Idiocracy: Overview

While reviewing fascism in sci-fi, I was reminded of how much I love Mike Judge’s under-appreciated film Idiocracy. It’s hilarious, smart, and, admittedly, mean sci-fi. Since American politics are heading to some unholy Deep Dream merger of this film and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m refining my broad dictum against sci-fi comedy and diving in.

Release Date: 25 January 2007 (USA)



Private Joe Bauers and jaded sex worker Rita are selected by a military program—for their being very, very average—to be frozen in capsules for a year.


A mistake shuts down the monitoring agency, and they wind up frozen for 500 years instead. Over that time, because dumb people keep having more kids than smart people, the average intelligence of the population drops and drops, so that when Joe and Rita wake from the stasis pods on 03 March 2505, they are the smartest people in the world. By a lot. Society is barely hanging on, lasting as long as it has owing to the designs of some long-dead smart people.

Woozy from his long sleep, Joe wanders into a hospital where the doctor goes into a panic for Joe’s not having an ID tattoo on his wrist. For this crime Joe is arrested, tried in a sham court, tattooed, and has his IQ tested before being bussed to prison. There Joe finally realizes how stupid everyone is when he talks his way to the exit and then just…runs away.

He finds his way back to the apartment of his court-appointed lawyer whose name is Frito. Joe asks if there are any time machines, and Frito says yes, there is one. But he’s hesitant. To motive him, Joe offers a compound interest time travel gambit payout of $80 billion and Frito—who says that he likes money—agrees. They find Rita (who, clearly used to dealing with morons, is faring pretty well) and head for the time machine, but Joe’s tattoo is remotely scanned and Frito’s car is shut down automatically for harboring fugitives. The three of them abandon the car to hike. They enter a truly massive CostCo to find the time machine, but Joe’s tattoo is again scanned and he is again arrested.


This time he’s taken to the White House, where he meets President King Camacho and named Secretary of the Interior for being the smartest man in the world, according to the IQ test he took earlier. In an impassioned speech to the House of Representin’ [sic], Camacho promises them that Joe will solve the problems of failing crops, the plague of dust storms, the failing “ecomony,” acne, and car sickness; and do it all within one week. If he does accomplish it, Camacho promises, Joe will get a presidential pardon for his crimes. If not, he’ll be thrown back in jail.

Joe heads to the countryside with the Cabinet and Frito, where he is reunited with Rita. There he learns that the crops are being fed not with water but with a sports drink called Brawndo, The Thirst Mutilator. (Brawndo’s computers had long ago identified water as a threat to its profit margins, and during the budget crisis of 2330, purchased the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission. This enabled them to say, do, and sell anything they wanted, including requiring all crops be fed with Brawndo.)


Joe recommends they switch from Brawndo to water for the crops, which grosses everyone out because they only associate water with the toilet. Unable to convince them with reason (in my favorite scene they parrot Brawndo advertising slogans as counter evidence, “It’s got what plants crave.” “It’s got electrolytes.”) he tells them he can talk to plants, and that the plants say they want water. This convinces the Cabinet, and the sprinklers are switched over.

This causes Brawndo’s stock price to crash, and the company’s computer “does that auto-layoff thing,” firing everyone at Brawndo and causing 50% unemployment across the country. Outside the White House, a jobless mob demands revenge. Joe is taken to court again and convicted. Joe is sentenced to one night of “rehabilitation,” which is a deadly, monster truck public execution.


As Rehab starts, Rita spots a flower growing outside the White House. She and Frito rush to Rehab to save him. On route, they see sprouts in fields. Camacho saves Joe from Rehabilitation just in time as Rita and Frito broadcast video of the sprouts, exonerating Joe to the world.

Pardoned, Joe and Rita have Frito take them to the time machine, which ends up being just a dumb theme ride in the CostCo. Joe and Rita resign themselves to their new life amongst the morons. They wed, and Joe is elected President of America with Rita as first lady and Frito as Vice President. The movie ends contrasting Rita and Joe’s three kids, “the three smartest kids in the world”, with Frito’s, who are “32 of the dumbest kids ever to walk the earth.”


Bonus tracks

It’s no accident that I’m writing about Idiocracy before the midterm elections in the U.S. The American Experiment seems to be on the verge, and close to some inescapable mistakes. So, at the end of each one of these posts, since this is my country, I’m going to go full USA-centric here and share something that USAmericans can do to vote, help others vote, and reverse our own continued freefall into Idiocracy. I know I have an international readership, but please bear with me.

Today, the bonus track is about registering to vote. If you’ve done it, awesome. Find someone in your life you can convince to register. If you haven’t, you need to. Either way, below is the info you need.

Register-to-vote deadlines

Voting is the most important tool we have, but in every state but North Dakota, to do that you have to be registered ahead of time. (Seriously. Good show, North Dakota.) These deadlines are all in October. You can see your state’s deadline (and for states that allow it, a link to register online) listed alphabetically at the New York Times link below.

You may be wondering it too late for you? Note that while most states have a single deadline for voter registration, many have separate deadlines for registering by mail, online, and in-person. Find the same information from the NYT site sorted by date below. If it is, damn, that sucks, but there is still more you can do. Stay tuned to this blog for more reviews, more bonus tracks, and more calls to action.

