I’ve been tagged a number of times on Twitter from people are asking me to weigh in on the following comic by beloved Parisian comic artist Boulet.
Since folks are asking (and it warms my robotic heart that you do), here’s my take on this issue. Boulet, this is for you.
Sci-fi serves different masters
Interaction and interface design answers to one set of masters: User feedback sessions, long-term user loyalty, competition, procurement channels, app reviews, security, regulation, product management tradeoffs of custom-built vs. off-the-shelf, and, ideally, how well it helps the user achieve their goals.
But technology in movies and television shows don’t have to answer to any of these things. The cause-and-effect is scripted. It could be the most unusable piece of junk tech in that universe and it will still do exactly what it is supposed to do. Hell, it’s entirely likely that the actor was “interacting” with a blank screen on set and the interface painted on afterward (in “post”). Sci-fi interfaces answer to the masters of story, worldbuilding, and often, spectacle.
I have even interviewed one of the darlings of the FUI world about their artistic motivations, and was told explicitly that they got into the business because they hated having to deal with the pesky constraints of usability. (Don’t bother looking for it, I have not published that interview because I could not see how to do so without lambasting it.) Most of these things are pointedly baroque where usability is a luxury priority.
So for goodness’ sake, get rid of the notion that the interfaces in sci-fi are a model for usability. They are not.
They are technology in narrative
We can understand how they became a trope by looking at things from the makers’ perspective. (In this case “maker” means the people who make the sci-fi.)
Transparent screens provide two major benefits to screen sci-fi makers.
First, they quickly inform the audience that this is a high-tech world, simply because we don’t have transparent screens in our everyday lives. Sci-fi makers have to choose very carefully how many new things they want to introduce and explain to the audience over the course of a show. (A pattern that, in the past, I have called What You Know +1.) No one wants to sit through lengthy exposition about how the world works. We want to get to the action.
With some notable exceptions.
So what mostly gets budgeted-for-reimagining and budgeted-for-explanation in a script are technologies that are a) important to the diegesis or b) pivotal to the plot. The display hardware is rarely, if ever, either. Everything else usually falls to trope, because tropes don’t require pausing the action to explain.
Secondly (and moreover) transparent screens allow a cinematographer to show the on-screen action and the actor’s face simultaneously, giving us both the emotional frame of the shot as well as an advancement of plot. The technology is speculative anyway, why would the cinematographer focus on it? Why cut back and forth from opaque screen to an actor’s face? Better to give audiences a single combined shot that subordinates the interface to the actors’ faces.
We should not get any more bent out of shape for this narrative convention than any of these others.
- My god, these beings, who, though they lived a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away look identical to humans! What frozen evolution or panspermia resulted in this?
- They’re speaking languages that are identical to some on modern Earth! How?
- Hasn’t anyone noticed the insane coincidence that these characters from the future happen to look exactly like certain modern actors?
- How are there cameras everywhere that capture these events as they unfold? Who is controlling them? Why aren’t the villains smashing them?
- Where the hell is that orchestra music coming from?
- This happens in the future, how are we learning about it here in their past?
The Matter of Believability
It could be, that what we are actually complaining about is not usability, but believability. It may be that the problems of eye strain, privacy, and orientation are so obvious that it takes us out of the story. Breaking immersion is a cardinal sin in narrative. But it’s pretty easy (and fun) to write some simple apologetics to explain away these particular concerns.
Why is eye strain not a problem? Maybe the screens actually do go opaque when seen from a human eye, we just never see them that way because we see them from the POV of the camera.
Why is privacy not a problem? Maybe the loss of privacy is a feature, not a bug, for the fascist society being depicted; a way to keep citizens in line. Or maybe there is an opaque mode, we just don’t see any scenes where characters send dick pics, or browse porn, and would thereby need it. Or maybe characters have other, opaque devices at home specifically designed for the private stuff.
Why isn’t orientation a problem? Tech would only require face recognition for such an object to automatically orient itself correctly no matter how it is being picked up or held. The Appel Maman would only present itself downwards to the table if it was broken.
So it’s not a given that transparent screens just won’t work. Admittedly, this is some pretty heavy backworlding. But they could work.
But let’s address the other side of believability. Sci-fi makers are in a continual second-guess dance with their audience’s evolving technological literacy. It may be that Boulet’s cartoon is a bellwether, a signal that non-technological audiences are becoming so familiar with the real-world challenges of this trope that is it time for either some replacement, or some palliative hints as to why the issues he illustrates aren’t actually issues. As audience members—instead of makers—we just have to wait and see.
Sci-fi is not a usability manual.
It never was. If you look to sci-fi for what is “good” design for the real-world, you will cause frustration, maybe suffering, maybe the end of all good in the ’verse. Please see the talk I gave at the Reaktor conference a few years ago for examples, presented in increasing degrees of catastrophe.
I would say—to pointedly use the French—that the “raison d’être” of this site is exactly this. Sci-fi is so pervasive, so spectacular, so “cool,” that designers must build up a skeptical immunity to prevent its undue influence on their work.
I hope you join me on that journey. There’s sci-fi and popcorn in it for everyone.