You may be wondering how this is different than the earlier subservience posts. Recall that the subservience studies look at gender presentation of AI as it relates to their own degree of freedom. Are most AIs freewilled? Yes. Do free-willed AI tend to present as boys more often than as girls or other? Yes. But these tell us nothing about the gender relationship of the subservient AIs to their master’s gender. It would be one thing if all the male-presenting AIs were “owned” by male-presenting owners. If would be another if female-presenting AIs were owned much more often by male-presenting masters. This post exposes those correlations in the survey. Chart time!
Data nerds (high fives) may note that unlike every other correlations chart in the series, these numbers don’t balance. For instance, looking at the Male AI in the left chart, -1.63 + 3.97 + 3.97 = 6.31. Shouldn’t they zero out? If we were looking at the entire survey, they would. But in this case, free-willed AI only muddy this picture, so those AIs are omitted, making the numbers seem wonky. Check the live sheet if you’re eager to dig into the data.
This is two charts in one.
The left chart groups the data by genders of master. Turns out if you have a female-presenting master, you are unlikely to be male- or female-presenting. (Recall that there are only 5 female-presenting masters in the entire Gendered AI survey, so the number of data points is low.) If you present as male, you’re more likely to be master of a gendered AI. Otherwise, you are more likely to be master of a male-presenting AI.
The right chart is the same data, but pivoted to look at it from genders of AI. That’s where the clusters are a little more telling.
If you are a female-presenting AI, you are more likely to have a male-presenting master.
If you are non-binary AI, you are more likely to have a female-presenting master.
If you are a male AI, you have anything but a female-presenting master.
The detailed chart doesn’t reveal anything more than we see from this aggregate, so isn’t shown.
The notion of people owning people is revolting, but the notion of owning an AI is still not universally reviled. (With nods to the distinctions of ANI and AGI.) That means that sci-fi AI serves as unique metaphor for taboo questions of gender and ownership. The results are upsetting for their social implications, of course. And sci-fi needs to do better. Hey, maybe this gives you an idea…
And yet this isn’t the most upsetting correlations finding in the study. I saved that for last, which is next, which is when we look at gender and germaneness. Gird your loins.
In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses that screen-based sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.
First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smörgåsbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.
But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.
Which are we telling stories about?
Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on scifiinterfaces.com, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see.
No aliens is the clear majority of stories! This is kind of surprising for me, since when I think of sci-fi my brain pops bug eyes and tentacles alongside blasters and spaceships. But it also makes sense because a lot of sci-fi is near future or focused on the human condition.
Some notes about these numbers.
I counted all the episodes or movies that exist in a single diegesis as one. So the two single largest properties in the sci-fi universe, Star Trek and Star Wars, only count once each. That seems unfair, since we’ve spent lots more total minutes of our lives with C3PO and the Enterprise crews than we have with Barbarella. This results in low-seeming numbers. There’s only 53 diegeses at the time of this writing even though it spans thousands of hours of shows. But all that said, this is ballpark problem, meant to tally rationales across diegeses, so we’ll deal with numbers that skew differently than our instincts would suggest. Someone else with a bigger budget of time or money can try and get exhaustive with the number, attempt to normalize for total minutes of media produced, and again for number of alien species referenced at their leisure, and then again for how popular the particular show was. Those numbers may be different.
Additionally the categorizations can be ambiguous. Should Star Trek go in “Silent Aliens” because of the Prime Directive, or under “Aliens” since the show has lots and lots and lots of aliens? Since the Fermi question seeks to answer why Silent Aliens are silent in our real world now, I opted for Silent Aliens, but that’s an arguable choice. Should The Martian count as “Life is Rare” since it’s competence porn that underscores how fragile life is? Should Deep Impact show that life is rare even though they never talk about aliens? It’s questionable to categorize something on a strong implication, but I did it where I felt the connection was strong. Additionally I may have ranked something as “no reason” because I missed an explanatory line of dialog somewhere. Please let me know if I missed something major or got something wrong in the comments.
All that said, let’s look back and see how those broad numbers break down when we look at individual Fermi hypotheses. First, we should omit shows with aliens. They categorically exclude themselves. Aliens is an obvious example. Also, let’s exclude shows that are utterly unconcerened with the question of aliens, e.g. Logan’s Run, (or those that never bother to provide an explanation as to why aliens may have been silent for so long, e.g. The Fifth Element.) We also have to dismiss the other show in the survey that shows a long-dead species but does not investigate why, Total Recall (1990). Aaaaand holy cow, that takes us down to only 8 shows that give some explanation for the historical absence or silence of aliens. Since that number is so low, I’ll list the shows explicitly to the right of their numbers. I’ll leave the numbers as percentages for consistency when I get to increase the data set.