Registration by date

  • 07 OCT Alaska, Montana (in person), Rhode Island
  • 08 OCT Mississippi (in person), Washington (by mail and online)
  • 09 OCT Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana (by mail and in person), Michigan, Mississippi (by mail), Nevada (by mail), New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah (by mail)
  • 10 OCT Missouri, Montana (by mail)
  • 12 OCT Idaho, New York (online and in person), North Carolina (by mail), Oklahoma
  • 13 OCT Delaware
  • 15 OCT Virginia
  • 16 OCT District of Columbia, Kansas, Louisiana (online), Maine, Massachusetts (by mail), Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon (note when you renew your driver’s license your are automatically registered to vote), West Virginia
  • 17 OCT Maryland, Massachusetts (online or in person), Nevada (by mail), New York (by mail), South Carolina, Wisconsin (by mail and online)
  • 18 OCT Nevada (online)
  • 19 OCT Nebraska (by mail and online)
  • 22 OCT Alabama, California, Iowa (by mail), South Dakota, Wyoming (by mail)
  • 26 OCT Nebraska (in person)
  • 27 OCT Iowa (in person), New Hampshire (by mail)
  • 29 OCT Colorado, Washington (in person)
  • 30 OCT Connecticut, Utah (online and in person)
  • 03 NOV North Carolina (in person)
  • TUE 06 NOV 2018, ELECTION DAY: Florida (in person), Iowa (in person), Maine (in person), Minnesota (in person), New Hampshire (in person), Vermont, Wisconsin (in person), Wyoming (in person). In California you can show up the day of and cast a provisional ballot.

Sleeping pods


Joe and Rita climb into the pods and situate themselves comfortably. Officer Collins and his assistant approach and insert some necessary intravenous chemicals. We see two canisters, one empty (for waste?) and one filled with the IV fluid. To each side of the subject’s head is a small raised panel with two lights (amber and ruby) and a blue toggle switch. None of these are labeled. The subjects fall into hibernation and the lids close.

Collins and his assistant remove a cable labeled “MASTER” from the interface and close a panel which seals the inputs and outputs. They then close a large steel door, stenciled “TOP SECRET,” to the hibernation chamber.


The external interface panel includes:

  • A red LED display
  • 3 red safety cover toggle switches labeled “SET 1” “SET 2” and “SET 3.”
  • A 5×4 keypad
    • 0-9 numbers
    • Letters A–F
    • Four unlabeled white buttons

500 years later, after the top secret lab is destroyed, the pods become part of the mountains of garbage that just pile up. Sliding down an avalanche of the stuff, the pods wind up in a downtown area. Joe’s crashes through Frito’s window. At this moment the pod decides enough is enough and it wakes him. Clamps around the edge unlock. The panel cover has fallen off somewhere, and the LED display blinks the text, “unfreezing.” Joe drowsily pushes the lids open and gets out.

Its purpose in the narrative

This is a “segue” interface, mostly useful in explaining how Joe and Rita are transported safely 500 years in the future. At its base, all it needs to convey is:

  • Scienciness (lights and interfaces, check)
  • See them pass into sleep (check)
  • See why how they are kept safe (rugged construction details, clamped lid, check)
  • See the machine wake them up (check)

Is it ideal?

The ergonomics are nice. A comfortable enough coffin to sleep in. And it seems…uh…well engineered, seeing as how it winds up lasting 500 times its intended use and takes some pretty massive abuse as it slides down the mountains of garbage and through Frito’s window into his apartment. But that’s where the goodness ends. It looks solid enough to last a long long time. But there are questions.

From Collins’ point of view:

  • Why was it engineered to last 500 years, but you know, fail to have any of its interior lights or toggle switches labeled? Or have something more informative on the toggles than “SET 1”?
  • How on earth did they monitor the health of the participants over time? (Compare Prometheus’ hibernation screens.) Did they just expect it to work perfectly? Not a lot of comfort to the subjects. Did they monitor it remotely? Why didn’t that monitoring screen arouse the suspicions of the foreclosers?
  • How are subjects roused? If the procedure is something that Collins just knows, what if something happens to him? That information should be somewhere on the pod with very clear instructions.
  • How does it gracefully degrade as it runs out of resources (power, water, nutrition, air, water storage or disposal) to keep it’s occupants alive? What if the appointed person doesn’t answer the initial cry for help?

From the hibernators’ point of view:

  • How do the participants indicate their consent to go into hibernation? Can this be used as an involuntary prison?
  • How do they indicate consent to be awakened? (Not an easy problem, but Passengers illustrates why it’s necessary.)
  • What if they wake early? How do they get out or let anyone know to release them?
  • Why does the subject have to push the lid if they’re going to be weak and woozy when they waken? Can’t it be automatic, like the hibernation lids in Aliens?
  • How does the sleeper know it’s safe to get out? Certainly Joe and Rita expected to wake up in the military laboratory. But while we’re putting in the effort to engineer it to last 500 years, maybe we could account for the possibility that it’s somewhere else.
  • Can’t you put me at ease in the disorientating hypnopompic phase? Maybe some soothing graphic on the interior lid? A big red label reading, “DON’T PANIC” with an explanation?
  • Can you provide some information to help orient me, like where I am and when I am? Why does Joe have to infer the date from a magazine cover?

From a person-in-the-future point of view

  • How do the people nearby know that it contains living humans? That might be important for safekeeping, or even to take care in case the hibernators are carrying some disease to which the population has lost resistance.
  • How do we know if they’ve got some medical conditions that will need specialized care? What food they eat? Whether they are dangerous?
  • Can we get a little warning so we can prepare for all this stuff?

Is the interface believable?

Oh yes. Prototypes tend to be minimum viable thing, and usability lags far behind basic utility. Plus, this is military, known to be tough people expecting their people to be tough people without the need for civilian niceties. Plus, Collins didn’t seem too big on “details.” So very believable.


Note that this doesn’t equate to the thing itself being believable. I mean, it was an experiment meant to last only a year. How did it have the life support resources—including power—to run for 500 times the intended duration? What brown fluid has the 273,750,000 calories needed to sustain Luke Wilson’s physique for 500 years? (Maya Rudoph lucks out needing “only” 219,000,000.) How did it keep them alive and prevent long-term bedridden problems, like pressure sores, pneumonia, constipation, contractures, etc. etc.?
See? Comedy is hard to review.

