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.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

This rating is tough. After all, the interfaces are appropriately idiotic. But, we have to ask: Are they the right kind of idiotic, given a diegesis where everyone is a moron and civilization is propped up by technologies created by smart people who died off? Well…mostly.

The FloorMaster is a believable example of narrow AI breaking down. The Carl’s Junior, Insurance Slot machine, and OmniBro are all believable once you accept that part of the Idiocracy is an inhumane, hypercapitalist panopticon. The IQ test has problems, like most do. The Time Masheen is believably an older ride that has had its dioramas replaced by the idiots. These are all believable.

The sleeping pods are in between. As a prototype, you might expect the unlabeled interface and lack of niceties. But the pods break believability by magically having enough resources (e.g. five billion calories, between them) to keep their occupants alive and healthy for 500 times their initially-planned run.

And some of the interfaces just could not have been created either by the dead, smart people, or the idiots. These are technology jokes that break the fourth wall, and earn it the grade it gets.

Fi: A+ (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The film knocks this out of the park. The interfaces are a key part of illustrating how it is that idiots manage to survive at all, and how stupidity from the top-down and the bottom-up gets into everything. Just fantastic.


Interfaces: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

This one is also complicated. The interfaces almost universally serve to thwart the users, but we have to cut them some slack, because that’s part of their narrative point. (See, this is why it’s so difficult to review comedy.)

For instance, the Healthmaster Inferno likely does more to infect patients than to help cure them. (This has a historical precedent, as doctors used to reject the notion that they had to wash their hands between patients because harumph they were gentlemen and gentlemen are clean.) And while this is terrible usability, with no affordances, constraints, or safeguards, if the technology had worked, it wouldn’t help tell such a funny and disturbing story.

Then there are technologies like the St. God’s Intake interface that would pass a usability test, but serve to keep their users as mere babysitters for a technology that does the work, and would serve to keep them stuck in the same job, never improving. Come to think of it, this is a metaphor for the role of technology in the film: It just serves to keep them stupid by trying to provide everything for them. That’s a thought with troubling implications, unless we go about it smartly.

And, hilariously, there is one function in the film that is particularly brilliant, and points out how prudish we are not to implement it today. (The fart fan.)

Anyway, the tech that is broken is so obviously broken (the IPPA machine being perhaps the best example) that I’m not counting this against the film’s Interfaces ratings. Real world designers should not mimic these or draw inspiration, but the stupidity is so deliberate and apparent, I don’t believe anyone would. In fact, the film leads them to look for why the technologies are stupid and do not that, so it scores high marks.

Final Grade A- (10 of 12), Blockbuster.

Good job, team Idiocracy.

A quick note to close out this set of reviews. People who like Idiocracy may be interested to know it is a spiritual inheritor of a 1951 story called The Marching Morons. The text hasn’t aged well, but it’s still worth a read if you liked this movie. Similar premise, similar difficulties.

Compare freely

“We need the rockets and trick speedometers and cities because, while you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and short-sightedly having children—breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred!”

The Marching Morons, by C.M. Kornbluth, 1951

This short story is over 50 years old. I’m just going to guess that since intelligence is relative, even as average intelligence continues to rise, there will always be grousing by the intelligent about the less intelligent. And I think I’m OK with that. Or at least, the effects of it. I hope you are, too.

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…

  • 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

No. I don’t mean those AIs. I mean that you should rewatch the film understanding that Joe and Rita, the lead characters, are Super AIs in the context of Idiocracy.

The protagonists are super AIs

The literature distinguishes between three supercategories of artificial intelligence.

  • Narrow AI, which is the AI we have in the world now. It’s much better than humans in some narrow domain. But it can’t handle new situations. You can’t ask a roboinvestor to help plan a meal, for example, even though it’s very very good at investing.
  • General AI, definitionally meaning “human like” in it’s ability to generalize from one domain of knowledge to handle novel situations. If this exists in the world, it’s being kept very secret. It probably does not.
  • Super AI, the intelligence of which dwarfs our own. Again, this probably doesn’t exist in the world, but if it did, it’s being kept very secret. Or maybe even keeping itself secret. The difference between a bird’s intelligence and a human’s is a good way to think about the difference between our intelligence and a superintelligence. It will be able to out-think us at every step. We may not even be able to understand the language in which asks its questions.
Illustration by the author (often used when discussing agentive technology.)

Now the connection to Joe and Rita should be apparent. Though theirs is not an artificial intelligence, the difference between their smarts and that of Idiocracy approaches that same uncanny scale.

Watch how Joe and Rita move through this world. They are routinely flabbergasted at the stupidity around them. People are pointlessly belligerent, distractedly crass, easily manipulated, guided only by their base instincts, desperate to not appear “faggy,” and guffawing about (and cheering on) horrific violence. Rita and Joe are not especially smart by our standards, but they can outthink everyone around them by orders of magnitude, and that’s (comparatively) super AI.

The people of Idiocracy have idioted themselves into a genuine ecological crisis. They need to stop poisoning their environment because, at the very least, it’s killing them. But what about jobs! What about profits! Does this sound familiar?

Pictured: Us.

Joe doesn’t have any problem figuring out what’s wrong. He just tastes what’s being sprayed in the fields, and it’s obvious to him. His biggest problem is that the people he’s trying to serve are too dumb to understand the explanation (much less their culpability). He has to lie and feed them some bullshit reason and then manage people’s frustration that it doesn’t work instantly, even though he knows and we know it will work given time.

In this role as superintelligences, our two protagonists illustrate key critical concerns we have about superintelligent AIs:

  1. Economic control
  2. Social manipulation
  3. Uncontainability
  4. Cooperation by “multis.”

Economic control

Rita finds it trivially easy to bilk one idiot out of money and gain economic power. She could use her easy lucre to, in turn, control the people around her. Fortunately she is a benign superintelligence.

Yeah baby I could wait two days.

In the Chapter 6 of the seminal work on the subject, Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom lists six superpowers that an ASI would work to gain in order to achieve its goals. The last of these he terms “economic productivity” using which the ASI can “generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.” This scene serves as a lovely illustration of that risk.

Of course you’re wondering what the other five are, so rather than making you go hunt for them…

  1. Intelligence amplification, to bootstrap its own intelligence
  2. Strategizing, to achieve distant goals and overcome intelligent opposition
  3. Social manipulation, to leverage external resources by recruiting human support, to enable a boxed AI to persuade its gatekeepers to let it out, and to persuade states and organizations to adopt some course of action.
  4. Hacking, so the AI can expropriate computational resources over the internet, exploit security holes to escape cybernetic confinement, steal financial resources, and hijack infrastructure like military robots, etc.
  5. Technology research, to create a powerful military force, to create surveillance systems, and to enable automated space colonization.
  6. Economic productivity, to generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.

Social manipulation

Joe demonstrates the second of these, social manipulation, repeatedly throughout the film.

  • He convinces Frito to help him in exchange for the profits from a time travel compound interest gambit
  • He convinces the cabinet to switch to watering crops by telling them he can talk to plants.
  • He convinces the guard to let him escape prison (more on this below).

Joe’s not perfect at it. Early in the film he tries reason to convince the court of his innocence, and fails. Later he fails to convince the crowd to release him in Rehabilitation. An actual ASI would have an easier time of these things.