8% Life is rare: Battlestar Galactica (2004) 25% Life doesn’t last (Natural disasters): Deep Impact, The Core, Armaggedon 8% Life doesn’t last (Technology will destroy us): Forbidden Planet
8% Superpredators: Oblivion 0% Information is dangerous 33% Prime directive: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission to Mars, Star Trek 0% Isolationism 0% Zoo 0% Planetarium 0% Lighthouse hello 0% Still ringing 8% Hicksville: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 0% Too distributed 0% Tech mismatch 0% Inconceivability 0% Too expensive 8% Cloaked: Men in Black
(*2% lost to rounding)
It’s at this point that some readers are sharpening their keyboards to inform me of the shows I’ve missed, and that’s great. I would rather have had the data before, but I’m just a guy and nothing motivates geeks like an incorrect pop culture data set. We can run these numbers again when more come in and see what changes.
In the meantime, the first thing we note is that of those that concern themselves with the question of Silent Aliens, most use some version of the prime directive.
Respectively, they say we have to do A Thing before they’ll contact us.
Mature technologically by finding the big obelisk on the moon (and then the matching one around Jupiter)
Mature technologically by mastering faster-than-light travel
Find the explanatory kiosk/transportation station on Mars
It’s easy to understand why Prime Directives would be attractive as narrative rationales. It explains why things are so silent now, and puts the onus on us as a species to achieve The Thing, to do good, to improve. They are inspirational and encourage us to commit to space travel.
The second thing to note, is that those that concern themselves with the notion that Life Doesn’t Last err toward disaster porn, which is attractive because such films are tried and true formulas. The dog gets saved along with the planet, that one person died, there’s a ticker tape parade after they land, and the love interests reconcile. Some are ridiculous. Some are competent. None stand out to me as particularly memorable or life changing. I can’t think of one that illustrates how it is inevitable.
So prime directives and disaster porn are the main answers we see in sci-fi. Are those the right ones? I’ll discuss that in the next post. Stay Tuned.
Jean Claude Forest wrote his Barbarella strips for V-Magazine, he meant them to be sexy, camp, and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek. Réalisme was not much on his mind. When the strip made the transition to the big screen, it kept these sensibilities firmly in place. The technology was fittingly just a collection of narrative devices, based loosely on 1960s technology paradigms and a handful of extant sci-fi tropes.
Sci: D- (1 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?
Most of the technology in Barbarella are based on popular sci-fi narrative shortcuts: False gravity, free-floating video telephony, teleportation, force fields, and yes, focused-energy weapons. These are tropes, and lots of shows throw that caution to the wind, but you should not think of this as hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination. The only reason this just didn’t fail out is Alphy’s artificial intelligence, though a poor cousin to HAL (2001 premiered that same year), is a prescient voice-interface to a limited agentive system that fulfills its social role.
Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
The Positronic Ray is of course the MacGuffin of the whole adventure, so technology plays a pretty pivotal role. And in the cases where the tech moves the story along, it does it cleanly and clearly, highlighting the causes and effects that let know that the heroine is alternately controlling her ship, out of batteries for her weapon, or trapped with no apparent means of escape.
Interfaces: c (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
And then Durand-Durand’s Positronic Ray and the Queen’s Bed Chamber Door interface were bad enough to take me out of the movie and wonder what on Tau Ceti were they thinking. They were so bad that it countered any awesomeness the filmmakers had accidentally stumbled upon.
Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE
Sure, see it for the lovely camp value, space titillation, and to see how agentive technology should work. But don’t expect much other interface inspiration.
Related lessons from the book
Both the Dildano’s map and the Queen’s Door should tighten their feedback loops (page 20).
Barbarella still talks in stupid compterese when speaking with the fully conversational Alphy. She should follow human social conventions, too (page 123.)
Alphy avoided the uncanny valley (page 184) through disembodiment.
Durand-Durand failed to give Barbarella a safeword (page 303.)
It’s probably a trope of its own, but Durand-Durand should provide himself Just Enough Control.
The gravity controls could have used a scenario to Put it in Context.
Both the portable brainwave detector and the energy box beg for Haptify Secrets.
To combat the Resistance uprising, Durand-Durand unleashes his dread Positronic Ray. To control it, he approaches a high backed chair and touches a spot on the back. The curved tip of the chair extends upwards a bit allowing him to sit down. As soon as he sits, the tip retracts to rest just above his head and the video panel slides close to him. The ray itself is mounted on a two-axis swivel just behind him, with the barrel pointing out of a horizontal window.