Fight US Idiocracy: Donate to close races

Reminder: Every post in this series includes some U.S.-focused calls to action for readers to help reverse the current free fall into our own Idiocracy. In the last post I provided information about how to register to vote in your state. DO THAT.
If you accidentally missed the deadline (and triple check because many states have some way to register right up to and including election day, which is 06 NOV this year), there are still things you can do. Sadly, one of the most powerful things feels crass: Donate money to close campaigns. Much of this money is spent reaching out to undecided voters via media channels, and that means the more money the more reach.


There are currently 68 highly competitive seats—those considered a toss up between the two parties or leaning slightly toward one. You can look at the close campaigns and donate directly, or you can donate to Act Blue, and let that organization make the call. That’s what I did. Just now. Please join me.

The FloorMaster

As Joe wanders through the (incredibly depressing) lobby of St. God’s Memorial Hospital, it is at once familiar but wrong. One of these wrong things is a floor cleaning robot labeled The FloorMaster. It loudly announces “YOUR FLOOR IS NOW CLEAN!” while bumping over and over into a toe kick under a cabinet. (It also displays this same phrase on a display panel.) The floor immediately below its path is, in fact, spotless, but the surrounding floor is so filthy it is opaque with dirt, as well as littered with syringes and trash lined with unsettling stains.

There are few bananas for scale, but I’m guessing it’s half meter square. It has a yellow top with greed sides and highlights. It has bumpers and some

Narratively awesome

The wonderful thing about this device is it quickly tells us a couple of things at once. First, the FloorMaster is a technology that is, itself, kind of stupid. Today’s Roombas “know” to turn a bit when they bump into a wall. It’s one of the basic ways they avoid this very scenario. So this illustrates that the technology in this world is, itself, kind of stupid. (How society managed to make it this far without imploding or hell, exploding, is a mystery.)

It also shows that the people around the machines are failing to notice and do anything about the robot. They are either too dull to notice or this is just so common that it’s not worth doing anything about.

It also shows how stupid capitalism has become (it’s a running theme of St. God’s and the rest of the movie). It calls itself the floor master, but in no way has it mastered your floors. In no way are your floors clean, despite what the device itself is telling and blinking at you. And CamelCase brand names are so 1990s, much less 2505.


Realistically stupid

So, I wrote this whole book about agents, i.e. technologies that persistently respond to triggers with behaviors that serve people. It’s called Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People. One of my recurring examples in that book and when I speak publicly about that content is the Roomba, so I have a bookload of opinions on how this thing should be designed. I don’t want to simply copy+paste that book here. But know that Chapter 9 is all about handoff and takeback between an agent and a user, and ideally this machine would be smart enough to detect when it is stuck and reach out to the user to help.


I would be remiss not to note that, as with the The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, safety of people around the underfoot robot is important. This is especially true in a hospital setting, where people may be in a fragile state and not as alert as they would ordinarily be. So unless this was programmed to run only when there was no one around, it seems like a stupid thing to have in a hospital. OK, chalk another point up to its narrative virtues.

Fighting US Idiocracy

Speaking of bots, there is a brilliant bot that you can sign up for to help us resist American idiocracy. It’s the resistbot, and you can find it on Facebook messenger, twitter, and telegram. It provides easy ways to find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver messages to them in under 2 minutes. It’s not as influential as an in-person visit or call, but as part of your arsenal, it helps with reminders for action. Join!


St. God’s: Insurance Slot Machine

The other depressing thing besides the FloorMaster that Joe sees as he walks through St. God’s lobby is the insurance slot machines.


He sees a man with a blank expression and a bleeding head wound above his left eye, who stands a bank of slot machines. The backglass of each has diagonal logos advertising BLAKDIX capsules (n.b. the wallpaper advertises BONERAX), telling players they can play while they wait, and that they can WIN FREE MEDICAL CARE. The reel strips don’t show bells or fruit, but rather, pills. The blood from the head wound shines in the lights.

This is the future that the GoP and insurance companies want.

Games and games of chance don’t obey standard usability principles. The point of them is that you don’t know if you’ll get what you want. So a regular analysis won’t do.

Slot machines are fairly standardized, and the only things these particular ones seem to be missing is a paytable. If you don’t know your slot machine lingo, that’s an information table, presented on the backglass, explaining what combinations of symbols pay out and how much. Three z-packs? Congratulations! You don’t have to die of sepsis today! No player should put money in a slot machine without knowing what the payout might be. And these machines don’t have them. In the real world, this wouldn’t fly. But in Idiocracy, it’s perfect. Let me explain. Of course it’s going to get political fast.

The shock of this half-a-second beat comes from the immediate recognition that the man is bleeding, and the half-a-second later realization that he’s standing at a slot machine to try and resolve his problem. Why isn’t he getting care? Why does he accept this? Why would anyone? This is stupid, you think. And you’re right. It’s stupid and inhumane that the richest country in the world would not use some of its wealth to take care of its citizens. Yet 44 million Americans have no insurance and another 38 million have inadequate insurance. That means nearly one-third of Americans are just hoping that they don’t get sick. If they do, they risk either getting that help and going bankrupt, or living in pain, getting worse…maybe dying. Also, you know, their kids.

No one wants to get sick. So in our system, we have the uninsured gambling with their lives.

This isn’t just how it has to be. Thirty-two of the thirty-three developed nations have universal health care, with the United States being the only exception. There’s an idiotic idea that America somehow gets great medical care in exchange for this, but that’s just a self-serving lie. The Commonwealth Fund did an extensive comparison of the healthcare in 11 developed nations, and the U.S. fared the worst. And individually, we pay about twice as much per capita than other developed nations. So our system is the most expensive, AND the worst, AND abandons ⅓ of our citizens to rolls of the healthcare dice. How can it be this way? Who is in favor of this? Healthcare for profit, of course, and that’s a GoP speciality.

We know that Democrats lead the way on healthcare reform. The Affordable Care Act was remarkable for how far it got with Obama facing a historically obstructionist Republican Congress, and the GoP has been trying to undo it since. Insurance companies know that the GoP is their friend. In 2012, the insurance industry donated nearly $55 million to parties and candidates and 68% went to Republicans. They know.

