivize people to opt-in themselves? None of this is super compelling, and we have to ask, why does the usher give in and open the viewport if any of this was the case?
So, maybe it’s to prevent beneficiaries from trying to interfere with the suicide. This society would want impediments against last-minute shouts of, “Wait! Don’t do it!” There’s some slight evidence against this, as when Sol is drinking the Hemlock, the viewing port is wide open, so beneficiaries might have pounded on the window if this was standard operating procedure. But its being open might have been an artifact of Sol’s having walked in without any beneficiaries. Maybe the viewport is ordinarily closed until after the hemlock, opened for final farewells, closed for the cinerama, and opened again to watch as the body is sped away?
This rationale supports another, more horrible argument. What if the reason is that Soylent (the company) wants the patient to have an uninterrupted dopamine and seratonin hit at the point of dying, so those neurotransmitters are maximally available in the “meat” before processing? (Like how antibiotics get passed along to meat-eaters in industrialized food today.) It would explain why they ask Sol for his favorite color in the lobby. Yes it is for his pleasure, but not for humane reasons. It’s so he can be at his happiest at the point of death. Dopamine and seratonin would make the resulting product, Soylent green, more pleasurable and addictive to consumers. That gives an additional rationale as to why beneficiaries would be prevented from speaking—it would distract from patients’ intense, pleasurable experience of the cinerama.
For my money, the “ecstasy meat” rationale reinforces and makes worse the movie’s Dark Secret, so I’m going to go with that. Without this rationale, I’d say rewrite the scene so beneficiaries are in the room with the patient. But with this rationale, let’s keep the rooms separate.
Which leads us to rethinking this interface.
A first usability note is that the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator is very confusing. The white text on a black background looks like speaking is, currently, permitted. But then the light behind it illuminates and I guess, then speaking is permitted? But wait, the light is red, so does that mean it’s not permitted, or is? And then adding to the confusion, it blinks. Is that the glitching, or some third state? Can we send this to its own interface thanatorium? So to make this indicator more usable, we could do a couple of things.
Put a ring of lights around the microphone and grill. When illuminated, speaking is permitted. This presumes that the audience can infer what these lights mean, and isn’t accessible to unsighted users, but I don’t think the audio glitch is a major plot point that needs that much reinforcing; see above. If the execs just have to have it crystal clear, then you could…
Have two indicators, one reading SPEAKING PERMITTED and another reading SILENCE PLEASE, with one or the other always lit. If you had to do it on the cheap, they don’t need to be backlit panels, but just two labeled indicator lamps would do.
And no effing blinking.
I think part of the affective purpose of the interface is to show how cold and mechanistic the thanatorium’s treatment of people are. To keep that, you could add another indicator light on the panel labeled somewhat cryptically, PATIENT. Have it illuminated until Sol passes, and then have a close up shot when it fades, indicating his death.
A note on art direction. It would be in Soylent’s and our-real-world interest to make this interface feel as humane as possible. Maybe less steel and backlit toggles? Then again, this world is operating on fumes, so they would make do with what’s available. So this should also feel a little more strung together, maybe with some wires sticking out held together with electrical tape and tape holding the audio jack in place.
Last note on the accommodations. What are the beneficiaries supposed to do while the patient is watching the cinerama display? Stand there and look awkward? Let’s get some seats in here and pipe the patient’s selection of music in. That way they can listen and think of the patient in the next room.
If you really want it to feel extradiegetically heartless, put a clock on the wall by the viewing window that beneficiaries can check.
Once we simplify this panel and make the room make design sense, we have to figure out what to do with the usher’s interface elements that we’ve just removed, and that’s the next post.
In the subsequent post of the Soylent Green reviews, I’m going to talk about the design of the viewing room and the interface there. But first I need to talk about the design of something outside the viewing room. When Thorn enters the building and tells the staff there to take him to Sol, who is there to commit suicide, they pass a label on the wall reading “beneficiaries only.” This post is about the heavy worldbuilding provided by the choice of that one word, “beneficiaries.”