The interface consists of a complex array of transparent knobs mounted on a glowing flat panel, set beneath a large rectangular video screen. While he is using the weapon, we see his hands twiddling some of the shapes clockwise and counterclockwise.
The chair interface seems fine, if technically unnecessary, giving the gunner a small ritual feeling of power. The weapons interface, on the other hand, is a disaster. It has around 50 visible controls, none labeled for what they control or their extents, none have the slightest ergonomic consideration, and few are differentiated from the others in shape or placement. Also they’re all transparent, so add a lot of visual noise to the difficultly of use.
From his video screen we can tell that there are only a number of things to control: target (coupled to the camera), beam size (coupled to the camera zoom), and a trigger. Control for these simple variables could be accomplished with a joystick for targeting, a thumb button for triggering, and a slider at his left hand for zoom/beam size. Three controls which Durand-Durand could really think of as two.
Additionally, the screen only shows him what he’s currently focused on, failing to grant any of the field awareness that he’d need to keep the enemy at bay. Ultimately it’s a weapons interface that only a pacifist could love. Admittedly, he’s a mad engineer, and not a mad interaction designer, so maybe it’s just his insanity that explains this fiddly spread of extraneous controls with poor mapping and myopic feedback.
I’d love to credit this bad interface with saving the people of the city of SoGo, but unfortunately if its destruction hadn’t come from the Positronic Ray, it would have come from being swallowed by the Mathmos. Ultimately, they were doomed.
Furious at Durand-Durand’s betrayal, the Black Queen walks to a set of five shoulder-height levers, each baroquely shaped, transparent, and hinged to a base on the floor. She pulls the middle one, and a bright white light below the base begins to glow. She then pulls the first lever. She glances at the fourth, but then changes her mind and pulls the fifth one, explaining that she is unleashing the Mathmos to devour the city. The Queen’s brief hesitation implies that this isn’t just an interface, but a self-destruct mechanism that must be activated in some particular, secret order to take effect. Upon completion of the sequence the city begins to fall into the liquid creature, Mathmos, that lives beneath the city.
As soon as the Black Queen hears of Durand-Durand’s betrayal, she reveals a panel that is hidden by furs. It is vertical with a handful of transparent, organically-shaped knobs. She clicks the top one out of its off position and rotates it back and forth a few times, and the panel begins to glow as a video image appears on the high walls of the chamber, showing the events happening inside the throne room.
Later the Queen turns the top knob counterclockwise to click it back into its stop position to stop the video feed. Then she turns another one the same direction to reveal a different video feed of the labyrinth, indicating that each knob is connected to a particular view. There’s indirect evidence that the degree of rotation controls the volume of audio.
Typically remotes have separate controls for power, channel selection, and volume. Coupling them like this adds extra work to the task of switching channels. The Dark Queen has to turn one off before turning the next one on, and readjust the volume each time. If switching channels is something she does regularly, that’s going to be a pain. But if the large screen can display more than one video feed at a time, automatically diving the screen real estate equally to accomodate the multiple views, these controls make a lot of sense, even allowing her to set the volume per feed to a sensible level.
The only thing that might improve the interface is some label to know which control displays which video feed. Seeing as how they’re translucent, I’d suggest coating them with a rear projection film and piping the video feed directly onto the button from beneath. That provides a direct mapping from the control to the display, and a glanceable preview to let the Dark Queen what might be interesting to watch in the first place.
Durand-Durand forces Barbarella at gunpoint to take the invisible key she wears in a chain around her neck to the bedchamber of the Black Queen, also known as the Chamber of Dreams. There they encounter an invisible wall and have a difficult time trying to discern the location of the keyhole. Luckily, in a struggle she drops the key, and it falls through the transparent floor which ripples like water under their feet. This unlocks the invisible door and allows them both to pass into the Chamber of Dreams.
Just within the chamber atop a pedestal sits a second invisible key that can reclose the invisible door. To imprison Barbarella and the Queen within, he rushes in, grabs the key, and throws it down to the floor before Barbarella can react.
Though of course this sequence of events is in place simply to show that Durand-Durand has imprisoned Barbarella and the Black Queen, as a system it raises many questions.
An invisible key certainly means that it can be hidden in plain sight and so has some extra security from that perspective. But its being invisible means that recovering it when lost is problematic at best. Plus, unless it is kept somewhere on the body, the invisibility places a burden on the memory of the keeper as to where it is. (You can’t leave a physical reminder of where it is or you lose the benefit of its being invisible.) Are these costs to memory worth the mildly increased security?