Which brings up back to the slot machines. People who stand at a machine that looks like it might give them healthcare (gosh, it looks like a slot machine. It must pay eventually, right?), without any indication that it actually will, are idiots, and any system that allows this is an Idiocracy.

We have one tool to combat making this image any more of a reality, and it’s a vote.

Fighting Idiocracy

Voter suppression tactics (undertaken in the bad-faith argument against voter fraud) include closing polling places near traditionally Democrat strongholds. What can you do?

Drive them yourself

If you have seats to spare make a broadcast on social media channels. Or offer to people who may face transportation challenges.

Join Find a volunteer driver group

Carpool the Vote seems dedicated to this cause, but is currently not accepting any more sign ups, but it would be worth checking in on the site to see if they open up again. I couldn’t find an alternate system, but if anyone knows it, speak up in the comments.

Share information about discounted and free ride-shares

Lyft is offering 50% off rides to and from polling locations on election day. Unfortunately I can’t find a way to donate to Lyft so they can make it free, so I will note that Uber—though a company with a much worse track record as a corporate citizen than Lyft—has promised free rides. (People have to have the latest version of the app, so also encourage them to update it.) Get that word out to people who can use it. Post on neighborhood Facebook groups, Slack, and NextDoor channels.


Get people to the polls so they exercise their right to vote.

St. God’s: Intake

In their forecasting workshops, the Institute for the Future trains practitioners to sensitize themselves to “signals,” something that may seem banal but on reflection foretells great change or deep meaning. That story about the arctic penguins who accepted a furry remote controlled camera as a chick is one of mine. Still wrestling with its implications. This interface is another.

After Joe walks past the FloorMaster and Insurance Slot Machines, he finally makes it up to the triage desk. It’s labeled CHECK-IN, and the sign devotes a large portion of its space to advertising. He speaks to the employee there, named Biggiez, who blankly listens to him talk about how he’s feeling. As he talks, she looks down at a wide panel of buttons, floating her pointing finger above the unlabeled icons that kind-of describe common ailments.

When Joe says, “I don’t even know where I am,” she finally pushes an icon featuring a stick figure, shrugging, with two question marks floating in the space beside its sad face. In response, it lights up, we hear a ding, and a SMARTSPEEK device on Biggiez’ blouse says, “Please proceed to the diagnostic area on the right…and have a healthy day.” Joe moves on to the diagnosis bay, which I’ll discuss in the next post.


A shout-out to these icons

While I normally stick to the canon of what actually appears in the final edit, these are hilarious, and the designer has published the lot of them online, so feast your sense of humor on the whole smörgåsbord.

Behold them. They are, literally, 9 kinds of funny.

  1. Some are slapstick. Squirting hole in butt cheek. Hole in gut. Ow, my balls.
  2. Some point to the stupidity of the patients. Baby drop. Things-what-damaged-my-head (lightning, knife, nail, gun, bump). All the evisceration.
  3. Some point to the stupidity of the maker of the panel. Options for gender include and are limited to (rather than, say, the much more reasonable 63:
    • I cannot tell. (Alternately: They are feeling gender dysphoria.)
    • They are hermaphroditic/intersexed.
    • They are a female to male transsexual.
  4. Some point to not-hospital problems. Feeling angry.
  5. Some point to not-problems. Thinking of atoms. I recycled.
  6. Some are nigh-impossible. Hello, I am dead by decapitation. Have I drowned? I am in such pain that I have gained a third eye.
  7. Some show how slipshod the QA on this thing was. Two left/right arrows (when there’s nothing), two guns-to-head
  8. Unhelpful nuance. My arm is chopped off. My leg is chopped off. My scalp, arm, and lower leg are chopped off.
  9. Some are inscrutable. An asterisk. A takete (with no baluba). Updown.

That’s graphics carrying quite a bit of comedy load here. Readers interested in behind-the-scenes will like to know they were made by designer Ellen Lampl. (A significant portion of her portfolio is film graphics, so be sure to check it out.) In 2014 she had an interview with Phil Edwards which you can read on, where she tells more about her process.


The set is even funnier because of course how could the breadth of human problems be reduced down to 48? (And these 48.) There are 14,400 codes in IDC-10 alone. What is Biggiez supposed to do if Joe was complaining about being struck by duck? IDC can handle that. (No really.)

But aside from praising the comedy, let me do my due diligence and discuss four (off the top of my head) improvements that could be made if this was a real system. Even for morons.

How about labels?

Yeah. Not a single one of them are labeled, introducing way too much ambiguity. Labels don’t always provide the specificity they need, but not having them on icons practically assures it.

Allow multiple ailments

Another failing of the panel is that is doesn’t appear to handle multiple ailments. In fact, Joe complains about hallucinations (R443), a headache (R51), and aching joints (need some help with that one, but her finger is so close to the knee icon), but she only indicates the one about confusion. You’d hope there was some way for her to touch an icon for every ailment, and then submit them but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe patients just have to keep coming back to check-in to care of each thing, one at a time.

Rank urgency

The purpose of triage is first to rank the urgency of the need medical care. The gal with the baby dropping needs to be seen now, but the gal who just has some questions can wait over there for a while. How would this panel code urgency?


Urgency might be just part of the code (gun to head less than knife buried in head), but that would mean this panel would have to have separate icons for light scratch to the scalp and a gaping free flowing head wound, and they just don’t require the same levels of attention.

The panel seems to have a simple pain scale on the left of [happy | sad | neutral], but since Biggiez doesn’t touch them, it’s not clear that these work like a chorded button or some separate code for someone who comes in complaining about their base emotional state.


A better system would let you identify the problem and pain scale separately, as different facets of the complaint.

Chunk stuff

Just to make sure I’m saying the 101 layout principle: if you really had a panel of flat options, chunking them into groups helps the user understand, recall, and find items.