The only way they contain Joe in the early part of the film is with a physical cage, and that doesn’t last long. He finds it trivially easy to escape their prison using, again, social manipulation.

  • JOE
  • Hi. Excuse me. I’m actually supposed to be getting out of prison today, sir.
  • Yeah. You’re in the wrong line, dumb ass. Over there.
  • JOE
  • I’m sorry. I am being a big dumb ass. Sorry.
  • GUARD (to other guard)
  • Hey, uh, let this dumb ass through.

Elizer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, has described the AI-Box problem, in which he illustrates the folly of thinking that we could contain a super AI. (Bostrom also cites him in the Superintelligence book.) Using only a text terminal, he argues, an ASI can convince an even a well-motivated human to release it. He has even run social experiments where one participant played the unwilling human, and he played the ASI, and both times the human relented. And while Elizer is a smart guy, he is not an ASI, which would have an even easier time of it. This scene illustrates how easily an ASI would thwart our attempts to cage it.

Cooperation between multis

Chapter 11 of Bostrom’s book focuses on how things might play out if instead of only one ASI in the world, a “singleton” there are many ASIs, or “multis.” (Colossus: The Forbin Project and Person of Interest also explore these scenarios with artificial superintelligences.)

In this light, Joe and Rita are multis who unite over shared circumstances and woes, and manage to help each other out in their struggle against the idiots. Whatever advantage the general intelligences have over the individual ASIs are significantly diminished when they are working together.

Note: In Bostrom’s telling, multis don’t necessarily stabilize each other, they just make things more complex and don’t solve the core principal-agent problem. But he does acknowledge that stable, voluntary cooperation is a possible scenario.

Cold comfort ending

At the end of Idiocracy, we can take some cold comfort that Rita and Joe have a moral sense, a sense of self-preservation, and sympathy for fellow humans. All they wind up doing is becoming rulers of the world and living out their lives. (Oh god are their kids Von Neumann probes?) The implication is that, as smart as they are, they will still be outpopulated by the idiots of that world.

Imagine this story is retold where Joe and Rita are psychopaths obsessed with making paper clips, with their superintelligent superpowers and our stupidity. The idiots would be enslaved to paper clip making before they could ask whether or not it’s fake news.

Or even less abstractly, there is a deleted “stinger” scene at the end of some DVDs of the film where Rita’s pimp UPGRAYEDD somehow winds up waking up from his own hibernation chamber right there in 2505, and strolls confidently into town. The implied sequel would deal with an amoral ASI (UPGRAYEDD) hostile to its mostly-benevolent ASI leaders (Rita and Joe). It does not foretell fun times for the Idiocracy.

For me, this interpretation of the film is important to “redeem” it, since its big takeaway—that is, that people are getting dumber over time—is known to be false. The Flynn Effect, named for its discoverer James R. Flynn, is the repeatedly-confirmed observation that measurements of intelligence are rising, linearly, over time, and have been since measurements began. To be specific, this effect is not seen in general intelligence but rather the subset of fluid, or analytical intelligence measures. The rate is about 3 IQ points per decade.

Wait. What? How can this be? Given the world’s recent political regression (that kickstarted the series on fascism and even this review of Idiocracy) and constant news stories of the “Florida Man” sort, the assertion does not seem credible. But that’s probably just availability bias. Experts cite several factors that are probably contributing to the effect.

  • Better health
  • Better nutrition
  • More and better education
  • Rising standards of living

The thing that Idiocracy points to—people of lower intelligence outbreeding people of higher intelligence—was seen as not important. Given the effect, this story might be better told not about a time traveler heading forwards, but rather heading backwards to some earlier era. Think Idiocracy but amongst idiots of the Renaissance.

Since I know a lot of smart people who took this film to be an exposé of a dark universal pattern that, if true, would genuinely sour your worldview and dim your sense of hope, it seems important to share this.

So go back and rewatch this marvelous film, but this time, dismiss the doom and gloom of declining human intelligence, and watch instead how Idiocracy illustrates some key risks (if not all of them) that super artificial intelligence poses to the world. For it really is a marvelously accessible shorthand to some of the critical reasons we ought to be super cautious of the possibility.

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.

A quick caveat: While it’s fair to say I’m an expert on interaction design, I’m Just a Guy when it comes to criminology and jurisprudence. And these are ideas with some consequence. Feel free to jump in and engage in friendly debate on any of these points.

Proximate problem: Finding the fugitive

The red scan is fast, but it’s very noticable. The sudden flash of light, the red color. This could easily tip a fugitive off and cause them to redouble efforts at evasion, maybe even covering up the tattoo, making the law’s job of apprehending them that much harder. Better would be some stealthier means of detection like RFID chips. I know, that’s not as cinegenic, so the movie version would instead use image recognition, showing the point of view from the vending machine camera (machine point of view or MPOV), with some UI clues showing it identifying, zooming in to, and confirming the barcode.

Yes, that’s a shout-out.

So we can solve stealth-detection cinematically, using tropes. But anytime a designer is asked to consider a scenario, it is a good idea to see if the problem can be more effectively addressed somewhere higher up the goal chain. Is stealth-detection really better?

Goal chain

  • Why is the system locating him? To tell authorities so they can go there and apprehend him.
  • Why are they apprehending him? He has shown an inability to regulate damaging anti-social behavior (in the eyes of the law, anyway) and the offender must be incarcerated.
  • Why do we try to incarcerate criminals? To minimize potential damage to society while the offender is rehabilitated.
  • Why do we try to rehabilitate criminals? Well, in the Idiocracy, it’s an excuse for damnatio ad vehiculum, that is, violent public spectacle based on the notion that jurisprudence is about punishment-as-deterrent. (Pro-tip: That doesn’t work. Did I say that doesn’t work? Because that doesn’t work.) In a liberal democracy like ours, it’s because we understand that the mechanisms of law are imperfect and we don’t want the state to enact irreversible capital punishment when it could be wrong, and, moreover, that human lives have intrinsic value. We should try to give people who have offended a chance to demonstrate an understanding of their crime and the willingness to behave lawfully in the future. Between incarceration and rehabilitation, we seek to minimize crime.
  • Why do we try to minimize crime? (This ought to be self-evident, but juuust in case…) Humans thrive when they do not need to guard against possible attack by every other human they encounter. They can put their resources towards the pursuit of happiness rather than the defense of encroachment. Such lawful societies benefit from network effects.

The MPOV suggestion above fixes the problem at the low level of detection, but each step in the goal chain invites design at a more effective level. It’s fun to look at each of these levels and imagine an advanced-technology solution (and even find sci-fi examples of each), but for this post, let’s look at the last one, minimizing crime, in the context of the tattoo scanner.

Ultimate problem: Preventing crime

In his paper “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” Daniel Nagin reviewed state of the art criminology findings and listed five things about deterrence. Number one in his list is that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Daniel S. Nagin, 2013

How might we increase the evident chance of being caught?

