The Cookie Console

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Virtual Greta has a console to perform her slavery duties. Matt explains what this means right after she wakes up by asking her how she likes her toast. She answers, “Slightly underdone.”

He puts slices of bread in a toaster and instructs her, “Think about how you like it, and just press the button.”

She asks, incredulously, “Which one?” and he explains, “It doesn’t matter. You already know you’re making toast. The buttons are symbolic mostly, anyway.”

She cautiously approaches the console and touches a button in the lower left corner. In response, the toaster drops the carriage lever and begins toasting.

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“See?” he asks, “This is your job now. You’re in charge of everything here. The temperature. The lighting. The time the alarm clock goes off in the morning. If there’s no food in the refrigerator, you’re in charge of ordering it.”

The starter console

Since we actually do know her starter tasks, I wish the default console had more control types than just the smattering of mostly-square, all-unlabeled buttons. She should have a slider for scalar variables like temperature and lighting. She should have a dial for the alarm clock. She should have a map of real Greta’s house. She should have a calendar for appointments. These would be controls that match the kinds of variables she’s likely to need from the start.

This console interface seems be quite similar to the one in Inside Out, which also seems to grow and change over time, and is intended for a virtual sentience to service a real human. It somewhat resembles Zion’s virtual control panel from The Matrix Reloaded. Would be worth a comparison sometime in the future.

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The customized console

In the third scene, we see her using the console after having had some practice. When it is time to wake real Greta up, she swipes a blank console right. The console animates to life, showing a central workspace labeled AWAKEN. A toolbar of stacked icons sits to the left of the workspace. There are other unlabeled controls outside the workspace at the edge of the console.

Without looking, she selects the house icon from the toolbar, and it moves to the center of the work space. She spreads her hands to expose a house floorplan. To the right are three vertical black bars labeled SHUTTERS above and MAIN BEDROOM below. She pushes upwards along these bars, and they slowly fill with light. To the right, some text flashes ACTIVATING ALL SHUTTERS. In real Greta’s world, the shutters rise and floods the main bedroom with light.

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A few more taps gives her a volume spinner. She uses a wrist twist to slowly turn the volume up on a recording of the overture of Giaochino Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie. (Which I suspect is a nod to Clockwork Orange. Kubrick famously used it to underscore the horrible murder of Mrs. Weathers, “the cat lady.”)

Black_Mirror_Cookie_22.pngSubsequently we see her performing other tasks: Raising the floor temperature (!), starting the espresso robot, making (yes) slightly underdone toast, and managing the day’s appointments. Each interface is customized to the task.

Interface Analysis?

These interfaces are a challenge to analyze for many reasons.

Ordinarily, we have to evaluate sci-fi interfaces based on broad-based heuristics. (User feedback testing is not possible.) But these interfaces are wholly idiosyncratic to this character. Even if it was complete shite, the fact that it works for her is what is important. This interface will never be seen by anyone else. That we get to see it is narrative conceit.

Idiosyncrasy is not the only challenge. She also has a very unusual circumstance. Her option is to manage this house, or face unending, tortuous solitary confinement. (Or get sold to be cannon fodder in a war game.) The interactions she has with this console are her source of mental stimulation. That means, rather than make things efficient and easy to do—which is a respectable goal in most real-world design—when customizing her console interface, she would try to make the interfaces require as much and as interesting of work as possible while still allowing her to manage the results precisely. We see her here opening the shades with a gesture, but she could, if she wanted, open the shades by mastering difficult yoga pose.

If this sounds slightly familiar, it could be because you’ve played video games. The designers of these systems are not aiming for efficiency. After all, the interface could just be a big red button labeled “win the game.” But that’s no fun. No flow, in the Csíkszentmihályi sense. Rather these interfaces aim to make working the problem fun, fitting in the space between boredom and panic. Are game interfaces beyond critique? They are not. We just have to rethink our criteria. Ultimate efficiency is not the goal.

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Still fun.

But, we also have to take into account that her fight is against boredom and that she has the power to change these interfaces. The interface designs, then, become part of how she maintains her own interest in the tasks to which she is chained. As part of her own self-care, she would change them frequently. What we see is not to be read as “the right answer” but rather, “where this interface happens to be on this day.” So, for instance, there appears to be a lot of “noise” in the interfaces, with unlabeled black squares littered among the actually useful buttons. But that may be the challenge she’s set up for herself today: Can she keep the tasks done without looking at the interface, and minimize the number of black squares she accidentally taps?

Lastly, Matt tells her that the interface is symbolic, and part of how she operates it is by thinking. So, for example, when we wonder how she adds a new “music type” icon to the existing array, it could be that she just thinks it. Which confounds the usual concern for affordances and constrains.

All of this is to say this is shaky, shaky ground for an exhaustive analysis. I suspect it would be thick with problems that could be excused diegetically, and leave us struggling to find any useful lessons beyond design platitudes. There are three nice elements I will point out, though.

  1. I love the monochrome, high-contrast palette. Yes, you lose some channels (R,G,B) in which to encode meaning, but that also makes it quick to scan and gives it high visibility, so virtual Greta can operate it in her peripheral vision. This allows her to keep her eyes on real Greta, to read her expressions in real-time.
  2. The gestures seem generally well-mapped to the things being controlled: A gesture up raises the blinds (or the light levels, anyway.) Dropping a virtual lever drops the carriage lever. Lifting it pops up the toast. It’s not all perfect. A wrist-twist increases volume, but that’s only ideal when the extents are unknowable by the interface. It should be a smart, informational slider.
  3. There is a lovely gestural command in the appointment interface. Greta is able to stack the day’s events, gather them into a package by bringing her hands together, and then “toss” it towards the display of real Greta to instantiate a brief of the day’s events. It has a nice intuitive mapping to mean “give these to her.”

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What’s her dev environment?

Sadly, we never get to see her design environment, how she goes about customizing her interface, or even how she switches from control mode to use mode. This would be juicy and worth looking at, specifically. The dev environment is crucial for understanding what her options are to meet her goals. And specifically, this calls into question how she can hack the system, and how likely she can communicate with real Greta, or find a sympathetic someone on the Internet to communicate with, or plot her escape.

How does feedback work?

Another thing we don’t get to see in this story is how real Greta provides feedback. I suspect that for simple things, like “the toast was a bit overdone this morning” (correction, preferences) or “I’d like to hear some Stravinsky this morning,” (a new request) she can just speak it. Virtual Greta will hear and respond through the house appliances appropriately. But what if she had a question for the Cookie, such as “How much time do I have before I need to leave?” You’d might think virtual Greta could look something up and communicate the answer to real Greta. But it seems that virtual Greta is prevented from direct communication. The daily briefing, after all, is read by some other computer voice. This implies that virtual Greta is prevented from direct communication, raising a troubling question answered in the next post: Does real Greta know?

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8 thoughts on “The Cookie Console

  1. For future posts, would you mind adding ‘series/episode/year’ or ‘movie/year’ early on in the article. Excuse my pop media ignorance, but I don’t know what this article specifically refers to. This could help in content relevance, at least for me.

    • Ooh. Yeah, I write presuming people are following along, but at one post per week that’s unlikely. I don’t want to add it manually, but I might be able to get some custom code to put that information at the top of each post.

      In the meantime, this is from the “Black Mirror” anthology series, and specifically the “White Christmas” episode. Definitely check it out.

      • Ahh, the episode from 2014. Love this series, and looking forward to the new season.

        I only pop by every now and then, so the thread is kinda fragmented. #casualWordpressConsumer

  2. Pingback: The Cookie | Sci-fi interfaces

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