Here let me repeat my mantra that suicide is not an easy topic. Anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
It’s totally weird to call the people witnessing the suicide “beneficiaries,” right? Like their defining characteristic is that they get something out of the death? That’s crass. Shouldn’t they be called “loved ones” or something more sensitive?
To answer that question, we need to talk about Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, seen here in a still from the movie.
In 1798, this clergyman anonymously published a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, Chapter 11 of which describes what has come to be known as a Malthusian Crisis. This happens when a given population, which tends to grow exponentially, surpasses its ability to feed itself, which tends to grow linearly. The result is a period of strife, starvation, and warfare where the population numbers “correct themselves” back down to what can be sustained.
It would be irresponsible of me to invoke Malthus without pointing out that many people have taken this argument to dark and unethical conclusions—specifically almost always some sort of top-down population control with anti-poor, racist, or genocidal undertones. Sometimes overtones. Compare freely the English Poor Laws as they were curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilizations, China’s former one-child policy, and a lot of knee-jerk conservatism today. “iF We hElP ThE PoOr, It oNlY EnCoUrAgEs tHeM To hAvE MoRe cHiLdReN AnD ThErEbY ExAcErBaTe pOvErTy!” You may recognize echoes of this oversimplification from some recent indie sci-fi.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of the number of times Malthus has been been debunked. Scientific American did it. Forbes did it. These guys did it. Lots of people have done it. In short, we are not herds of helpless animals subject to brutal laws of nature. We think. We can invent industries and institutions and technologies that help us reduce waste, feed more, and more fairly distribute resources. We can raise people out of poverty with democracy, access to birth control, education, supply-chain citizenship, the empowerment of women, and even increasing vegetarian choices in diet. Had Malthus been able to predict Norman Borlaug and The Green Revolution, he would have quietly tossed his manuscript into the fire.
Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because Soylent Green seems to be conceived as a Malthusian Crisis writ large. Given its timing I wouldn’t be surprised if writer Stanley R Greenberg had read himself some Paul Ehrlich, felt a panicked inspiration, and then grabbed his typewriter. The movie cites other factors, like climate change, that lead to its crisis; and illustrates contributing factors, like inequality, that exacerbate it. But with the titular green being food and the set decoration being mostly sweating extras lying about, the movie is a neon sign built to point at questions of feeding an overpopulated planet.
Which takes us back to that label outside the viewing room.
One of the Malthusian levers to address the problem is systemically reducing the population. Speedy, public suicide services would be one of the tools by which a society could do that. And though this society does not go as far as Children of Men did (which placed ads for the suicide kits called Quietus throughout British cityscapes), characters in Soylent Green do speak about the “death benefit” several times in the movie. This points to survivors getting some payout when citizens suicide. Want to kill yourself? The government will pay your loved ones!
So though it might be seen as a poor, crass choice to refer to loved ones who are witnessing a suicide as “beneficiaries,” this framing within the diegesis helps encourage the act, by subtly implying though its choice of language that the loved ones are not there to witness an act of selfish escape as much as an act of kindness, both for their loved ones and the world.
Even the font of this wall sign—which looks like the least sci-fi typeface of all time: Clarendon—does not speak of sci-fi-ness, but of friendliness, early advertising, and 19th century broadsides. It nefariously adds a veneer of friendliness to what amounts to a murderous propaganda.
Naming is a narrative design choice, and the right name can do a lot of worldbuilding in a very small space, even if it’s misguided and driven by the popular panic of its times.
It is the unthinkably distant future of 2022. Pollution and its consequent global warming has caused environmental and economic collapse around the globe. Unemployment is rife, nearing 50%. Agricultural systems have collapsed and overpopulation has run rampant. In New York City, the Malthusian masses sweat all the time and are rationed water and plant-derived crackers from one of the few remaining Corporations, known as Soylent. Soylent supplies food for half the world. But the staples of Soylent Yellow and Soylent Red are running out, and replaced with a new product, Soylent Green, said to be created from plankton gathered “from the oceans of the world.” It’s very popular and only available on Tuesdays, which is called “Soylent Green Day.”