  1. Fund police forces well so they are well-staffed, well-trained, and have a near-constant, positive presence in communities, and impressive capture rates. Word would get around.
  2. Nagin himself suggests concentrating police presence in criminal hotspots, ensuring that they have visible handcuffs and walkie-talkies.
  3. Another way might be media: Of making sure that potential criminals hear an overwhelming number of stories through their network of criminals being captured successfully. This could involve editorial choice, or even media manipulation, filtering to ensure that “got caught” narratives appear in feeds more than “got away with it” ones. But we’re hopefully becoming more media savvy as a result of Recent Things, and this seems more deceptive than persuasive.
  4. The other way is to increase the sense of observation. And that leads us (as so many things do) to the panopticon.

The Elaboratory*

The Panopticon is almost a trope at this point, but that’s what this scene points to. If you’re not familiar, it is an idea about the design of buildings in which “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection,” conceived in the late 1700s by Samuel Bentham and formalized by his brother James in letters to their father. Here is a useful illustration.

*Elaboratory was one of the alternate terms he suggested for the idea. It didn’t catch on since it didn’t have the looming all-seeing-eye ring of the other term.

Elevation, section, and plan as drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

The design of the panopticon is circular, with prisoners living in isolated cells along the perimeter. The interior wall of each cell is open to view so the inmate can be observed by a person in a central tower or “inspector’s lodge.” Things are structured so the inmates cannot tell whether or not they are being observed. (Bentham suggested louvers.) Over time, the idea goes, the inmate internalizes the unseen authority as a constant presence, and begins to regulate themselves, behaving as they believe the guard would have them behave. Bentham thought this was ideal from an efficacy and economic standpoint.

“Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually [be under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them], during every instant of time.”

—Jeremey Bentham

It’s an idea that has certainly enjoyed currency. If you hadn’t come across the idea via Bentham, you may have come across it via Foucault in Discipline and Punish, who regarded it not as a money-saving design, but as an illustration of the effect of power. Or maybe Orwell, who did not use the term, but extended it to all of society in 1984. Or perhaps you heard it from Shoshana Zuboff, who in The Age of the Smart Machine reconceived it for information technology in a work environment.

Umm…Carol? Why aren’t you at your centrifuge?

In Benjamen Walker’s podcast Theory of Everything, he dedicates an episode to the argument that as a metaphor it needs to be put away, since…

  1. It builds on one-way observation, and modern social media has us sharing information about ourselves willingly, all the time. The diagram is more dream catcher than bicycle wheel. We volunteer ourselves to the inspector, any inspector, and can become inspectors to anyone else any time. Sousveillance. Stalking.
  2. Most modern uses of the metaphor are anti-government, but surveillance capitalism is a more pernicious problem (here in the West), where advertising uses all the information it can to hijack your reward systems and schlorp money out of you.
  3. Bentham regarded it as a tool for behavior modification, but the metaphor is not used to talk about how surveillance changes us and our identities, but rather as a violation of privacy rights.

It’s a good series, check it out, and hat tip to Brother-from-a-Scottish-Mother John V Willshire for pointing me in its direction.

To Walker’s list I will add another major difference: Panopticon inmates must know they are being watched. It’s critical to the desired internalization of authority. But modern surveillance tries its best to be invisible despite the fact that it gathers an enormous amount of information. (Fortunately it often fails to be invisible, and social media channels can be used to expose the surveillance.)

Guns are bad.

But then, Idiocracy

In Idiocracy, this interface—of the tattoo and the vending machine—is what puts this squarely back in Bentham’s metaphor. The ink is in a place that will be seen very often by the owner, and a place that’s very difficult to casually hide. (I note that the overwhelming majority of Hillfinger [sic] shirts in the movie are even short-sleeved.) So it serves as that permanent—and permanently-visible—identifier. You are being watched. (Holy crap now I have yet another reason to love Person of Interest. It’s adding to our collective media impression the notion of AI surveillance. Anyway…) In this scene, it’s a clear signal that he and his co-offenders could see, which means they would tell their friends this story of how easily Joe was caught. It’s pretty cunningly designed as a conspicuous signal.

Imagine how this might work throughout that world. As people went around their business in the Idiocracy, stochastic flashes of light on their and other people’s wrists keep sending a signal that everyone is being watched. It’s crappy surveillance which we don’t like for all the reasons we don’t like it, but it illustrates why stealth-detection may not be the ideal for crime preventions and why this horrible tattoo might be the thing that a bunch of doomed eggheads might have designed for the future when all that was left was morons. Turns out at least for the Idiocracy, this is a pretty well-designed signal for deterrence, which is the ultimate goal of this interface.


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”


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

  • NAV
  • WTF?
  • BEER
  • HOME

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.


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.)

Visual Design

Praise where it’s due: Zooming is the strongest visual attention-getting signals there is (symmetrical expansion is detected on the retina within 80 milliseconds!) and while I can’t find the source from which I learned it, I recall that blinking is somewhere in the top 5. Combining these with an audio signal means it’s hard to miss this critical signal. So that’s good.

In English: It’s comin’ right at us!

But then. Ugh. The fonts. The buttons on the chrome seem to be some free Blade Runner font knock off, the text reading “PULL OVER” is in some headachey clipped-corner freeware font that neither contrasts nor compliments the Blade Jogger font, or whatever it is. I can’t quite hold the system responsible for the font of the IPPA licence, but I just threw up a little into my Flaturin because of that rounded-top R.


Then there’s the bad-90s skeuomorphic, Bevel & Emboss buttons that might be defended for making the interactive parts apparent, except that this same button treatment is given to the label Frito’s F’n Car, which has no obvious reason why it would ever need to be pressed. It’s also used on the CHECK INGN and LOUDER buttons, taking their ADA-insulting contrast ratios and absolutely wrecking any readability.

I try not to second-guess designer’s intentions, but I’m pretty sure this is all deliberate. Part of the illustration of a world without much sense. Certainly no design sense.

In-Car Features

What about those features? NAV is pretty standard function, and having a HOME button is a useful shortcut. On current versions of Google Maps there’s an Explore Places Near You Function, which lists basic interests like Restaurants, Bars, and Events, and has a more menu with a big list of interests and services. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Frito has pressed GIRLS and BEER enough that it’s floated to the top nav.


That leaves only three “novel” buttons to think about: WTF, LOUDER, and FART FAN. 


If I have to guess, the WTF button is an all-purpose help button. Like a GM OnStar, but less well branded. Frito can press it and get connected to…well, I guess some idiot to see if they can help him with something. Not bad to have, though this probably should be higher in the visual hierarchy.


This bit of interface comedy is hilarious because, well, there’s no volume down affordance on the interface. Think of the “If it’s too loud, you’re too old” kind of idiocy. Of course, it could be that the media is on zero volume, and so it couldn’t be turned down any more, so the LOUDER button filled up the whole space, but…

  • The smarter convention is to leave the button in place and signal a disabled state, and
  • Given everything else about the interface, that’s giving the diegetic designer a WHOLE lot of credit. (And our real-world designer a pat on the back for subtle hilarity.)


This button is a little potty humor, and probably got a few snickers from anyone who caught it because amygdala, but I’m going to boldly say this is the most novel, least dumb thing about Frito’s F’n Car interface.

Pictured: A sulfuric gas nebula. Love you, NASA!

