I knew I was going to piss of some fans of Blade Runner when I called the Voight-Kampff machine shit. I stand by it, but some of the discussion led me to realize I should make some of the implicit guiding principles of my approach to critique (and which lead me to call it shit) explicit. This is that.
Short answer, I’m here for constructive criticism. That is, to ask of interfaces in sci-fi movies and television shows, “Is this the best form for its purpose?” followed by “If not, what is a better form, and why?” All for the 8 reasons I’ve outlined before:
- Build skepticism.
- Farm for good ideas.
- Use their bad ideas.
- Avoid their mistakes.
- Practice design critique.
- Build literacy.
- Mine its blind spots.
- Think big.
It’s made quite complicated because…
- These are speculative technologies depicted in fictious tales.
- The people making the art being reviewed may not have studied or even be interested in design for the real world.
- The concepts of users and goals in this domain are complex: diegetic users with goals, actors using props, extradiegetic users of the film as engaging entertainment, sci-fi interface designers trying to balance believability with spectacle and narrative function, other sci-fi interface designers looking at other work in their field, writers of sci-fi trying to make a point, and designers of real-world technologies examining the design. All of these are “users” with different goals of use.
- Narratively, an interface can serve multiple purposes: conveying plot points, telling us something about the character using it or the organization that made it, set dressing to convey science-y-ness, or even comedy.
- Makers of sci-fi interfaces are often constrained with limited resources, paradigms of their time, conflicting directives, and intense pressures.
- It is a fait accompli that these speculative technologies “work” in the way the script needs them to. They are not subject to ordinary forces of usability.
- Often times actors are “interacting” with blank technologies on set, and interfaces painted on afterward in post to fit the actor’s motions.
- The semiotics are multilayered, increasingly self-referential, and span the whole supergenre.
- Most of the time the audience “reads” the interfaces in real-time for their narrative purpose rather than “seeing” them and contemplating their intricacies, the way I do on this blog. (Humans are surprisingly adept at knowing when to read a thing as “for the audience” and “for the characters” and rolling with the appropriate interpretation. We just “get” Tony’s Iron HUD, even though it is an impossible thing.)
- Many of the films I review were made in a time when “pausing” was not even possible, so the artists could reasonably expect for details to zip by unnoticed.
But honestly, that complexity is why I find it an engaging place to be working. If it was simple, it might be boring.
Those few paragraphs might be enough of an explanation, except I have invoked “New Criticism” several times on the blog and in conversations, which bears some additional detail.
So, a longer-form answer follows.
When I was studying art history in undergraduate, we talked not just about art, but about how we talk about art, and as you might imagine, formal critique is a rich and high-minded topic. Turns out there are entire competing schools of thought, most of which end in “ism,” about what are good and useful ways to critique. Now, I wouldn’t consider myself exactly literate in critical theory. At most I have exposure to its key concepts as part of an undergrad minor, and then nearly a decade of putting it into practice here. It’s possible I’m only half-remembering what it is, and I’m missing out on key trends in modern critical theories. But the principles I’m going to attribute to it are sound, and I’ll stand by them even if I’m misattributing the source.
For hundreds of years prior to the mid-20th century, critique of art and literature was largely about examining the artists’ intent, circumstance, technique, and position within the artist’s body of work, as well as its contribution to the school of expression with which it was associated. It was largely about examining things from the artist’s perspective.
But New Criticism rejects nearly all of this, instead looking at a thing from the perspective of a receiver [reader|watcher|hearer] of it. The work is the thing that is closely examined, not the artist nor their context. New Criticism seeks to ask what does the thing mean to us, as an audience, now?
Let’s look at these two approaches with an example from sci-fi.
In the literally-explosive last act of Alien, Ellen Ripley wants to set the Nostromo to self-destruct to destroy the titular xenomorph, while she and Jonesy the cat take the escape pod to cuddly safety. To start the self-destruct sequence, Ripley must use a labyrinthine interface, part of which is a push button interface with some arcane labels, including “lingha,” “yoni,” and “agaric fly.” How should we critique this?
The historical critique would examine the person who made it, how they made it, and what constraints they were working under. In this case, we would find (via the Alien Explorations blog) that the designer, Simon Deering, was reading the philosopher/occultist Helena Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine, and in a pinch decided to use weird phrases from her book to fill out the “extra,” non-plot-critical buttons on the panel.
