Internet 2021

The opening shot of Johnny Mnemonic is a brightly coloured 3D graphical environment. It looks like an abstract cityscape, with buildings arranged in rectangular grid and various 3D icons or avatars flying around. Text identifies this as the Internet of 2021, now cyberspace.

Internet 2021 display

Strictly speaking this shot is not an interface. It is a visualization from the point of view of a calendar wake up reminder, which flies through cyberspace, then down a cable, to appear on a wall mounted screen in Johnny’s hotel suite. However, we will see later on that this is exactly the same graphical representation used by humans. As the very first scene of the film, it is important in establishing what the Internet looks like in this future world. It’s therefore worth discussing the “look” employed here, even though there isn’t any interaction.

Cyberspace is usually equated with 3D graphics and virtual reality in particular. Yet when you look into what is necessary to implement cyberspace, the graphics really aren’t that important.

MUDs and MOOs: ASCII Cyberspace

People have been building cyberspaces since the 1980s in the form of MUDs and MOOs. At first sight these look like old style games such as Adventure or Zork. To explore a MUD/MOO, you log on remotely using a terminal program. Every command and response is pure text, so typing “go north” might result in “You are in a church.” The difference between MUD/MOOs and Zork is that these are dynamic multiuser virtual worlds, not solitary-player games. Other people share the world with you and move through it, adventuring, building, or just chatting. Everyone has an avatar and every place has an appearance, but expressed in text as if you were reading a book.

guest>>@go #1914
Castle entrance
A cold and dark gatehouse, with moss-covered crumbling walls. A passage gives entry to the forbidding depths of Castle Aargh. You hear a strange bubbling sound and an occasional chuckle.

Obvious exits:
path to Castle Aargh (#1871)
enter to Bridge (#1916)

Most impressive of all, these are virtual worlds with built-in editing capabilities. All the “graphics” are plain text, and all the interactions, rules, and behaviours are programmed in a scripting language. The command line interface allows the equivalent of Emacs or VI to run, so the world and everything in it can be modified in real time by the participants. You don’t even have to restart the program. Here a character creates a new location within a MOO, to the “south” of the existing Town Square:

laranzu>>@dig MyNewHome
laranzu>> @describe here as “A large and spacious cave full of computers”
laranzu>> @dig north to Town Square

The simplicity of the text interfaces leads people to think these are simple systems. They’re not. These cyberspaces have many of the legal complexities found in the real world. Can individuals be excluded from particular places? What can be done about abusive speech? How offensive can your public appearance be? Who is allowed to create new buildings, or modify existing ones? Is attacking an avatar a crime? Many 3D virtual reality system builders never progress that far, stopping when the graphics look good and the program rarely crashes. If you’re interested in cyberspace interface design, a long running textual cyberspace such as LambdaMOO or DragonMUD holds a wealth of experience about how to deal with all these messy human issues.

So why all the graphics?

So it turns out MUDs and MOOs are a rich, sprawling, complex cyberspace in text. Why then, in 1995, did we expect cyberspace to require 3D graphics anyway?

The 1980s saw two dimensional graphical user interfaces become well known with the Macintosh, and by the 1990s they were everywhere. The 1990s also saw high end 3D graphics systems becoming more common, the most prominent being from Silicon Graphics. It was clear that as prices came down personal computers would soon have similar capabilities.

At the time of Johnny Mnemonic, the world wide web had brought the Internet into everyday life. If web browsers with 2D GUIs were superior to the command line interfaces of telnet, FTP, and Gopher, surely a 3D cyberspace would be even better? Predictions of a 3D Internet were common in books such as Virtual Reality by Howard Rheingold and magazines such as Wired at the time. VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup/Modeling Language, was created in 1995 with the expectation that it would become the foundation for cyberspace, just as HTML had been the foundation of the world wide web.

Twenty years later, we know this didn’t happen. The solution to the unthinkable complexity of cyberspace was a return to the command line interface in the form of a Google search box.

Abstract or symbolic interfaces such as text command lines may look more intimidating or complicated than graphical systems. But if the graphical interface isn’t powerful enough to meet their needs, users will take the time to learn how the more complicated system works. And we’ll see later on that the cyberspace of Johnny Mnemonic is not purely graphical and does allow symbolic interaction.

And now after the trailer: Johnny Mnemonic

The “Internet 2021” shot introduces the cyberspace interface and environment that forms the backdrop for the film. (There’s also a lengthy and unhelpful text crawl, but we’ll pass over that.) Now let’s introduce the film using plain words instead.


When discussing the interfaces in a film it helps to know a little about the context in which it was made. I’ll talk more about this at the end, but for now you need to know that Johnny Mnemonic was released in 1995 and is both a cyberpunk and virtual reality film.

Cyberpunk was a subgenre of science fiction which began in the 1980s. Cyberpunk authors were the first to write extensively about personal computing technology, world wide computer networks, and virtual reality. By the end of the 1990s cyberpunk ideas had been absorbed into mainstream science fiction.

At the time of writing, 2016, virtual reality is a hot topic with megabytes devoted online to the prospects and implications of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others. This “VR Boom” is actually the second of these, not something new. The first virtual reality boom took place in the mid 1990s, and Johnny Mnemonic was released in the middle of it. By the end of the 1990s virtual reality, like cyberpunk, had largely faded away.