People fart. It stinks. Unless you have active charcoal filters under the fabric, you can be in for an unpleasant scramble to reclaim breathable air. The good news is that getting the airflow right to clear the car of the smell has, yes, been studied, well, if not by science, at least scientifically. The bad news is that it’s not a simple answer.

  • Your car’s built in extractor won’t be enough, so just cranking the A/C won’t cut it.
  • Rolling down windows in a moving aerodynamic car may not do the trick due to something called the boundary layer of air that “clings” to the surface of the car.
  • Rolling down windows in a less-aerodynamic car can be problematic because of the Helmholtz effect (the wub-wub-wub air pressure) and that makes this a risky tactic.
  • Opening a sunroof (if you have one) might be good, but pulls the stench up right past noses, so not ideal either.

The best strategy—according to that article and conversation amongst my less squeamish friends—is to crank the AC, then open the driver’s window a couple of inches, and then the rear passenger window half way.

But this generic strategy changes with each car, the weather (seriously, temperature matters, and you wouldn’t want to do this in heavy precipitation), and the skankness of the fart. This is all a LOT to manage when one’s eyes are meant to be on the road and you’re in an nauseated panic. Having the cabin air just refresh at the touch of one button is good for road safety.

If it’s so smart, then, why don’t we have Fart Fan panic buttons in our cars today?

I suspect car manufacturers don’t want the brand associations of having a button labeled FART FAN on their dashboards. But, IMHO, this sounds like a naming problem, not some intractable engineering problem. How about something obviously overpolite, like “Fast freshen”? I’m no longer in the travel and transportation business, but if you know someone at one of these companies, do the polite thing and share this with them.

Another way to deal with the problem, in the meantime.

So aside from the interface considerations, there are also some strategic ones to discuss with the remote kill switch, but that deserves it’s own post, next.

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.”


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.


Godspeed, America.


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.

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.”


There’s a kind of ritual to his entrance, but the proceedings are all chaos. I think if you mentioned the Jefferson’s Manual you’d be accused of talking like a fag. (Jefferson’s Manual was penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and still stands as a guideline for how the House and to a lesser extent the Senate runs its…but there I go talking faggy again.) When the delegation from South Carolina start talking smack, he grabs a semi-automatic and shoots it into the ceiling to get everyone’s attention again.

He tells it like it is.

Ordinarily I might try and critique this as some abstract interface for the task of vetting a Cabinet member or legislating, since it is meant to be that, but Idiocracy is just too far gone. Plus, tomorrow is the midterm elections, and it’s more instructive to talk about its tone.

What makes this scene so marvelous is how un-governmental it all is. It’s macho posing and buzz words. Insults and tribalism. It’s a circus (without, in this case, the bread). Empty promises and showmanship.

Come with me now to walk far, far back from it all, to try to get it all into view and really think hard about the scope of the institution we call government. We grant this thing the highest authority that we possibly can. It has power over our life and death, war and money, our children and our environment—and it is only right that this trust be met by the occupants of that government with gravity, some serious consideration for the power with which they have been entrusted. It is grotesque for it to become a show. When people think corporations and government should be best buds, and the highest offices of the land become a shill for product. When the participants conceive it as a high-school parking lot gang fight where scoring insults against the other team counts as some beer-swilling victory while, you know, actual human suffering and violent death occurs as collateral damage. When they justify horrible things by saying, “You had your turn.” When demagogues keep you stupidly, stupidly distracted.

Yet here we are.

If this is government, we shout at the screen, those morons in the electorate should replace it with something better.

Replace it with something better

We’re not done with reviews of Idiocracy, but tomorrow is the 2018 midterm election in the USA.

If you’ve stayed with me this far it means you’re probably not a supporter of The Tire Fire in Chief, since, as fascists, they tend to be fanatical and abhor dissent, and would have left the blog long ago. (They will not be missed.) So you’re probably not one of them.

If you’re a progressive or even a moderate, you’ve been as shocked as I have over the past two years, and you realize how much of a disaster this administration has been. Your mind has hopefully already been made up. In early voting or by mail you may have even already voted. Rock on.
Some of my readers may have genuine hardships that prevent them from voting, even in early voting states or by mail. Please do everything you can. Remember Uber and Lyft are offering free and discounted trips to polls (there are even carpool sites), and in most states your employer is required by law to give you paid time off to vote. (Check here.) Some voters will be victims of suppression efforts and holy shit I’m sorry about that.
But let’s presume that there are yet a few undecideds, or who are choosing not to vote out of some sense of hopelessness or protest. Maybe you have some Russian troll farm meme in your head that is preventing you from voting. Not voting may feel like resistance, but it’s actually surrender. With all the voter suppression underway, you’re letting the oppressors win. With all the wrong in the world, you would be complicit. So get over yourself. Stop the decline into Idiocracy. Our choices aren’t perfect. They never are. They never will be. But even if this choice is not perfect, it is clear. The GOP is wrecking democracy, ruining the environment, and making people suffer for the benefit of the ultra-wealthy and their old, white cronies. Broadcast Democrats may not be the answers we need in the long run, but they are the only thing that can stop this Idiocracy, right here, right now.


Let me close with a great screed by Lori Gallagher Witt about why she is a liberal. You are a sci-fi fan. You’re used to entertaining the notion of alternate realities. Imagine a world where the following becomes true.

