It was my intention to simply show you some images of fictional United States Presidents using interfaces in science fiction movies for Presidents’ Day. But alas. They don’t.
I’m not going to claim this is exhaustive, but I looked at five Presidents:
- President Merkin Muffley from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
- President Beck from Deep Impact (1998)
- President James Dale from Mars Attacks! (1996)
- President Thomas J. Whitmore from Independence Day (1996)
- President McKenna from X2 (2003)
Over these movies, Presidents can be seen reading displays and teleprompters,…
…speaking into public address systems,…
…and standing around military displays,…
…but not really using any computer interfaces. The closest we come to a real interface is when President Whitmore pulls a Star Trek and declares himself part of the away team to pilot a fighter at a city-destroying alien spaceship swarming with deadly, deadly defense fighters, even though he risks dispiriting the entire nation with his possible battlefield death. But, hey, he is an angry man in need of revenge.
It’s worth noting that here he’s not using a presidential interface but a military one.
Given my definition of interfaces, i.e. all parts of a thing that enable its use, we can accept that paper and pen are the most common means by which presidents typically control the state of the system they’re using, which is the U.S. government. Fine. But the primary focus of this blog is human-computer interaction. Maybe someone else can take up the service and graphic design issues in another blog.
So if sci-fi Presidents don’t use interfaces, it tells us a bit about the nature of the Presidency. At least as far as Hollywood is concerned, it is a role of consideration and decision-making. He or she is not a do-er, and so putting his or her hands on an interface would not befit the position.
But more importantly, it also tells us something about the relationship of status to computers. When you’re at the top, computers are not as easy to use as people. The boss has people to do that kind of thing on his or her behalf. The rest of us schlubs get stuck figuring out where the hell they hid the Airdrop button this time. And I suspect until we get a computer that is as comfortable to use as a person, but more useful in other ways, this will continue to be the case. Keep an eye out for films that showcase a President in the time of strong artificial intelligence and perfect voice recognition.
People in positions of power ensure that their world is as easy to use as possible, and this miniature Presidents’ Day survey reminds us that, still, humans are the most comfortable interface for other humans.
13 OCT 2019 Update: While reviewing Colossus: The Forbin Project, I noted that the President actually does terminate his call with the Russian Chairman—to date the only time in the survey I’ve ever seen a president use an interface.