In this hellscape, police detective Thorn spends much of his time at home with curmudgeonly old-timer Sol. (The nature of their relationship is quite affectionate but otherwise unclear. Because it would annoy the hell out of the ghost of asshat Charlton Heston, I am going to backworld that they are winter-spring lovers, having met when Thorn was a young, pansexual sex worker.) Sol is a police “book,” doing research that complements Thorn’s footwork to solve cases.
Thorn receives a new case, to investigate the mysterious murder of William Simonson, a wealthy member of the Soylent board. Over the course of his thuggish and openly-corrupt investigations, Thorn follows a chain of high-priced food items in suspect hands ($150 strawberries! Actual ice!) to:
Enjoy a meal of tasty graft
Uncover connections between Soylent, the police, Simonson’s corrupt ex-bodyguard Tab, and the governor’s office (Tab is important, remember him)
Learn that very powerful people are hiding a very powerful secret
On the way there’s a pointless and uncomfortable subplot about Thorn’s using Simonson’s housegirl Shirl (whom he charmingly nicknames “Furniture”⸮) for sex-she-cannot-refuse. But it’s OK because they fall in love (ser 👏 i 👏 ous 👏 ly 👏 uncomfortable). Nota bene, all this dark nonsense has literally no bearing on the plot.
In the investigation, Thorn retrieves two books from Simonson’s apartment, “Soylent Oceanographic Survey Reports,” that Sol uses to uncover a horrible truth: The world’s plankton are going extinct. This raises the question of what exactly is in Soylent Green. Sol puts two and two together, but Thorn, not so much.
Despairing of this revelation, Sol decides to commit suicide via a public-service thanatorium. After reading Sol’s farewell note, Thorn rushes after him. At the thanatorium, Thorn assaults the workers there so he can defy their protocol and observe Sol’s death before saying his adieu. In his dying breath, Sol shares the dark secret and tells Thorn he must prove it.
Thorn follows Sol’s cadaver as it is taken with others from the thanatorium to a processing plant, where Thorn murders some Soylent employees and confirms what Sol already told him—that Soylent Green is made of people, only now with more Sol. Thorn escapes the processing plant and calls his Lieutenant from a nearby police wall phone, but is cut off by a gunfight with Soylent security forces, including—surprise—Tab. Thorn runs to a church where he is pursued and fatally shot by Tab. But before succumbing to his wounds, he manages to knife Tab to death, and speak the horrible truth to the people gathered there, who, ultimately, can do nothing with this information since their choices are that or starvation.
Fade to credits.
Soylent Green is not a good movie though it was popular in its time. And it really only has one interface of note—which is the thanatorium. But its themes of climate change, growing inequality, corporate evil, and resulting social collapse feel oddly prescient. And, since it was meant to take place in 2022, I’ve chosen it for what apparently is to be my only review this year. Let’s do this.
My partner and I spent much of March watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in mostly random order. I’d seen plenty of Trek before—watching pretty much all of DS9 and Voyager as a teenager, and enjoying the more recent J.J. Abrams reboot—but it’s been years since I really considered the franchise as a piece of science fiction. My big takeaway is…TNG is bonkers, and that’s okay. The show is highly watchable because it’s really just a set of character moments, risk taking, and ethical conundrums strung together with pleasing technobabble, which soothes and hushes the parts of our brain that might object to the plot based on some technicality. It’s a formula that will probably never lose its appeal.
But there is one thing that does bother me: how can the crew respond to Picard’s orders so fast? Like, beyond-the-limits-of-reason fast.
How are you making that so?