  1. “I’ve always been a liberal, but that doesn’t mean what a lot of you apparently think it does. Let’s break it down, shall we? Because quite frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being told what I believe and what I stand for. Spoiler alert: Not every liberal is the same, though the majority of liberals I know think along roughly these same lines:
  2. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members. A country cannot call itself civilized when its children, disabled, sick, and elderly are neglected. Period.
  3. I believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Somehow that’s interpreted as “I believe Obamacare is the end-all, be-all.” This is not the case. I’m fully aware that the ACA has problems, that a national healthcare system would require everyone to chip in, and that it’s impossible to create one that is devoid of flaws, but I have yet to hear an argument against it that makes “let people die because they can’t afford healthcare” a better alternative. I believe healthcare should be far cheaper than it is, and that everyone should have access to it. And no, I’m not opposed to paying higher taxes in the name of making that happen.
  4. I believe education should be affordable and accessible to everyone. It doesn’t necessarily have to be free (though it works in other countries so I’m mystified as to why it can’t work in the US), but at the end of the day, there is no excuse for students graduating college saddled with five- or six-figure debt.
  5. I don’t believe your money should be taken from you and given to people who don’t want to work. I have literally never encountered anyone who believes this. Ever. I just have a massive moral problem with a society where a handful of people can possess the majority of the wealth while there are people literally starving to death, freezing to death, or dying because they can’t afford to go to the doctor. Fair wages, lower housing costs, universal healthcare, affordable education, and the wealthy actually paying their share would go a long way toward alleviating this. Somehow believing that makes me a communist.
  6. I don’t throw around “I’m willing to pay higher taxes” lightly. If I’m suggesting something that involves paying more, well, it’s because I’m fine with paying my share as long as it’s actually going to something besides lining corporate pockets or bombing other countries while Americans die without healthcare.
  7. I believe companies should be required to pay their employees a decent, livable wage. Somehow this is always interpreted as me wanting burger flippers to be able to afford a penthouse apartment and a Mercedes. What it actually means is that no one should have to work three full-time jobs just to keep their head above water. Restaurant servers should not have to rely on tips, multibillion-dollar companies should not have employees on food stamps, workers shouldn’t have to work themselves into the ground just to barely make ends meet, and minimum wage should be enough for someone to work 40 hours and live.
  8. I am not anti-Christian. I have no desire to stop Christians from being Christians, to close churches, to ban the Bible, to forbid prayer in school, etc. (BTW, prayer in school is NOT illegal; compulsory prayer in school is—and should be—illegal). All I ask is that Christians recognize my right to live according to my beliefs. When I get pissed off that a politician is trying to legislate Scripture into law, I’m not “offended by Christianity”—I’m offended that you’re trying to force me to live by your religion’s rules. You know how you get really upset at the thought of Muslims imposing Sharia law on you? That’s how I feel about Christians trying to impose biblical law on me. Be a Christian. Do your thing. Just don’t force it on me or mine.
  9. I don’t believe LGBT people should have more rights than you. I just believe they should have the same rights as you.
  10. I don’t believe illegal immigrants should come to America and have the world at their feet, especially since THIS ISN’T WHAT THEY DO (spoiler: undocumented immigrants are ineligible for all those programs they’re supposed to be abusing, and if they’re “stealing” your job it’s because your employer is hiring illegally). I’m not opposed to deporting people who are here illegally, but I believe there are far more humane ways to handle undocumented immigration than our current practices (i.e., detaining children, splitting up families, ending DACA, etc).
  11. I don’t believe the government should regulate everything, but since greed is such a driving force in our country, we NEED regulations to prevent cut corners, environmental destruction, tainted food/water, unsafe materials in consumable goods or medical equipment, etc. It’s not that I want the government’s hands in everything—I just don’t trust people trying to make money to ensure that their products/practices/etc. are actually SAFE. Is the government devoid of shadiness? Of course not. But with those regulations in place, consumers have recourse if they’re harmed and companies are liable for medical bills, environmental cleanup, etc. Just kind of seems like common sense when the alternative to government regulation is letting companies bring their bottom line into the equation.
  12. I believe our current administration is fascist. Not because I dislike them or because I can’t get over an election, but because I’ve spent too many years reading and learning about the Third Reich to miss the similarities. Not because any administration I dislike must be Nazis, but because things are actually mirroring authoritarian and fascist regimes of the past.
  13. I believe the systemic racism and misogyny in our society is much worse than many people think, and desperately needs to be addressed. Which means those with privilege—white, straight, male, economic, etc.—need to start listening, even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, so we can start dismantling everything that’s causing people to be marginalized.
  14. I am not interested in coming after your blessed guns, nor is anyone serving in government. What I am interested in is sensible policies, including background checks, that just MIGHT save one person’s, perhaps a toddler’s, life by the hand of someone who should not have a gun. (Got another opinion? Put it on your page, not mine).
  15. I believe in so-called political correctness. I prefer to think it’s social politeness. If I call you Chuck and you say you prefer to be called Charles I’ll call you Charles. It’s the polite thing to do. Not because everyone is a delicate snowflake, but because as Maya Angelou put it, when we know better, we do better. When someone tells you that a term or phrase is more accurate/less hurtful than the one you’re using, you now know better. So why not do better? How does it hurt you to NOT hurt another person?
  16. I believe in funding sustainable energy, including offering education to people currently working in coal or oil so they can change jobs. There are too many sustainable options available for us to continue with coal and oil. Sorry, billionaires. Maybe try investing in something else.
  17. I believe that women should not be treated as a separate class of human. They should be paid the same as men who do the same work, should have the same rights as men and should be free from abuse. Why on earth shouldn’t they be?

I think that about covers it. Bottom line is that I’m a liberal because I think we should take care of each other. That doesn’t mean you should work 80 hours a week so your lazy neighbor can get all your money. It just means I don’t believe there is any scenario in which preventable suffering is an acceptable outcome as long as money is saved.”

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.

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?”

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.

“…Is ‘Sure’ correct?” Joe has patience and tries to correct it. “No, it’s not. My name is Joe.” It blurts out some error beeps. “You’ve already confirmed your first name is Not. Please confirm your last name, ‘Sure.’”

Joe: My…My last name is not Sure.
Kiosk: Thank you, Not Sure.
Joe: No. What I mean is my name is Joe.
Kiosk: Confirmation is complete. Please wait while I tattoo your new identity on your arm.
The machine begins to shake and make noises. Joe says, “Wait a second. Can we start over? Can I cancel this?” He sees a progress bar, labeled “Tattoo In Progress…”


“Can we cancel this and just go back to the beginning? They’re gonna tat—Ow. Could I speak to your supervisor? Ow!” While he’s trying to wrench his arm free, the machine instructs him, “Please hold still for your photograph.” It flashes an unflattering picture of him and the clamp on his arm releases. He removes his arm to see the new tattoo. The screen shows him his identity card.

In exasperation from the whole ordeal he mumbles, “Oh, that’s fuckin’ great.”

This scene is played for the Vaudevillian yuks, but it does illustrate some problems with conversational design. And note that, if you’re interested in this topic, let me make an early shout out to the book Conversational Design by Erika Hall, published earlier this year.


Understanding intent

When it hears Joe say “I’m not sure…” it takes it as a literal answer. It does not recognize that Joe isn’t answering the question. It is one meta-level up. He has a question about the question being asked. Humans are pretty good at recognizing when another human is breaking the usual logic of adjacency pairs and not providing an answer to the question. (This was discussed in Make It So in Chapter 5, “Gestural Interfaces” in relation to Minority Report) Computers have a harder time of it. If this kiosk understood it, it would be know that he’s not answering the question, and resolve what conversational analysis calls “the expansion” before returning to the question. (Disclosure: I work there and know the guy who wrote that.)

Aside: Douglas Hofstadter in his mind-expanding book Godel, Escher, and Bach, writes about the trick question “Have you stopped beating your spouse?” for which neither “yes” nor “no” are good answers, but the only “correct” answers according to the binary frame of the question. In that text he introduces the eastern answer of “mu” (or “wu” in Chinese languages) that means roughly “the answer does not fit the question.” So it can be said that computers have a hard time understanding mu.


Designers of digital assistants have to wrangle with this, but it’s rarely a problem that the individual designer must wrestle with. Language and naming are informal, slippery notions as far as computers are concerned, so it’s understandably a hard problem. It’s entirely possible that someone has chosen “Not Sure” as a name, but it’s highly unlikely. And that’s another problem.

Understanding likelihood

Understanding intent might be a little easier if the computer could recognize that “Not” and “Sure” are unlikely values for a name. (Even in Idiocracy where names tend to be brands like Lexus, and Frito, and Biggiez. More on this later.) If it knew that, it would have a low confidence that it “heard” correctly, and shift into a repair or at least clarification mode. “‘Not’ would be very uncommon name. Let me be extra careful, here…” It could even shift into a more deliberate mode of input, like a keyboard, or asking him to spell his name out (or, you know, cancel the whole thing.)

Catching not

When the kiosk is asking for confirmation, it hears Joe say, “No it’s not correct” and registers the keyword “correct” but misses the function word “not” which completely flips the meaning.