Also, as we see, any spot on the floor is an acceptable target for dropping a key. At first this might seem like hyper-usability, since it’s nearly impossible to miss the keyhole, but it also means it’s hard to recover from a mistake. No, wait. It’s impossible to recover from a mistake. That is, if you fumble and accidentally drop a key, the door will activate. We don’t see a key-return mechanism, so this mistake is deeply unrecoverable. Even if that key-return mechanism is somewhere else in the palace, that’s a disaster for usability.
That might be bad enough, but when you realize that this is a royal chamber, it seems an impossible oversight, as if it were custom designed just to imprison people. The Queen seems genuinely distressed when she realizes Durand-Durand has stolen her key, insisting that they “are doomed. Dooooomed!’ but I’m pretty sure anyone who had given it just a moment’s thought before would have realized that this was the inevitable result of this ridiculous design. Maybe the true power of the Mathmos is to keep the queen perpetually blind to stupid interaction design.
When Durand-Durand captures Barbarella, he places her in a device which he calls the Excessive Machine. She sits in a reclining seat, covered up to the shoulders by the device. Her head rests on an elaborate red leather headboard. Durand-Durand stands at a keyboard, built into the “footboard” of the machine, facing her.
The keyboard resembles that of an organ, but with transparent vertical keys beneath which a few colored light pulse. Long silver tubes stretch from the sides of the device to the ceiling. Touching the keys (they do not appear to depress) produces the sound of a full orchestra and causes motorized strips of metal to undulate in a sine wave above the victim.
When Durand-Durand reads the strange sheet music and begins to play “Sonata for Executioner and Various Young Women,” the machine (via means hidden from view) removes Barbarella’s clothing piece by piece, ejecting them through a tube in the side of the machine near the floor. Then in an exchange Durand-Durand reveals its purpose…
Barbarella: It’s sort of nice, isn’t it? Durand-Durand: Yes. It is nice. In the beginning. Wait until the tune changes. It may change your tune as well. Barbarella: Goodness, what do you mean? Durand-Durand: When we reach the crescendo, you will die of pleasure. Your end will be swift, but sweet, very sweet.
As Durand-Durand intensifies his playing, Barbarella writhes in agony/ecstasy. But despite his most furious playing, he does not kill Barbarella. Instead his machine fails dramatically, spewing fire and smoke out of the sides as its many tubes burn away. Barbarella is too much woman for the likes of his technology.
I’m going to disregard this as a device for torture and murder, since I wouldn’t want to improve such a thing, and that whole premise is kind of silly anyway. Instead I’ll regard it as a BDSM sexual device, in which Durand-Durand is a dominant, seeking to push the limits of an (informed, consensual) submissive using this machine. It’s possible that part of the scene is demonstration of prowess on a standardized, difficult-to-use instrument. If so, then a critique wouldn’t matter. But if not…Since the keys don’t move, the only variables he’s controlling are touch duration and vertical placement of his fingers. (The horizontal position on each key seems really unlikely.) I’d want to provide the player some haptic feedback to detect and correct slipping finger placement, letting him or her maintain attention on the sub who is, after all, the point.
In order to conduct its subversions, the Resistance has a set of secret pneumatic chutes throughout SoGo. To monitor them, they have a map of the city with the chutes drawn as lines and places within the city illuminated with small lights.
The purpose of the lights is a bit vague, since just before Barbarella leaves Resistance Headquarters, Dildano glances at the map to see a red dot flashing at the very top. Gesturing at the light he remarks, “The time is right. The Queen is in her Chamber of Dreams.” But we know from the end of the film that the Queen’s Dream Chamber is on the lowest level of the city, close to Mathmos. (It would seem the Resistance has some severe information gathering issues.) So is each location able to change color to represent prominent individuals? What if two prominent people are in the same place? How does Dildano indicate which prominent person he wishes to track? We never see these controls, and per the axiom of providing inputs near outputs, we would want them to be somewhere around here.
We do get to see one interface in action, though. The chutes themselves are controlled by a set of rather rickety knife switches with large handles. A Resistance member throws one of the switches to initiate suction in a particular tube. (Fans of Futurama should note some similarities to the public transportation system in New New York.)
One the switch is thrown, a traveler extends his or her arms upwards, and then the tube handles the rest. The exits is ungraceful, tumbling travelers onto the floor in conspicuous places somewhere in SoGo.
After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.
The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.
At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.
And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?