This points to an opportunity

So of course there are lots of reasons why this is funny as hell, breaking lots of fundamentals for a funny, body-horror kind of joke while Joe figures things out.

But I think the reason this interface has really stuck with me is that it would pass a usability test. As in, Biggiez finds it perfectly easy to use. She can scan the icons, tell them apart, select one with ease. Hell, the SMARTSPEEK even makes sure she can’t mess up telling the patient what to do next. This would get a very high Net Promoter Score. It would do well on any self-reporting satisfaction measure. And it still sucks.


Sure, it would fail an efficacy test, but what if we took on the hubris of rethinking the role of the interface here. To the point, this interface lets Biggiez just stay dumb. (And we have way too much of that in the world as it is.) What if it could make Biggiez smarter?

First draft: What if two nurses listened to the patient’s complaints side-by-side, and their codings were only revealed to each other when they’d both completed them. Then, as the patient went through diagnosis, a fedback loop rewarded the nurse who was most correct. The reward could be money, or rankings amongst peers, or almost anything really? Biggiez would have incentives to not just do the task (or have the task done for her.) She would have incentives to get better and smarter at her job.

This may not be the best actual design proposal, but I’m intrigued by this possibility. What if our interfaces could make everyone who used them smarter? Faster? Stronger? (Musical break.) What if every technology was like this? With technology everywhere, what if technology made us better instead of treated us like petri dishes for colonizing?

I am thinking about it.

Fighting Idiocracy

Another way you can help fight American idiocracy is to sign up to volunteer your time for the last weekend. As The Last Weekend notes, “Study after study shows that the most effective way to get people to vote is by having conversations with them in the four days before Election Day (Saturday, November 3rd – Tuesday, November 6th).” It’s a short commitment for that last big push before the election. Sign up now at


St. God’s: Healthmaster Inferno

After Joe goes through triage, he is directed to the “diagnosis area to the right.” He waits in a short queue, and then enters the diagnosis bay.

The attendant wears a SMARTSPEEK that says, “Your illness is very important to us. Welcome to the Healthmaster Inferno.”

The attendant, DR. JAGGER, holds three small metal probes, and hands each one to him in turn saying, “Uh, this one goes in your mouth. This one goes in your ear. And this one goes up your butt.” (Dark side observation about the St. God’s: Apparently what it takes to become a doctor in Idiocracy is an ability to actually speak to patients and not just let the SMARTSPEEK do all the talking.)

Joe puts one in his mouth and is getting ready to insert the rest, when a quiet beeping causes the attendant to pause and correct himself. “Shit. Hang on a second.” He takes the mouth one back and hands him another one. “This one…No.” He gathers them together, and unable to tell them apart, he shuffles them trying to figure it out, saying “This one. This one goes in your mouth.” Joe reluctantly puts the offered probe into his mouth and continues.

The diagnosis is instant (and almost certainly UNKNOWN). SMARTSPEEK says, “Thank you for waiting. Dr. Lexus will be with you shortly.”


The probes

The probes are rounded, metal cylinders, maybe a decimeter in length. They look like 3.6mm audio plugs with the tips ground off. The interface-slash-body-horror joke is that we in the audience know that you shouldn’t cross-contaminate between those orifices in a single person, much less between multiple people, and the probes look identical. (Not only that, but they aren’t cleaned or used with a sterile disposable sheath, etc.) So Joe’s not sure what he’s about to have to put in his mouth, and DR. JAGGER is too dumb to know or care.


The bay

Modeled on car wash aethetics, the bay is a molded-plastic arch, about 4 meters to a side. The inside has a bunch of janky and unsanitary looking medical probes and tools. Around the entrance of the bay are an array of backlit signs, clockwise from 7 o’ clock:

  • Form one line | Do not push
  • (Two right-facing arrows, one blue, one orange)
  • (A stop sign)
  • (A hepatitis readout, from Hepatitis A to Hepatitis F, which does not exist.)
  • Tumor | E-Coli | Just gas | Tapeworm | Unknown
  • Gout | Lice | Leprosy | Malaria
  • (Three left-facing arrows, orange, blue, and magenta)
  • (The comp created for the movie tells…) Be probe ready | Thank you!

Theoretically, the lights help patients understand what to do and what their diagnosis is. But the instruction panels don’t seem to change, and once the patient is inside the bay, they can no longer see the diagnosis panels. The people in the queue and the lobby, however, can. So not only does it rob the patients of any bodily privacy (as they’re having to ram a probe up their rears), but it also robs them of any privacy about their diagnosis. HIPPA and GDPR are rolling around in their then-500 year old graves.


A better solution would of course focus on hygiene first, offering a disposable sheath for the probes. They should still be sterilized between patients.

Because this is such as visceral reminder, I’m nominating this as the top anti-example of affordances and constraints for new designers.

Better affordances

Second would be changing the design of the probes such that they were easy to distinguish between them. Color, shape, and labeling are initial ideas.

Better constraints

Third would be to constrain the probes so that…

  • The butt probe can’t reach up beyond the butt (maybe tying the cable to the floor? Though that means it’s likely to drop to the ground, which is clearly not sterile in this place, so maybe tying it the wall and having it klaxon loudly if it’s above butt height.)
  • The mouth probe can’t reach below the head (maybe tying the cable to the ceiling)
  • The ear probe should be smaller and ear-shaped rather than some huge eardrum-piercing thing.

And while modesty is clearly not an issue for people of Idiocracy, convention, modesty, and the law require us in our day to make this a LOT more private.

Prevention > remedy

Note that there is an error beep when Joe puts the wrong probe in his butt. Like many errors, by that time it is too late. It makes engineering sense for the machine to complain when there is a problem. It makes people sense to constrain so that errors are not possible, or at the very least, put the alarm where it will dissuade from error.

Also, can we turn the volume up on those quiet beeps to, say, 80 decibels? I think everyone’s interested in more of an alarm than a whisper for this.