Again, avoiding this speech-to-text error would be a developer’s task, but dealing with the back-and-forth would definitely fall to a designer. When clarifying low-confidence input, users should be able to provide discrete high-confidence feedback.

Joe could, for instance, be shown the kiosk’s (stupid) understanding of his input and—since this has a pretty permanent consequence—wait on his confirmation and providing the simple option to redo it so he can try some other tactic to getting “Joe Bauers” in there until he gets it right.
But, of course, this is Idiocracy, and Joe is stuck with it.

Sorry, Joe.

But we’re not

I mean, Republicans have done all they can to suppress votes that don’t favor them. They don’t care about Democracy or the will of the American people as they do staying in power to serve their 1% overlords. But research shows that people who have a plan to vote are more likely to actually do it, and if we all do it, we can overwhelm them with sheer numbers.
There are lots of tools to help you make a plan, but let’s send some traffic to our friends at Planned Parenthood. They’ve been under a lot of pressure during this administration. Maybe throw them a few sheckles while you’re there. Not for the election, but because you’re a good person. And vote all of them out.


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!”


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.”



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.


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.


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

It’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.

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.”


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!”

Frito, wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt with “ATTORNEY AT LAW” running down the sleeve, sits and looks at a paper on the counsel table, saying “Says here you, uh, robbed a hospital?! Why’d you do that?” Joe says, “But I’m not guilty!” Frito replies, “That’s not what the other lawyer said.”


When the trial officially starts, the judge says, “Shut up. Shut up! Now, prosecutor. Why you think he done it?” The prosecutor stands up and says, “K. Number one, your honor. Just look at him.” Most everyone in the courtroom, including, Frito, laughs at this. Frito stands up and says, “He talks like a fag, too!” When more laughter dies down, the prospector continues, saying, “We’ve got all this, like, evidence, of how, like, this guy didn’t even pay at the hospital and I heard that he doesn’t even have his tattoo.” There are collective gasps. He continues, “I know! And I’m all, ‘You gotta be shitting me.’ But check this out, man, judge should be like, ‘Guilty!’ Peace.” The gallery erupts with applause and cheers. There is one guy wearing a helmet with a camera mounted to the top and he takes it all in dumbly.


When Frito stands to raise an objection, he says, “Your honor, I object…that this guy, also broke my apartment and shit.” There are gasps from the gallery, and Frito feels emboldened. “Yeah! And you know what else, I object that he’s not going to have any money to pay me after he pays back all the money he stole from the hospital!” This last bit is addressed to the gallery. They shout in anger. Frito finishes, saying, “And I object. I OBJECT that he interrupted me while I was watching, OW, MY BALLS! THAT IS NOT OK! I REST MY CASE.”

Joe stands and says, “Your Honor, I’m pretty sure we have a mistrial, here, sir.” Hector looks confused at this statement. Frito gets hostile and says, “I’m going to mistrial my foot up your ass if you don’t shut up!”


Joe ignores him and says, “Please listen!” The prosecuting attorney simply mocks him, “Please listen!” Hector laughs. The lawyers high five each other.

The narrator says, “Joe stated his case, logically and passionately. But his perceived effeminate voice only drew big gales of stupid laughter. Without adequate legal representation, Joe was given a stiff sentence.”

So…this nightmare

For most Americans, the drafting and adjudication of laws feels like something that happens “out there.” But upholding the law is something that, through jury duty or being part of a court case, is something most citizens directly experience some time in their lives. So it may seem like familiar, everyday stuff.

Wait. I know this.

But take that less trodden path to ask why it is the way it is, and you’ll eventually find yourself at the foundations of civilization and in the throes of philosophy. A key premise and promise of civilized society is having a fair and rational place for citizens to air grievances, and institutions that make and enforce just laws. In practice it’s far from perfect, but I’d bet most folks agree it’s better than the alternatives of lawlessness, personal violence, revenge, tribal feuds, and vigilantism.

Laws and courts are institutions that are so old and foundational, it’s hard to remember that:

  • They were, in fact, invented. There was a time before them.
  • There were reasons for the way they were designed.
  • Their design, like all designs, aren’t perfect, and involve some trade offs.
  • They evolve over time.
  • There are alternate designs to consider.

Idiocracy illustrates how important its norms are, and how tragic it can be when those norms are lost, and everyone involved is a fucking idiot. It’s not exactly monster rampage, body horror, or torture porn, but this scene is as scary a thing as you could ask for Halloween.

Violence as a means

Frito threatens violence a lot. So do a lot of the people in Idiocracy. I’m not even sure if they mean it, but they think that threatening or beating or shooting someone into silence is a fine way to disagree. One of the key promises of civilization is to undo that might-makes-right bullshit that kept generations of peasants suffering while an aristocracy lived the high life peeing in hallways, flubbing courtly love, and stuffng birds into each other like meaty nesting-dolls. We’ve moved on.

Have we, though?


It’s funny-terrifying that the case made against Joe is so stupid. There are crass appeals to emotion. Prosecution says that there’s “all this, like, evidence” but does not actually share any, like, evidence. Frito riles the Gallery up with insults “he talks like a fag” and personal grievances that aren’t germane to the case. (Ow My Balls! should not be evidence in, well, anything.)  It’s emotional theater and the audience eats it up, because what they’re there for is hits to the amygdala bong: The emotional highs and lows that you might get from a sports show. People screaming in cheers when their confirmation bias is rewarded, or fury when there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. There’s probably nothing like a Fair Witness left on the planet, and if it weren’t for Joe’s intelligence that gets him out of jail, he would wind up suffering in prison for no reason at all. The lack of skepticism, of applying doubt to all things—especially the things that thrill you emotionally—causes unnecessary suffering. Sure, it’s an unjust universe, but civilization was invented to try and hold a little light against that darkness. The citizenry of Idiocracy are gullible and blithely self-serving to a cruel fault.


The system that pits prosecution against defense and presumes is called “adversarial,” since each counsel will present opposing cases to an impartial judge or jury, who is presumed competent to sort through the competing claims to come to the truth. It’s contrasted with an inquisitorial (or nonadversarial) system where the judges run the line of inquiry. Congressional hearings, for example, are much more of an inquisitorial system. Congresspeople ask the questions, rather than the lawyers.

The adversarial system depends on the impartiality of the judge and jury. If they presume guilt or innocence from the start, why have the trial at all? (This is sometimes called a kangaroo court, where procedure and ethics are ignored, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion.) Only dispassionate, neutral participants can look past their feelers to find a fair and impartial truth. You need people capable of impartial, critical thinking to look past the tricks and their own cognitive biases. That’s out the window in Idiocracy.


Joe is presumed guilty by literally everyone involved. It’s not wholly their fault. Joe is brought in wearing prison fatigues. He is wheeled in a cage. On the surface, he looks guilty. Humans have an availability bias, wherein easily recalled information is believed to be true and representative, and for very stupid people, that can be strictly what they see. And Joe looks guilty. Everyone around me is shouting that he’s guilty. So, the idiot thinks, he must be guilty.