When the Enterprise-D encounters hostile aliens, ship malfunctions, or a mysterious space-time anomaly, we often get dynamic moments on the bridge that work like this. Data, Worf and the other bridge crew, sometimes with input from Geordi in engineering, call out sensor readings and ship functionality metrics. Captain Picard stares toward the viewscreen/camera and gives orders, sometimes intermediated by Commander Riker. Worf or Data will tap once or twice on their consoles and then quickly report the results—i.e. “our phasers have no effect” or “the warp containment field is stabilizing,” that sort of thing. It all moves very quickly, and even though the audience doesn’t quite know the dangers of tachyon radiation or how tricky it is to compensate for subspace interference, we feel a palpable urgency. It’s probably one of the most recognizable scenes-types in television.
Now, extradiegetically, I think there are very good reasons to structure the action this way. It keeps the show moving, keeps the focus on the choices, rather than the tech. And of course, diegetically, their computers would be faster than ours, responding nearly instantaneously. The crew are also highly trained military personnel, whose focus, reaction speed, and knowledge of the ship’s systems are kept sharp by regular drills. The occasional scenes we get of tertiary characters struggling with the controls only drives home how elite the Enterprise senior staff are.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to shout out the strength of the ship’s shields. No doubt Worf has an indicator at tactical that’s as easy to read as your laptop’s battery level. That’s bound to be routine. But it’s quite another for a crewmember to complete a very specific and unusual request in what seems like one or two taps on a console. There are countless cases of the deflector dish or tractor beam being “reconfigured” to emit this or that kind of force or radiation. Power is constantly being rerouted from one system to another. There’s a great deal of improvisational engineering by all characters.
Just to pick examples in my most recent days of binging: in “Descent, Part 2,” for instance, Beverly Crusher, as acting captain, tells the ensign at ops to launch a probe with the ship’s recent logs on it, as a warning to Starfleet, thus freeing the Enterprise to return through a transwarp conduit to take on The Borg. Or in the DS9 episode “Equilibrium”—yes, we’ve started on the next series now that TNG is off Netflix—while investigating a mysterious figure from Jadzia’s past, Sisko instructs Bashir to “check the enrollment records of all the Trill music academies during Belar’s lifetime.” In both cases, the order is complete in barely a second.
Even for Julian Bashir—a doctor and secretly a mutant genius—there is no way for a human to perform such a narrow and out-of-left-field search without entering a few parameters, perhaps navigating via menus to the correct database. From a UX perspective, we’re talking several clicks at least!
There is a tension in design between…
Interface elements that allow you to perform a handful of very specific operations quickly (if you know where the switch is), and…
Those that let you do almost anything, but slower.
For instance, this blog has big colorful buttons that make it easy to get email updates about new posts or to donate to a tip jar. If you want to find a specific post, however, you have to type something into the search box or perhaps scroll through the list of TV/movie properties on the right. While the 24th Century no doubt has somewhat better design than WordPress, they are still bound by this tension.
Of course it would be boring to wait while Bashir made the clicks required to bring up the Trill equivalent of census records or LexisNexis. With movie magic they simply edit out those seconds. But I think it’s interesting to indulge in a little backworlding and imagine that Starfleet really does have the technology to make complex general computing a breeze. How might they do it?
Enter the Ship’s AI
One possible answer is that the ship’s Computer—a ubiquitous and omnipresent AI—is probably doing most of the heavy lifting. Much like how Iron Man is really Jarvis with a little strategic input from Tony, I suspect that the Computer listens to the captain’s orders and puts the appropriate commands on the relevant crewman’s console the instant the words are out of Picard’s mouth. (With predictive algorithms, maybe even just before.) The crewman then merely has to confirm that the computer correctly interpreted the orders and press execute. Similarly, the Computer must be constantly analyzing sensor data and internal metrics and curating the most important information for the crew to call out. This would be in line with the Active Academy model proposed in relation to Starship Troopers.
Centaurs, Minotaurs, and anticipatory computing
I’ve heard this kind of human-machine relationship called “Centaur Computing.” In chess, for instance, some tournaments have found that human-computer teams outperform either humans or computers working on their own. This is not necessarily intuitive, as one would think that computers, as the undisputed better chess players, would be hindered by having an imperfect human in the mix. But in fact, when humans can offer strategic guidance, choosing between potential lines that the computer games out, they often outmaneuver pure-AIs.
