Report Card: Idiocracy

Read all the Idiocracy posts in chronological order.

Now we come to the end of Idiocracy, if not yet the idiocracy.

This film never got broad release. There are stories about its being supressed by the studio because of the way the film treated brands.

I don’t know what they’re talking about.

But whatever the reason, I’m happy to do my part in helping it get more awareness. Because despite its expositive principle being wrong (and maybe slightly eugenic), the film illustrates frustrations I also have with some of the world’s stupider ills, and does so in funny ways. Also, as I noted in the last writeup, it even illustrates speculative and far-reaching issues with superintelligence. So, it’s smarter than it looks.

I’d recommend lots and lots more people see this, generally, if only to reinforce the demonization of idiocy and make more people want to be not that. So first let me say: If you haven’t yet, see the film. Help others see it. Make People Valorize Enlightenment Again.

Now, let’s turn to the interfaces.

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Idiocracy is secretly about super AI

I originally began to write about Idiocracy because…

  • It’s a hilarious (if mean) sci-fi movie
  • I am very interested in the implications of St. God’s triage interface
  • It seemed grotesquely prescient in regards to the USA leading up to the elections of 2016
  • I wanted to do what I could to fight the Idiocracy in the 2018 using my available platform

But now it’s 2019 and I’ve dedicated the blog to AI this year, and I’m still going to try and get you to re/watch this film because it’s one of the most entertaining and illustrative films about AI in all of sci-fi.

Not the obvious AIs

There are a few obvious AIs in the film. Explicitly, an AI manages the corporations. Recall that when Joe convinces the cabinet that he can talk to plants, and that they really want to drink water…well, let’s let the narrator from the film explain…

  • NARRATOR
  • Given enough time, Joe’s plan might have worked. But when the Brawndo stock suddenly dropped to zero leaving half the population unemployed; dumb, angry mobs took to the streets, rioting and looting and screaming for Joe’s head. An emergency cabinet meeting was called with the C.E.O. of the Brawndo Corporation.

At the meeting the C.E.O. shouts, “How come nobody’s buying Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator?”

The Secretary of State says, “Aw, shit. Half the country works for Brawndo.” The C.E.O. shouts, “Not anymore! The stock has dropped to zero and the computer did that auto-layoff thing to everybody!” The wonders of giving business decisions over to automation.

I also take it as a given that AI writes the speeches that King Camacho reads because who else could it be? These people are idiots who don’t understand the difference between government and corporations, of course they would want to run the government like a corporation because it has better ads. And since AIs run the corporations in Idiocracy

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Tattoo surveillance

In the prior Idiocracy post I discussed the car interface, especially in terms of how it informs the passengers what is happening when it is remotely shut down. Today let’s talk about the passive interface that shuts it down: Namely, Joe’s tattoo and the distance-scanning vending machine.

It’s been a while since that prior post, so here’s a recap of what’s happening in Idiocracy in this scene:

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading PULL OVER.

It’s a fast scene and the beat feels more like a filmmaker’s excuse to get them out of the car and on foot as they hunt for the Time Masheen. I breezed by it in an earlier post, but it bears some more investigation.

This is a class of transaction where, like taxes and advertising, the subject is an unwilling and probably uncooperative participant. But this same interface has to work for payment, in which the subject is a willing participant. Keep this in mind as we look first at the proximate problem, i.e. locating the fugitive for apprehension; and at the ultimate goal, i.e. how a culture deals with crime.

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Frito’s F’n Car interface

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading “PULL OVER”

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The car interface has a column of buttons down the left reading:

    • NAV
    • WTF?
    • BEER
    • FART FAN
    • HOME
  • GIRLS

At the bottom is a square of icons: car, radiation, person, and the fourth is obscured by something in the foreground. Across the bottom is Frito’s car ID “FRITO’S F’N CAR” which appears to be a label for a system status of “EVERYTHING’S A-OK, BRO”, a button labeled CHECK INGN [sic], another labeled LOUDER, and a big green circle reading GO.

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But the car doesn’t wait for him to pull over. With some tiny beeps it slows to a stop by itself. Frito says, “It turned off my battery!” Moments after they flee the car, it is converged upon by a ring of police officers with weapons loaded (including a rocket launcher pointed backward.) Continue reading

Fox News

“He tried taking water from toilets, but it’s Secretary Not Sure who finds himself in the toilet now. And as history pulls down its pants and prepares to lower its ass on Not Sure’s head it will be Daddy Justice who will be crapping on him this time.”

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Today is election day. If you’re American, you’re voting, of course. (or, you know, GTFO.)

Because of voter suppression efforts by the GOP, many who are voting will be facing long lines. Help encourage these Americans, slogging as they are through the GOP swamp just for their right to vote, to stay the course by buying them some pizza. And if it’s you, know that you can report your long line to the same place and have some ‘za sent your way.