Posers, surface evidence, and meaning

One of the worst things about the scene—and this plays out in the movie generally—is how people’s status is based on stupid, surface markers. For instance: Why do they accept that the judge is smart? Well, he uses fancy, “faggy” words like “commensurate” (It’s a malaprop. He means commence. But the Idiocrats are too stupid to know this.) and “proprietarily.” (I think he means “properly,” but it’s marvelously hard to tell.) Investigating this moves us very quickly into the semiosis treadmill, whereby a sign comes slowly to become the signified, even when it stupidly contradicts the original thing that was signified.

How do courts protect against idiocy?

It doesn’t always. But generally, there are lots of checks against incompetence. Anyone can request a mistrial if it’s shown that counsel, a judge, or a jury is incompetent, prejudiced, or doesn’t follow the rules. Lawyers can be reviewed and disbarred. Remedy for judges varies by state, but judges can be impeached, or undergo judicial review and be removed from their office. Their cases can be overturned by higher courts. (Yes, even that one.)

But notably all these presume that the incompetence is abnormal, and that others are competent to review and judge their competence. When everyone either gets so stupid or so corrupt that they have no interest in checking each other for fairness, the system just collapses.


Can design do anything?

This blog is primarily targeted at people who work in technology and love sci-fi. (Like I do.) A natural question is: Can design do anything to help inoculate courts against Idiocracy? And normally, I try to offer some hopeful answer to these questions, but this one has me stumped. What design interventions could we impose to increase skepticism? Impartiality? Critical thinking? Understanding? Seriously, if you have something, I’d love to hear it, because as of right now, I’ve got nothing.

How’s that for a Halloween scare?

Trick or Treat

Any Trump acolyte who has gleefully shouted “Lock her up! Lock her up!” at one of their farrowing-crate rallies, despite Clinton’s exoneration by the FBI, despite Trump’s own ongoing litany of scandals (including that ongoing issue of security), is guilty of this same kind of mob mentality as these morons in Idiocracy. It is all raw hate without reason. Hits from the tribalism bong. It’s not just that the mob hasn’t heard reason, it’s not interested in reason, only in justification. Only in thinking of political conversations as hobo fights. Did our guy land a hit? Insult? Hur dur, yarp.

lock her up
Yes, you, redhat.

It’s pretty soul crushing. So let’s have some spooky, escapist fun tonight for self-care. But as of tomorrow we’ll have 6 days and we should hit it hard.

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.



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?

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

The ride itself

The entry to The Time Masheen is most assuredly not Disney-esque in design or form. It’s garish, cheap, a visual cross of a 60s-era game show sign and the ride at the strange pop-up carnival that makes you think twice about its safety record. The ride vehicle—with our three, uh, heroes, jammed in it—is classic and old school (think Doom Buggies from Haunted Mansion but…sadder). But these are mere appetizers before the actual experience of the ride in all its majesty: dioramas with breathless voice-over featuring Charlie Chaplin as the leader of the Nazi Party in 1939, and the UN, which “un-nazied the world.” And T-rexes.


It’s played for laughs—how moronic do people need to be in order to believe this stuff?—but in form and content, it’s actually pretty believable. The Carousel of Progress and It’s a Small World, both iconic Disney experiences, first debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair. When we look at the Carousel of Progress from 50 years in the future, it seems almost as dorky and unbelievable as The Time Masheen. These two real-world rides are not conceptual one-offs, either: when you get right down to it, the ride experience of Spaceship Earth at Epcot is remarkably similar: you proceed through multiple scenes, as “history” is dully (Dame Judi Dench can do only so much) dictated to you.

But whose history? Who’s telling this? This issue of voice and narrative control is not unique to theme parks. Museums have a far longer, bigger, and more powerful history in controlling historical narrative than two-bit carney rides or even lovely immersive experiences like the best of the theme parks.

Pictured: Propagandist?

Narrative or Discourse?

It’s only in the recent past that museums to any significant extent have embraced the idea of visitors actually bringing something to the table and participating. Think of the museums of your youth: You and your school group probably dutifully shuffled past rows of taxidermied animals, dioramas, or stultifying art with label copy that told you what to make of it.

Even the best science museums of a few decades ago had interactivity that wasn’t really collaborative—push a button, turn a crank. In most cases, museums were about a one-way transmission of information: They knew the Truth, and your job as visitor was to absorb it, pretty much in the order they dictated. Kind of like listening to an album in the 70s. And just like sitting there and learning that Charlie Chaplin led the Nazi Party in Germany.

Nowadays, more and more museums are actively designing experiences that visitors can participate in and derive meaning from, and also providing avenues for visitors to co-create the experience. They can contribute to art installations, collect data in citizen science experiments, record their own stories, and more – all hail the new museum order. But for a really long time, museums were one-way streets of content delivery and curation, believed by the public to be accurate and true simply because they’re museums. You know. Perfect for communicating systemically biased narratives.

Fake History

The oldest known museum was founded in 530 BCE by Princess Ennigaldi of the Neo-Babylonian empire, complete with object labels and interpretation. The artifacts, their organization, and interpretation reveal the museum as a narrative: A history of the region and the importance of her familial dynasty.

The British Museum used to label this a “trophy” rather than the much more accurate “loot.” Photo: British Museum, London © Michel Wal, 2009

This use of a museum as a means to establish, communicate, or assert power and validity wasn’t a one-time-only thing. Particularly from the 15th to 19th century, a wide swath of rulers established museums based on their private or national collections of loot. Many of these early museums weren’t public—a purposeful display of control and power. Moreover, when you get down to it, the stuff and stories in a museum are a way of saying ‘look how awesome I am/we are, I/we could buy/steal/smuggle/claim all this stuff. Rulership is our right and destiny.’ Inherent in that is an othering, diminishing, and marginalizing of those cultures that stuff was taken from, and the dissemination of a very specific point of view. History is told by the victors, and museums are a key part of that.

We’re not free of it today. Art and history museums around the world are currently wrestling with this legacy, as they confront ‘decolonizing’ not just their collections, but the way they interpret them and whose voices they center. The old label copy on the Benin bronzes (see above) in the British Museum was some of the most jaw-dropping colonialist pablum around, and generations of school children, tourists, and museum members read and nodded and internalized the implication that the British had every right to take what they wanted by force and subjugate the Edo people (there’s a reason ‘that scene’ in Black Panther was a super-thinly-veiled reference to the British Museum.)

Seriously, my biggest problem with this scene BY FAR is that any curator would take a latte on the exhibit floor

Until recently, museums specialized in barely-questioned mythologizing, in creating and perpetuating narratives of the conquerors about the conquered (see: American-flag emblazoned T-rexes defeating the Nazis!) This isn’t the province solely of history and art museums. For entirely too long a delightfully cringe-inducing paean to the glories of pesticides and herbicides and how they transformed their state’s agriculture endured as a 1950s-hued diorama in a major American natural history museum, as an example—corporate money shapes the stories we tell in museums, too, and that has really impacted science museums, visitors, and cultures for the worse.

Not pictured, I guess: the Soviet Union Estemmenosuchus, the United Kingdom Iguanodon, and the China Caudipteryx.