Everything about the cast and crew

Everything about the tropes

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The plot.

Johnny Mnemonic takes place in 2021. It’s a cyberpunk world, with corporations that are more powerful than governments and employ Yakuza gangsters to do their dirty work. There’s also a serious new disease, Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, with no known cure. The Johnny of the title is a mnemonic courier, someone who physically transports important data from place to place by embedding it in their brain. He needs to do one last job before retiring.

In a Beijing hotel he uploads 320G of “data” from a small group of renegade scientists employed by the Pharmakom medical corporation, to be delivered to Newark, New Jersey. The 320G is significant because it has overloaded Johnny’s capacity, and he will die if the data is not downloaded soon. In what will be a recurring plot element, heavily armed thugs who want to prevent the data being released kill the scientists and attempt to kill Johnny. During the fight, three images, the “Access Code” needed to download the data, are partly lost.

Johnny arrives in Newark, where the same people try to kill him again. He is rescued by the other lead character, Jane, a bodyguard who comes to his aid on the promise of lots of money. On the run from an ever-increasing number of people trying to find and kill them, Johnny and Jane fall in with the LoTeks, resistance fighters who hack into corporate networks and release information that corporations want to keep secret. (The LoTeks themselves are not against technology, but their chosen lifestyle restricts them to using what they can scavenge rather than being lavishly equipped with the latest and greatest.)

Johnny learns in quick succession that Jane has early onset NAS symptoms and that the “data” locked up in his head is a cure for NAS. As a cyberpunk corporation, Pharmakom is naturally keeping it secret just to make more money. Without the full access code, the only hope to extract the data is Jones, a cybernetically enhanced dolphin working with the LoTeks. After a last climactic battle, Johnny with the help of Jones is able to “hack his own brain” and recover the data, the cure is released to the world, and Johnny and Jane can live somewhat more happily (this is cyberpunk) ever after.

Johnny Mnemonic (in this review always referring to the film, not the short story, unless stated otherwise)  is packed with interfaces, of which the most interesting and memorable is an extended cyberspace scene around the middle. Like the gestural interface of Minority Report, it is a wonderfully, almost obsessively, detailed imagining of the near future. The value of these predictions, as with most science fiction, is not whether they were correct or not. Predictions are much more interesting for what they tell us about the hopes, expectations, and dreams at the time they were made. Johnny Mnemonic, made in 1995 and set in 2021, shows us how the Internet and World Wide Web were expected to develop over the next twenty five years. As I write this, there’s five years to go.

Let’s jack in and see how it holds up!

Hotel Remote

The Internet 2021 shot that begins the film ends in a hotel suite, where it wakes up lead character Johnny. This is where we see the first real interface in the film. It’s also where this discussion gets more complicated.

A note on my review strategy

As a 3D graphics enthusiast, I’d be happy just to analyze the cyberspace scenes, but when you write for Sci Fi Interfaces, there is a strict rule that every interface in a film must be subjected to inspection. And there are a lot of interfaces in Johnny Mnemonic. (Curse your exhaustive standards, Chris!)

A purely chronological approach which would spend too much time looking at trees and not enough at the forest. So I’ll be jumping back and forth a bit, starting with the gadgets and interfaces that appear only once, then moving on to the recurring elements, variations on a style or idea that are repeated during the film.


The wakeup call arrives in the hotel room as a voice announcement—a sensible if obvious choice for someone who is asleep—and also as text on a wall screen, giving the date, time, and temperature. The voice is artificial sounding but pleasant rather than grating, letting you know that it’s a computer and not some hotel employee who let himself in. The wall display functions as both a passive television and an interactive computer monitor. Johnny picks up a small remote control to silence the wake up call.


This remote is a small black box like most current-day equivalents, but with a glowing red light at one end. At the time of writing blue lights and indicators are popular for consumer electronics, apparently following the preference set by science fiction films and noted in Make It So. Johnny Mnemonic is an outlier in using red lights, as we’ll see more of these as the film progresses. Here the glow might be some kind of infrared or laser beam that sends a signal, or it might simply indicate the right way to orient the control in the hand for the controls to make sense. Continue reading

The Memory Doubler

In Beijing, Johnny steps into a hotel lift and pulls a small package out his pocket. He unwraps it to reveal the “Pemex MemDoubler”.


Johnny extends the cable from the device and plugs it into the implant in his head. The socket glows red once the connection is made.


Continue reading

Motion Detector

Johnny, with newly upgraded memory, goes straight to the hotel room where he meets the client’s scientists. Before the data upload, he quickly installs a motion detector on the hotel suite door. This is a black box that he carries clipped to his belt. He uses his thumb to activate it as he takes hold and two glowing red status lights appear.


Once placed on the door, there is just one glowing light. We don’t see exactly how Johnny controls the device, but for something this simple just one touch button would be sufficient.


A little later, after the brain upload (discussed in the next post), the motion detector goes off when four heavily armed Yakuza arrive outside the door. The single light starts blinking, and there’s a high pitched beep similar to a smoke alarm, but quieter. Continue reading

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.


It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

Airport Security

After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.


After that there is a security scanner, which is reminiscent of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.


The green light runs over Johnny from top to bottom. Continue reading