I often contrast Centaur Computing with something I call “Minotaur Computing.” In the Centaur version—head of a man on the body of a beast—the human makes the top-level decision and the computer executes. In Minotaur Computing—head of a beast with the body of a man—the computer calls the shots and leaves it up to human partners to execute. An example of this would be the machine gods in Person of Interest, which have no Skynet Terminator armies but instead recruit and hire human operatives to carry out their cryptic plans.
In some ways this kind of anticipatory computing is simply a hyper-advanced version of AI features we already have today, such as when Gmail offers to complete my sentence when I begin to type “thank you for your time and consideration” at the end of a cover letter.
Hi, it looks like you’re trying to defeat the Borg…
In this formulation, the true spiritual ancestor of the Starfleet Computer is Clippy, the notorious Microsoft Word anthropomorphic paperclip helper, which would pop up and make suggestions like “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” Clippy was much maligned in popular culture for being annoying, distracting, and the face of what was in many ways a clunky, imperfect software product. But the idea of making sense of the user’s intentions and offering relevant options isn’t always a bad one. The Computer in Star Trek performs this task so smoothly, efficiently, and in-the-background, that Starfleet crews are able to work in fast-paced harmony, acting on both instinct and expertise, and staying the heroes of their stories.
Admittedly, this deftness is a bit at odds with the somewhat obtuse behavior the Computer often displays when asked a question directly, such as demanding you specify a temperature when you request a glass of water. Given how often the Computer suffers strange malfunctions that complicate life on the Enterprise for days a time, one wonders if the crew feel as though they are constantly negotiating with a kind of capricious spirit—usually benign but occasionally temperamental and even dangerously creative in its interpretations of one’s wishes, like a djinn. Perhaps they rarely complain about or even mention the Computer’s role in Clippy-ing orders onto their consoles because they know better than to insult the digital fairies that run the turbolifts and replicate their food.
All of which brings a kind of mystical cast to those rapid, chain-of-command-tightened exchanges amongst the bridge crew when shit hits the fan. When Picard gives his crew an order, he’s really talking to the Computer. When Riker offers a sub-order, he’s making a judgment call that the Computer might need a little more guidance. The crew are there to act as QA—a general-intelligence safeguard—confirming with human eyes and brain that the Computer is interpreting Picard correctly. The one or two beeps we often hear as they execute a complex command are them merely dismissing incorrect or confused operation-lines. They report back that the probe is ready or the phasers are locked, as the captain wished, and Picard double confirms with his iconic “make it so.” It’s a multilayered checking and rechecking of intentions and plans, much like the military today uses to prevent miscommunications, but in this case with the added bonus of keeping the reins on a powerful but not always cooperative genie.
There’s a good argument to be made that this is the relationship we want to have with technology. Smooth and effective, but with plenty of oversight, and without the kind of invasive elements that right now make tech the center of so many conversations. We want AI that gives us computational superpowers, but still keeps us the heroes of our stories.
Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction author, researcher, and theorist. His first book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, is fresh off the press. Check it out here. And follow his work via his newsletter, solarshades.club.
The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition. Awards are given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choice, and Best Interfaces (overall.) This blog’s readership is also polled for Audience Favorite interfaces, and this year, favorite robot. Following are the results.
These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Swan Song, Stowaway, and Needle in a Timestack.
The winner of the Best Believable award for 2022 is Swan Song.
Facing a terminal illness, Cameron Turner must make a terrible choice: have his wife and children suffer the grief of losing him, or sign up to be secretly swapped with a healthy clone of himself, and watch from afar as his replacement takes over his life with his unaware loved ones.