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https://polls.pizza/

Godspeed, America.

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I’ll get back to wrapping up Idiocracy later.

House of Representin’

The U.S. House of Representin’ in Idiocracy is a madhouse. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he takes his seat in the balcony with the other Cabinet members. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he enters the chamber and sits in the balcony with the rest of the Cabinet. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. There are spotlights roving across the Representatives, who don’t sit at desks but stand in a mosh pit. There is even a center-hung video display like you’d see at an indoor sports area. Six giant LED screens. Ring displays showing weird ASCII characters.

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Sadly, we do not get to The Sennit for a comparison.

Someone plays an entrance theme consisting mostly of a cowbell and grunts. Strobe lights flash. An announcer says, like he was announcing a World Wrestling Entertainment performer, “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of America!” Camacho comes out of a side door screaming. He’s dressed in lots of red and white stripes with a cape made of the union blue. (n.b. The federal code forbids the wearing the flag as apparel.) He does some made-up karate poses. There are logos on the rostrum and currency sheets for wallpaper. He stands at the lectern and begins his address to the Representatives by saying, “Shut up.”

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Identity Processing Program of America

After his initial arrest, Joe is led by a noose stick (and a police officer speaking some devolved version of copspeak) to a machine to get an identity tattoo. Joe sits in the chair and a synthesized voice says, “Welcome to the Identity Processing Program of America. Please insert your forearm into the forearm receptacle.” Joe does as instructed and it locks his arm into place. A screen in front of him shows the legend “Identity Processing Program of America” superimposed over an USA pattern made up of company names and Carls Junior amputated star logos. Five rectangles across the top are labeled: System, Identity, Verify, Imprint, and Done.

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It prompts him to “…speak your name as it appears on your current federal identity card, document number G24L8.” Joe says, “I’m not sure if—“ The machine interprets this as input and blinks the name as it says, “You have entered the name ‘Not Sure.’ Is this correct, Not Sure?”

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Joe tries to correct it, saying, “No…it’s not correct.” On the word “correct” it dings and continues, “Thank you. ‘Not’ is correct.” “Not” stops blinking in the interface.

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IQ Testing

When Joe is processed after his arrest, he is taken to a general IQ testing facility. He sits in a chair wearing headphones. A recorded voice asks, “If you have one bucket that holds two gallons, and another bucket that holds five gallons, how many buckets do you have?” Into a microphone he says, incredulous that this is a question, “Two?” The recorded voice says, “Thank you!”

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Joe looks to his left to see another subject is trying to put a square blue peg into the middle round hole of a panel and of course failing. Joe looks to his right, to see another subject with a triangular green peg in hand that he’s trying to put into the round middle hole in his interface. Small colored bulbs above each hole are unlit, but they match the colors of the matching blocks, so let’s presume they illuminate when the correct peg is inserted. When you look closely, it’s also apparent that the blocks are tethered to the panel so they’re not lost, and each peg is tethered directly below its matching hole. So there are lots and lots of cues that would let a subject figure it out. And yet, they are not. The subject to Joe’s right even eyes Joe suspiciously and turns his body to cover his test so Joe won’t try and crib…uh…“answers.”

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Comedy

The comedy in the scene comes from how rudimentary these challenges are. Most toddlers could complete the shape test. Even if you couldn’t figure out the shapes, you could match the colors, i.e. the blue object goes in the hole under the blue bulb. Most preschoolers could answer the spoken challenge. It underscores the stupidity of this world that generalized IQ tests for adults test below grade school levels.

IQ Testing

Since Binet invented the first one in 1904, IQ testing has a long, and problematic past (racism and using it to justify eugenic arguments, just for instance) but it can have a rational goal: How do we measure the intelligence of a set of people (students in a classroom, or applicants to intelligence jobs) for strategic decisions about aptitude, assistance, and improvement? But intelligence is a very slippery concept, and complicated to study much less test. The good news in this case is that the citizens of Idiocracy don’t have very sophisticated intellects, so very basic tests of intelligence should suffice.

Some nice things

So, that said, the shape test has some nice aspects. The panel is angled so the holes are visible and targetable, without being so vertical it’s easy to drop the pegs while manipulating them. The panel is plenty thick for durability and cleaning. The speech-to-text tech seems to work perfectly, unlike the errors and bad design that riddle most technologies in Idiocracy.

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A garden path match

There’s an interesting question of affordances in the device. You can see in the image above that the yellow round block fits just fine in the square hole. Ordinarily, a designer would want to prevent errors like this by, say, increasing the diameter of the round peg (and its hole) so that it couldn’t be inserted into the square hole. That version of the test would just test the time it took by even trial-and-error to match pegs to their matching holes, then you could rank subjects by time-to-completion. But by allowing the round peg to fit in the square hole, you complicate the test with a “garden path” branch where some subjects can get lost in what he thinks is a successful subtask. This makes it harder to compare subjects fairly, because another subject might not have wandered down this path and paid an unfair price in their time-to-complete.