A hidden, eviscerating joke

In addition to the base comedy—of treating diagnosis like a carwash, the interaction design of the missing affordances and constraints, and the poop humor of sticking a butt probe in your mouth—there is yet another layer of stupid evident here. Many of the diseases listed on the “proscenium” of the bay are ones that can be caused by, yep, ingesting feces. (Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, tapeworm, E. “boli.”) Enjoy the full, appetizing list on Wikipedia. It’s a whole other layer of funny, and hearkens back to stories of when late-1800s doctors took umbrage at Ignaz Semmelweis’ suggestions that they wash their hands. (*huffgrumble* But we’re gentlemen! *monocle pop*) This is that special kind of stupid when people are the cause of their own problems, and refuse to believe it because they are either proud…or idiots.

But of course, we’re so much wiser today. People are never, say, duped into voting for some sense of tribal identity despite mountains of evidence that they are voting against their community, or even their own self-interest.

Fighting the unsanitary butt plugs of the Idiocracy

“Action by action, day by day, group by group, Indivisibles are remaking our democracy. They make calls. They show up. They speak with their neighbors. They organize. And through that work, they’ve built hundreds of mini-movements in support of their local values. And now, after practice, training, and repetition, they’ve built lasting power on their home turf and a massive, collective political muscle ready to be exercised each and every day in every corner of the country.”


Donate or join the phone bankers at Indivisible to talk people into voting, and perhaps some sanity into Idiocrats. Indivisible’s mission is “to cultivate and lift up a grassroots movement of local groups to defeat the Trump agenda, elect progressive leaders, and realize bold progressive policies.”

St. God’s: Unscannable Panic

During Joe’s consultation with Dr. Lexus, all the clues he has been stumbling past finally begin to sink in. When Dr. Lexus asks him to pay the bill, and—thinking Joe is mentally challenged—instructs him to put his tattoo up to the OmniBro payment system, he realizes that Joe has no barcode on his wrist.


The doctor is absolutely terrified of this. He can barely conceive it. “Why come you don’t have a tattoo?” [sic] “You’re not unscannable, are you‽…You’re unscannable!!” In a panic he reaches out to his treatment panel and smashes the lower-left hand icon, shouting, “UNSCANNABLE!!” This causes a klaxon to sound and red beacon light to blink. Joe realizes he can’t stay and flees.

The panel

Dr. Lexus has a 3×4 mini-panel similar to Biggiez’ intake interface. It gets only a blurry half a second of screen time, but through the annoying power of screengrab, I can see that they’re a subset of the graphics from the intake interface.

Artists’ janky interpretation

Too bad. It was an opportunity for more hilarity, perhaps something similar to Dr. Lexus’ moronic ramblings. Think buttons for Kick Ass, Sound like a Dick, and Fucked Up. (Serious props to Jason Long for pulling these lines off so hilariously.) But let’s instead talk about mashing buttons.

Avoiding accidental activation

We want to ensure that a doctor only presses this high-cost button deliberately, but it still has to be easy to press. The classic CTRL-ALT-DELETE key chord is an example of deliberateness. It was designed to be very difficult to press accidentally. A gas station shut-off emergency shut off is an example of an emergency button that is easy to find and press.

Dr. Lexus’ panic button is the opposite of this: A high-cost button that looks like and sits adjacent to all these other presumably low-cost buttons, and even sits in one of the easiest-to-hit areas, requiring some of the least precision. The risk of accidental activation seems very high. Don’t do this.


On the other hand, it’s possible that the keyboard is aware of Dr. Lexus’ emotional state, either from lots of context cues, or the strength of his mashing, or the fact that he’s touching four buttons at once.

Affective input

Smashing is its own kind of input—it’s different than the deliberate key presses of ordinary use. It means that either the user is in some intense emotional state (angry, panicked, or…a joyful toddler, maybe?) or not actually trying to provide input, just manipulating the interface (say, picking up the keyboard to move it.) These are events which designers can consider and design for. A real world example is the mobile version of Google Maps, shake it and it presumes that you are angry and asks you for feedback.

So it’s possible—if you want to give interfaces in the Idiocracy more credit than is justifiable given the idiocracy—that the panel is detecting the fast, hard, mashing of multiple keys, and registering that as a distress call. Long-time readers may recall Zorg mashing his desktop keypad in a panic as he chokes on a cherry pit in The Fifth Element. Perhaps this interface can sit alongside it as a possible opposite.

Triple your resistance to the Idiocracy (today)

Straight from DSCC: The last FEC deadline before Election Day is in just two days. That means the final decisions are being made right now about where to allocate resources for the last weeks before November’s elections.

It also means that the final ad buys of the midterm elections are being made—and we need to make sure sane candidates have the resources they need to get their message out. Enter the DSCC.


They have a $300,000 goal, and only have until Wednesday at midnight to hit it. If you make a donation, it will be TRIPLE-MATCHED to give candidates what they need to flip the Senate and put some necessary counterbalance to the insanity coming from the executive branch.


The OmniBro is the ubiquitous payment and identification system in Idiocracy. We see it four times in the movie.

Doc office


Dr. Lexus asks Joe to pay for his visit, “…if you could just go ahead and, like, put your tattoo in that shit.” In this case, that shit is a barcode scanner mounted to the back of a desktop register. We don’t get to see it in use, because as described in the prior post, Dr. Lexus freaks out, realizing Joe is unscannable and hitting the panic button.



Another time we see the OmniBro is in the prison. After talking his way past the guard, another guard at a checkout counter has him scan his new tattoo. The guard checks the screen and tells him, “Uh. Yeah, I don’t see you in here. So you’re going to have to…uh…stay in prison.” Joe says, “Could you check again, because I was definitely in prison. OK. I got sat on my face and everything. Maybe check those files back there?” The guard turns, and Joe runs. There’s admittedly a post in there about prison security and release (and America has a lot to improve, especially in its reprehensible prison-for-profit systems), but this post is about the OmniBro.