The film is full of serene augmented reality and quiet technology. It’s an Apple TV production, and very clearly inspired by Apple’s sensibilities: Slim panes of paper-white slabs that house clean-lined productivity tools, fit-to-purpose assistant wearables, and charming AI characters. Like the iPad’s appearance in The Incredibles, Swan Song’s technologies feel like a well-designed smoke-and-mirrors prototype of an AR world maybe a few years from launch.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the cloning technology that is central to the plot’s film has none of the giant helmets-with-wires that seem to be the go-to trope for such things. That’s handled almost entirely as a service with jacketed frontstage actors and tiny brain-reading dots that go on Cameron’s temples. A minimalist touch in a minimalist world that hides the horrible choices that technology asks of its citizens.
Audience Choice, too!
All of the movies nominated for other awards were presented for an Audience Choice award. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The winner of the Audience Choice award for 2022 is Swan Song. Congratulations for being the first film to win two Fritzes in the same year! To celebrate, here’s another screen cap from the film, showing the AR game Cameron plays with his son. Notably the team made the choice to avoid the obvious hot-signaling that almost always accompanies volumetric projections in screen sci-fi.
These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are The Mitchells vs The Machines, Reminiscence, and The Matrix: Resurrections.
The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2022 is The Mitchells vs The Machines.
The Mitchells vs The Machines
Katie Mitchell is getting ready to go to college for filmmaking when the world is turned upside down by a robot uprising, which is controlled by an artificial intelligence that has just been made obsolete. Katie and her odd family have to keep themselves safe from capture by the robots and ultimately save all of humanity—all while learning to love each other.
The charming thing about the triangle-heavy and candy-colored interfaces in the film are that they are almost wholly there for the robots doing their humanity-destroying job. Diegetically, they’re not meant for humans, but extradiegetically, they’re there to help tell the audience what’s happening. That’s a delicate balance to manage, and to do it while managing hilarity, lambasting Silicon Valley’s cults of personality, and providing spectacle; is what earns this film its Fritz.
Best Robot: Bubs!
There was a preponderance of interesting robots in sci-fi last year. So 2022 has a new category of Audience Choice, and that’s for Best Robot. The readership was invited to vote for their favorite from…
The unnamed bartender from Cosmic Sin
Jeff from Finch
Eric and Deborahbot 5000 from The Mitchells vs. The Machines
Bubs from Space Sweepers
Steve from the unsettling Settlers
The audience vote is clear: The wisecracking Bubs from Space Sweepers wins! Bubs’ emotions might have been hard to read with the hard plastic shell of a face. But pink blush lights and a display—near where the mouth would be—reinforce the tone of speech with characters like “??” and “!!” and even cartoon mouth expressions. Additionally, near the end of the movie Bubs has enough money to get a body upgrade, and selects a female-presenting humanoid body and voice, making a delightful addition to the Gendered AI finding than when AI selects a gender, it picks female. Congrats, Bubs!
Best Interfaces (best overall)
The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are Oxygen, Space Sweepers, and Voyagers.
The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2022 is Oxygen.
A woman awakes in an airtight cryogenic chamber with no knowledge of who or where she is. In this claustrophobic space, she must work with MILO, an artificial intelligence, to manage the crisis of her dwindling oxygen supply and figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.
Nearly all of the film happens in this coffin-like space between the actress and MILO. The interface shows modes for media searches, schematic searches, general searches, media playback, communication, and health monitoring as the woman tries to work the problem and save her own life. It shows a main screen directly above her, a ring of smaller interfaces placed in a corona around her head, and it also has volumetric display capabilities. The interfaces are lovely with tightly controlled palettes, an old sci-fi standby typeface Eurostyle (or is it some derivative?), and excellent signals for managing attention and conveying urgency.
The interface is critical to the narration, its tension, and the ultimate dark reveal and resolution of the story—a remarkable feat for a sci-fi interface.
I would love to extend my direct congratulations to all the studios who produced this work, but Hollywood is complicated and makes it difficult to identify exactly whom to credit for what. So let me extend my congratulations generally to the nominees and winners for an extraordinary body of work. If you are one of these studios, or can introduce me, please let me know; I’d love to do some interviews for the blog. Here’s looking to the next year of sci-fi cinema.