Another complication is that this test has so many different clues. Do they notice the tethers? Do subjects notice the colored bulbs? (What about color blind subjects?) Having it test cognitive skills as well as fine-motor manipulation skills as well as perception skills seems quite complicated and less likely to enable fair comparisons. 

We must always scrutinize IQ tests because people put so much stock in them and it can be very much to an individual’s detriment. Designers of these tests ought to instrument them carefully for passive and active feedback about when the test itself is proving to be problematic.

Challenging the “superintelligent?”

A larger failing of the test is that it doesn’t challenge Joe at all. All his results would tell him is that he’s much much more intelligent than these tests are built for. Fair enough, there’s nothing in the world of Idiocracy which would indicate a need to test for superintelligence among the population, but this test had to be built by someone(s), generations ago. Could they not even have the test work on someone as smart as themselves? That’s all it would need to test Joe. But we live in a world that should be quite cautious about the emergence of a superintelligence. It would be comforting to imagine that we could test for that. Maybe we should include the Millennium Problems at the end of every test. Just in case.

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Another Idiot Test

As “luck” would have it, Trump tweeted an IQ test just this morning. (I don’t want to link to it to directly add any fuel to his fire, but you can Google it easily.) It’s an outrageous political video ad. As you watch it:

  • Do you believe that a single anecdote about a troubled, psychotic individual is generalizable to everyone with brown skin? Or even to everyone with brown skin who is not American and seeking legal asylum in the U.S.?
  • Do you ignore the evidence of the past decades (and the last week) that show it’s conservative white males who are much more of a problem? (Noting that vox is a liberal-leaning publication, but look at the article’s citations.)
  • Can you tell that the war drums under the ad are there only to make you feel scared, appealing to your emotions with cinematic tricks?
  • Do you uncritically fall for implicature and the slippery slope fallacy?

If the answers to all these are yes, well, sorry. You’ve failed an IQ test put to you by one of the most blatantly racist political ads since WIllie Horton. (Not many ads warrant a deathbed statement of regret, but that one did.) Maybe it’s best you take the rest of the week off treating yourself. Leave town. Take a road trip somewhere. Eat some ice cream.

For the rest of you, congratulations on passing the test. We have 5 days until the election. Kick the racist bastards and the bastards enabling the racist bastards out.

The Court of Idiots

t’s Halloween, as if the news of the past week were not scary enough. Pipe bombs to Democratic leaders. The largest massacre of Jewish people in on American soil in history. The murder of two black senior citizens by a white supremacist in Kentucky. Now let’s add to it with this nightmare scene from Idiocracy. Full disclosure: We’re covering technology as old as civilization here, so there won’t be any screen interfaces.

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Joe is wheeled into the courtroom in a cage. There is a large gallery there, all of whom are booing him. One throws his milkshake at the accused. Others throw trash. The narrator says, “Joe was arrested for not paying his hospital bill and not having his IPP tattoo. He would soon discover that in the future, Justice was not only blind, but had become rather retarded as well.”

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Joe is let out of his cage. The judge, identified by his name plate as The Honorable Hector “The Hangman,” stands at his bench in a spotlight in front of a wall of logos, grinning in anticipation at a new victim. He slams a massive gavel and shouts at the booing crowd, “Listen up! Now. I’m fixin’ to commensurate this trial here. [All of this is sic.] We gon’ see if we can’t come up with a verdict up in here. Now. Since y’all say y’ain’t got no money, we have proprietarily obtained you one of them court-appointed lawyers. So, put your hands together to give it up for Frito Pendejo!” Continue reading

The Time Masheen

Chris: Diorama rides like The Time Masheen seen at the end of Idiocracy aren’t interactive in a strict sense, but since it’s a favorite moment and works for riders abstractly as an interface to the vast domain of knowledge that is history, I asked the awesome Cynthia Sharpe to provide some opinions. Cynthia works as the Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and so has a much more learned opinion than mine. We totally crazily co-wrote this in a 24-hour long frenzy of geekdom. Note that these opinions are her own, and not necessarily shared by Thinkwell Group (hey team!).

I usually try to post reviews of interfaces in the order they appear in the film. But Cynthia wants to make a hard core shout out to Sharice Davids and that would work best sooner rather than later, so we’re doing this NOW. omg. It’s almost like this post TRAVELED IN TIME.

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Though the actual payoff is maybe a minute long, the whole The Time Masheen conceit and reveal in Idiocracy is one of my favorite “it’s turtles all the day down” moments of total ur-nerdery. A shitty ride, wrong history, awful exhibit design, Godwin-ing itself from the get-go. Pure poetry. As someone who works in both theme parks and museums, let’s have fun unpacking this, shall we?

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Welcome my son. Welcome to the (Time) Masheen. 🎵 Where have you been? 🎶

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