Carl’s Junior

The third time we see it is at the Carl’s Junior kiosk. (More on the whole system in the next post.) Though the customer appears to have already scanned, it is how anyone ordering food pays for it.


What’s good?

If I had to note the positives of the OmniBro system, it is that it seems easy for even morons to explain, understand, and use. Wrists are more commonly pointed down, so it’s a little more deliberate to have to turn the wrist up to pay. So adding to its ease-of-use is some measure of biology against accidental activation.

Also it’s more sterile than money. (Yeah, money’s dirty.)

And it’s ubiquitous, so a citizen of Idiocracy doesn’t need a credit card totem to know whether or not a vendor accepts their money. There are airlines and even a restaurant that I know of in San Francisco that only accept credit cards, and it’s disgusting. (Yes, yes, I know what the Department of the Treasury says, but I think it’s gross, classist, and corporatist to require your customers first have a relationship with a credit card company before you’ll do business with them.) So I suppose that aspect encourages an easy-to-access marketplace.

So, the good: It’s usable, sterile, and ubiquitous.

What’s questionable?

Where to start? Well, certainly it’s horrible that participation in the economy requires a permanent body modification. I’m not at all religious, but I agree wholeheartedly with the admonishment against any totalitarian “mark of the beast” just to participate in culture, for all the body autonomy and social justice reasons that one should be against it. (Before anyone gets their apophenia into an uproar about biblical meanings, you can relax. Idiocracy’s tattoos are on the wrong hand.)

You might imagine that the mark signals some sort of ingroup membership, but if everyone in Idiocracy has one, there’s no real outgroup.

Still, it raises lots of questions about the choice of a tattoo:

  • Skin stretches and changes as time wears on. Tattoos get sun blurred (and the wrist gets a lot more sun exposure than other areas.) What happens to a citizen when their barcode no longer works? The tattoo machine (a post on this later) looks like it only tattoos in one place, so another visit won’t fix it, and likely would make matters worse. Is there some do-over machine?
  • What about people who don’t have a left wrist? (The machine can only work on left arms.) What about people who get the tattoo but later lose their left arm?
  • Where’s any other factor for multifactor authentication? Cash fails this as well, but if you are robbed of your cash, at least you still have an arm left to try and acquire some more.

What’s awful, though, is the fourth time we see it in the movie.

Rando vending surveillance

When fleeing the police with Freeto and Rita in Frito’s car, Joe accidentally makes the mistake of raising his tattooed wrist above the door frame, where it is scanned through the window by a vending machine he happens to be passing. The scan identifies Joe and the car he’s in, and something sends a shutdown signal to Frito’s car. (More on the car interface a later post.)

Ease-to-consume is concomitant with ease-to-surveil. Sure, the citizen doesn’t have to carry cash, do rudimentary math, or remember their bank balance, but in exchange they leave themselves open to constant tracking and identification. In the movie this just means it’s easy to find Joe. They’re comparatively dumb enough to make his escape the stuff of comedy.

But in our world, where the forces that market you away from your money are vastly more funded, equipped, and dedicated to their task than you, this tradeoff winds up putting Americans in a terrible debt load that may be *gasp* worse than Italy’s by 2023. (Sorry, dear Italian friends.) Combine this debt load with the health gamble and 40-year stagnant wages, and it seems like the tradeoff only an idiot would take. But hey, it’s easy to wave your phone for a fix at Starbucks, so what am I going on about, right?

Fight the Idiocracy

The Bloomberg article about American debt load includes this tasty paragraph, “While Trump and congressional Republicans raised alarms about the debt and deficit when Democrat Barack Obama was president, spending hasn’t abated with the GOP in control of the White House and Congress.

Where the GOP used to tout themselves as the party of fiscal conservatism, it’s now clearer than ever that they’re just hypocrite oligarchs; spending wildly, giving free tax passes to their insanely wealthy friends, hoping a hundred dollars a month is enough to convince you to look the other way, all the while planning to gut your “entitlement” programs like social security, medicare, and medicaid. It’s insanity. They have to be voted way, way out if we have any hope of saving our economic well being.

Sold out womp womp

I wanted with this post to convince you to give out Cards Against Humanity’s Vote Worms, but they’re already sold out. So instead I’ll point you to their smart Hacks the Election campaign, which did not do as well on launch, but would definitely have more effect if it sold out. If you are in or know someone in one of the following swing districts, definitely check this out.

  1. California 25th district: Help elect Katie Hill
  2. Iowa 1st district: Help elect Abby Finkenauer
  3. Illinois 26th district: Help elect Sean Casten
  4. Illinois 14th district: Help elect Lauren Underwood
  5. Kansas 4th district: Help elect James Thompson
  6. Texas 26th district (what is it about 26th districts?): Help elect Linsey Fagan

Carl’s Junior

In addition to its registers, OmniBro also makes fast-food vending machines. The one we see in the film is free-standing kiosk with five main panels, one for each of the angry star’s severed arms. A nice touch that flies by in the edit is that the roof of the kiosk is a giant star, but one of the arms has broken and fallen onto a car. Its owners have clearly just abandoned it, and things have been like this long enough for the car to rust.


A description

Each panel in the kiosk has:

  • A small screen and two speakers just above eye level
  • Two protruding, horizontal slots of unknown purpose
  • A metallic nozzle
  • A red laser barcode scanner
  • A 3×4 panel of icons (similar in style to what’s seen in the St. God’s interfaces) in the lower left. Sadly we don’t see these buttons in use.

But for the sake of completeness, the icons are, in western reading order:

  • No money, do not enter symbol, question
  • Taco, plus, fries
  • Burger, pizza, sundae
  • Asterisk, up-down, eye

The bottom has an illuminated dispenser port.


In use

Joe approaches the kiosk and, hungry, watches to figure out how people get food. He hears a transaction in progress, with the kiosk telling the customer, “Enjoy your EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES.” She complains, saying, “You didn’t give me no fries. I got an empty box.”