Great. We now have an answer to who made it and why. And…so what? It’s an interesting bit for trivia night or to trot out at your next cocktail party, but almost worthless for practitioners hoping to improve their craft.
(Almost worthless: The story could help sharpen one’s sense of skepticism, i.e. that just because these interfaces are cool doesn’t mean they are good models for real world design, but that’s the only takeaway I can think of.)
(And maybe a fine, semi-random way to discover new works of Russian occultism, but again, useless for design practice.)
(See, it’s complicated.)
Historicism is not a bad approach. Dave Addey has made quite an entertaining book and blog out of just this sort of examination. It’s even where I learned the Deering trivia in the first place. It’s just that while it’s entertaining, I don’t find this approach useful.
Better, the New Criticism argument goes, is to disregard the maker and their circumstance. Better is to try and find a diegetic reason the thing might be the way it is. Prioritize critique of the art over the artist. Sometimes this is easy. Other times you have to add a rule or idea to the diegesis to have it make sense, an act I call backworlding. Sometimes you can push through the surface of what appears broken to realize it might actually be brilliant, an act of apologetics (borrowing the term from religious philosophy). Now, staying in the diegesis, even with these techniques, isn’t always possible. Trying to connect “LINGHA” to self-destruct on the Nostromo would be a credibility-breaking stretch. But this deliberate first rejection of artist’s context and focus on the internal consistency is the “close reading” for which New Criticism is known.
The next step I take after a close reading is to make the critique useful to the reader. Sometimes that’s suggesting a design that better achieves the purposes of the work. (I did this with the Voight-Kampff machine. I did it with the Logan’s Run Circuit. How well I did is open to…critique.) Other usefulnesses are contrasting the design to known best practices or dark patterns in the field. Sometimes it’s acknowledging that the sci-fi interface is a great idea, and formalizing a new best practice—or Alexandrian pattern—around it. Sometimes it’s connecting the thing to other real world designs that share similar issues.
I consider real-world designers my primary audience, partly because having done this kind of design (and hey, even won some awards for it) for decades, I can claim some authority in the space.
I do know that another component of my readership are the writers and makers of sci-fi interfaces. I count some of them as friends (Hi, you). So ideally, when I suggest a new design, I try to have it both work as a real-world model and meeting the needs of the narrative. That’s not always possible, but I try. Sometimes that’s even a script rewrite. I have much less authority here, since I‘ve not yet done it professionally. <hangs shingle/> But yes, I try to consider those needs, too.
What this all means is that I will reject some common complaints about my reviews:
- But, it’s art. (Yes, I know. That does not exempt it from critique.)
- The [original book|novelization|toy|wiki|expanded universe] says differently. (Don’t care. I’m not reviewing those.)
- The designer didn’t have this [technology|paradigm|editing capability] at the time of creation. (Not useful to us today.)
- The designer couldn’t have imagined you’d be looking at it this closely. (Not my concern.)
- Maybe the aliens have some extra sense or capability that we don’t, and that is why it works for them. (Not useful for real-world design, at least, because we don’t live in a world with these actual, sentient aliens. We almost always design for people, and so frame the critique in light of that.)
- But there might be a diegetic reason it’s bad. Often times there are plausible backworlding reasons why a thing might be bad (no time, no expertise, no resources on hand) but we can’t learn anything from that, so if there’s another interpretation that helps us learn, I’ll tend toward that.
- This is mean. (I never attack the designer, and just address the design. If you’re looking for pure fawning, I’m just not your guy.)
- But this was pretty good, for its time. (That’s a historical read.)
- But it’s soooooo cool. (I offer skeptical critique and entertainment. There are plenty of other places to go to soak in spectacle and just be inspired.)
- Shhh. Just let people enjoy things. (This blog is opt-in. If you just want to enjoy these things without critical evaluation, press command-K and go elsewhere. I understand there are some charming cat videos hereabouts.)
Lastly, note that all of this is a general stance I take, not a set of laws to which I pedantically adhere. Sometimes an interface or speculative technology is so broken or so unusual that this approach just doesn’t work, and I have to take another tack. I’m OK with that.
I know this is long and screedy, but should help explain where I’m coming from, and whether this blog is for you. I hope it helps.