Avoiding Idiocracy

So what’s the point of The Time Masheen, since it really doesn’t work and was full of, you know, lies? Compare it to the story told in Spaceship Earth at Epcot; the moments selected (Chaplin, the U.N.) are elevated to moments of history as powerful and crucial as the invention of papyrus, the printing press, and the computer. At its core, it’s about consolidating power, inventing and reinforcing a narrative that elevates and celebrates the ruling class, in this case, the Idiocracy—even if that narrative was made decades, even centuries, prior and is now just mindlessly being parroted. Other moments in the film point to a desire to maintain the status quo, i.e., the power balance, and narratives like The Time Masheen support that status quo. No one in Idiocracy says ‘wait a minute’ and holds the creators of The Time Masheen, much less the government itself, accountable for this insane, incorrect history which apparently is being cheerfully promulgated. It begs the question—if one pauses to reflect on admittedly one minute in the entire movie—who is responsible for combating this kind of misinformation? What about when the misinformation is in a museum and not a movie?


I get it. When I go to a museum, a movie, a theme park, I (generally speaking) want to have a good time. I do not want to have to drag a soapbox with me. But who’s responsible for correcting bad content? I’d argue that while obviously, the museum bears the bulk of the burden (…it’s their museum after all), we have a responsibility to hold them accountable and also help them. These are places in and of our communities: we are stakeholders. Museum staff, with few exceptions, are stretched thin. They don’t have time, dollars, or people power to redo every shitty exhibit from years and years ago. But many are trying. There’s a shift towards re-centering marginalized voices, ceding authority and examining old narratives when redoing old exhibits or developing new ones. It’s not universal by far, but it is happening. (If you’d like to know more about this, an example of this is happening right now, at MASS Action. See How MASS Action could transform museums like Mia for more info.)

But just as we see media outlets giving oxygen to white supremacists out of some notion of ‘fairness’, for a long while many museums engaged in a sort of ‘everyone is entitled to their own view’. Creationists came in and disparaged exhibits that even mentioned evolution, or offered their own guided tours through natural history museums through an anti-evolution lens (and in fact, they still do this at several museums). Some museum boards are scared to engage with these visitors, leaving their staffs to do the best they can with an angry guest.

Pictured: Historically speaking, NOT Nikki Haley.

Multiply this across numerous hot topics – global warming, vaccination, fracking, alternative energy, civil rights, racism. Pretty much think of every eyeroll-inducing-bad-science-revisionist-history bullshit that your Great-Aunt Patty reposts breathlessly on Facebook and will inevitably raise over gravy at Thanksgiving, there’s a museum somewhere which has tried to do an exhibit on it and caught hell—from extremists on either end, from donors, from board members concerned about blowback. Uncritical eyes don’t just give your favorite history museum shit for reframing the narrative to include authentic voices of African Americans or your science museum grief for daring to assert global climate change is real: they co-created the fake news crisis.

We must stand up. We must hold not just museums, but also news media and popular media accountable when they perpetuate racist, heteronormative, ableist, or sexist narratives. We also have to help them stand up to blowback. When it comes to museums, visit. Visit. Get their visitorship numbers up. Write polite letters when you see something wrong, or ask a floor staffer who you can talk to. Help them fundraise if you can. Find out how you can help them secure better local and state support – yeah, maybe show up at that city council meeting where they’re debating supporting your local museum or send a letter detailing the value you see the museum bringing to your community. If they add in a gender-neutral bathroom, write a letter or email thanking them (yes they track that stuff). Volunteer if you can. Confront museums when they are failing their duties, but also do your part to help combat the creeping tide of idiocracy lapping at our cultural centers.

EDITOR’S INTERJECTION: This is where it becomes expressly an issue for interaction design. We can make it easy for visitors to find and use these feedback channels. We can make it easy for museum staff to understand and discuss the feedback. —Chris

I smell crossover!

Theme Parks

Theme Parks are different in terms of how you engage with them. But when the clamoring gets loud enough and the threat to the bottom line dire, hey guess what! Change can happen! So rather than just instagramming ‘omg so sexist’ something offensive at a theme park, write a letter. Make a blog post. Blah blah parable of a pebble and an avalanche. But the inverse is true: when a theme park or brand does something respectful or inclusive, heap praise on them and vote with your dollar. You want to know why Doc McStuffins persists? Because, in part, Disney moved a half billion dollars of product in the first year of the show. Consumers were and are hungry for an inclusive, representational hero character that’s not blonde and has STEM-related career aspirations: Disney was rewarded handsomely for centering a young African-American girl – and the show now has an interracial lesbian mom couple. (Which of course got protested all to heck, making it that much more important to write into Disney and thank them for their inclusive representation, lest they get browbeaten into a retreat.)

Crisis Time

We are in a crisis where a large swath of our society is absolutely unable to assess sources and validity of content, doesn’t understand basic science or stats, or even that correlation is not causation (and I’m not saying this is just on one side of the political spectrum—far from it). Museums, as they plan for the future, are asking themselves and each other what they can do to improve critical thinking skills, historical understanding, and science literacy. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Many museums kinda failed at that for a damn long time, with their roots in structures of systemic bias and racism, and their fear of confrontation with angry donors and visitors (read: jeopardizing funding and support). Theme parks presented a sanitized and beautiful take on the world, but for whom? (The history of racism and exclusion in theme and amusement parks is long and painful. For a light and happy read, see Victoria Wolcott’s book Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America.) Theme parks aren’t about critical thinking and inspiring guests to engage with science or history, but they are about crafting narratives around heroes, ideal worlds, aspirational goals. And when they aren’t inclusive or perpetuate harmful stereotypes, they’re harmful to society. They lull us into complacency.


When we – the collective we, as voters, media, museum designers, or theme park designers – don’t call out what’s factually incorrect or morally repugnant (see also: Walt Disney World’s rework of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to remove the “Wench Auction,” depicting the literal sale of captured and, in some cases, weeping women as wives) and push back against these narratives of jingoistic power, we’re contributing to our own Idiocracy. Just without the glorious, cheese-tastic Time Masheen.

Bonus Track: Fighting Kansan Idiocracy

I live in KS-03 district, the land of Representative Kevin Yoder. To say he’s gone hard right-wing and aligns himself with 45 is an understatement. Sharice Davids is the Democratic challenger: she’s Native American (Ho-Chunk Nation), a former MMA fighter (no really), a Cornell University-trained lawyer, and an out and proud lesbian. Yup.


So in honor of her epic KS-03 battle, I’d love it if you:

  • Live here, vote for her.
  • Find out how to help disenfranchised voters get to the polls in November. I guarantee you there’s a boots on the ground group where you are working on this. Contact local campaigns and ask who’s organizing; if you have a local NAACP group they may be working on this too. KS-03 is comprised of very wealthy Kansas suburbs and parts of Kansas City, KS- which is 40% minority and way, way less wealthy. Want to know why Kris Kobach has fought so hard to disenfranchise poorer voters and people of color? This district right here is a prime reason. If we succeed in getting out more of the vote in KCK, it’ll hurt Yoder. We see this happening across the country in district after district. Help get voters to the polls.
  • Phone bank for a candidate. In a ‘safe’ district where your candidate doesn’t need your help? Phone bank long distance. Check out MobilizeAmerica to make calls for Sharice.
  • Or hey. Throw some $$ her way.

Chris: I just did. Thank you, Sharice, and thank you, Cynthia.