She reaches inside the food port to see if it just got stuck, and tinto the take-out port and fishes inside to see if it just got stuck. The kiosk asks her, “Would you like another EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES?” She replies loudly into the speaker, “I said I didn’t get any.” The kiosk ignores her and continues, “Your account has been charged. Your balance is zero. Please come back when you afford to make a purchase.” The screen shows her balance as a big dollar sign with a crossout circle over it.

Frustrated, she bangs the panel, and a warning screen pops up, reading, “WARNING: Carl’s Junior frowns upon vandalism.”

She hits it again, saying, “Come on! My kids’re starving!” (Way to take it super dark, there, Judge.) Another screen reads, “Please step back.”


A mist sprays from the panel into her face as the voice says, “This should help you calm down. Please come back when you can afford to make a purchase! Your kids are starving. Carl’s Junior believes no child should go hungry. You are an unfit mother. Your children will be placed in the custody of Carl’s Junior.”

She stumbles away, and the kiosk wraps up the whole interaction with the tagline, “Carl’s Junior: Fuck you. I’m eating!” (This treatment of brands, it should be noted, is why the film never got broad release. See the New York Times article, or, if you can’t get past the paywall, the Mental Floss listicle, number seven.)

Joe approaches the kiosk and sticks a hand up the port. The kiosk recognizes the newcomer and says, “Welcome to Carl’s Junior. Would you like to try our EXTRA BIG ASS TACO, now with more MOLECULES?” Then the cops arrive to arrest the mom.


Now, I don’t think Judge is saying that automation is stupid. (There are few automated technologies in the film that work just fine.) I think he’s noting that poorly designed—and inhumanely designed—systems are stupid. It’s a reminder for all of us to consider the use cases where things go awry, and design for graceful degradation. (Noting the horrible pun so implied.) If we don’t, people can lose money. People can go hungry. The design matters.

Spoiler alert: If you’re worried about the mom, the police arrive in the next beat and arrest him , so at least she’s not arrested.

I have questions

The interface inputs raise a lot of questions that are just unanswerable. Are there only four things on the menu? Why are they distributed amongst other categories of icons? Is “plus” the only customization? Does that mean another of the same thing I just ordered, or a larger size? What have I ordered already? How much is my current total? Do I have enough to pay for what I have ordered? There all sorts of purchase path best practice standards being violated or unaddressed by the scene. Of course. It’s not a demo. A lot of sci-fi scenes involve technology breaking down.

Graceful degradation

Just to make sure I’m covering the bases, here, let me note what I hope is obvious. No automation system/narrow AI is perfect. Designers and product owners must presume that there will be times when the system fails—and the system itself does not know about it. The kiosk thinks it has delivered EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES, but it’s wrong. It’s delivered an empty box. It still charged her, so it’s robbed her.

We should always be testing, finding, and repairing these failure points in the things we help make. But we should also design an easy recourse for when the automation fails and doesn’t know. This could be a human attendant (or even a button that connects to a remote human operator who could check the video feed) to see that the woman is telling the truth, mark that panel as broken and use overrides to get her EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES from one of the functioning panels or refund her money to, I guess, go get a tub of Flaturin instead? (The terrible nutrition of Idiocracy is yet another layer for some speculative scifinutrition blog to critique.)


Again, privacy. Again, respectfulness.

The financial circumstances of a customer are not the business of any other customer. The announcement and unmistakable graphic could be an embarrassment. Adding the disingenuous 🙁 emoji when it was the damned machine’s fault only adds insult to injury. We have to make sure and not get cute when users are faced with genuine problems.

Benefit of the doubt

Anther layer of the stupid here is that OmniBro has the sensors to detect frustrated customers. (Maybe it’s a motion sensor in the panel or dispense port. Possibly emotion detectors in the voice input.) But what it does with that information is revolting. Instead of presuming that the machine has made some irritating mistake, it presumes a hostile customer, and not only gasses her into a stupor while it calls the cops, it is somehow granted the authority to take her children as indentured servants for the problems it helped cause. If you have a reasonable customer base, it’s better for the customer experience, for the brand, and the society in which it operates to give the customers the benefit of the doubt rather than the presumption of guilt.

Prevention > remedy

Another failure of the kiosk is that it discovers that she has no money only after it believes it has dispensed EXTRA BIG ASS FRIES. As we see elsewhere in the film, the OmniBro scanners work accurately at a huge distance even while the user is moving along at car speeds. It should be able to read customers in advance to know that they have no ability to pay for food. It should prevent problems rather than try (and, as it does here, fail) to remedy them. At the most self-serving level, this helps avoid the potential loss or theft of food.

At a collective level, a humane society would still find some way to not let her starve. Maybe it could automatically deduct from a basic income. Maybe it could provide information on where a free meal is available. Maybe it could just give her the food and assign a caseworker to help her out. But the citizens of Idiocracy abide a system where, instead, children can be taken away from their mothers and turned into indentured servants because of a kiosk error. It’s one thing for the corporations and politicians to be idiots. It’s another for all the citizens to be complicit in that, too.


Fighting American Idiocracy

Since we’re on the topic of separating families: Since the fascist, racist “zero-tolerance” policy was enacted as a desperate attempt to do something in light of his failed and ridiculous border wall promise, around 3000 kids were horrifically and forcibly separated from their families. Most have been reunited, but as of August there were at least 500 children still detained, despite the efforts of many dedicated resisters. The 500 include, according to the WaPo article linked below, 22 kids under 5. I can’t imagine the permanent emotional trauma it would be for them to be ripped from their families. The Trump administration chose to pursue scapegoating to rile a desperate, racist base. The government had no reunification system. The Trump administration ignored Judge Sabraw’s court-ordered deadline to reunite these families. The GOP largely backed him on this. They are monsters. Vote them out. Early voting is open in many states. Do it now so you don’t miss your chance.


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.