The Design of Evil

The exports from my keynote at Dark Futures.

Way back in the halcyon days of 2015 I was asked by Phil Martin and Jordan of Speculative Futures SF to make a presentation for one their early meetings. I immediately thought of one of the chapters that I had wanted to write for Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Sci-Fi, but had been cut for space reasons, and that is: How is evil (in sci-fi interfaces) designed? There were some sub-questions in the outline that went something like this.

  • What does evil look like?
  • Are there any recurring patterns we can see?
  • What are those patterns?
  • Why would they be the way they are?
  • What would we do with this information?

I made that presentation. It went well, I must say. Then I forgot about it until Nikolas Badminton of Dark Futures invited me to participate in his first-ever San Francisco edition of that meetup in November of 2019. In hindsight, maybe I should have done a reading from one of my short stories that detail dark (or very, very dark) futures, but instead, I dusted off this 45 minute presentation and cut it down to 15 minutes. That also went well I daresay. But I figure it’s time to put these thoughts into some more formal place for a wider audience. And here we are.

Nah, they’re cool!

Wait…Evil?

That’s a loaded term, I hear you say, because you’re smart, skeptical, loathe bandying about such dehumanizing terms lightly, and relish in nuance. And you’re right. If you were to ask this question outside of the domain of fiction, you’d run up against lots of problems. Most notably that—as Socrates said through Plato in the Meno Dialogues—by the time someone commits something that most people would call “evil,” they have gone through the mental gymnastics to convince themselves that whatever they’re doing is not evil. A handy example menu of such lies-to-self follows.

  • It’s horrible but necessary.
  • They deserve it.
  • The sky god is on my side.
  • It is not my decision.
  • I am helpless to stop myself.
  • The victim is subhuman.
  • It’s not really that bad.
  • I and my tribe are exceptional and not subject to norms of ethics.
  • There is no quid pro quo.

And so, we must conclude, since nobody thinks they’re evil, and most people design for themselves, no one in the real world designs for evil.

Oh well?

But, the good news we are not outside the domain of fiction, we’re soaking in it! And in fiction, there are definitely characters and organizations who are meant to be—and be read by the audience as—evil, as the bad guys. The Empire. The First Order. Zorg! The Alliance! Norsefire! All evil, and all meant to be umabiguously so.

Image result for norsefire
from V for Vendetta.

And while alien biology, costume, set, and prop design all enable creators to signal evil, this blog is about interfaces. So we’ll be looking at eeeevil interfaces.

What we find

Note that in earlier cinema and television, technology was less art directed and less branded than it is today. Even into the 1970s, art direction seemed to be trying to signal the sci-fi-ness of interfaces rather than the character of the organizations that produced them. Kubrick expertly signaled HAL’s psychopathy in 1969’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by the early 1980s more and more films had begun to follow suit not just with evil AI, but with interfaces created and used by evil organizations. Nowadays I’d be surprised to find an interface in sci-if that didn’t signal the character of its user or the source organization.

Evil interfaces, circa Buck Rogers (1939).

Note that some evil interfaces don’t adhere to the pattern. They don’t in and of themselves signal evil, even if someone is using them to commit evil acts. Physical controls, especially, are most often bound by functional and ergonomic considerations rather than style, where digital interfaces are much less so.

Many of the interfaces fall into two patterns. One is the visual appearance. The other is a recurrent shape. More about each follows.

1. High-contrast, high-saturation, bold elements

Evil has little filigree. Elements are high-contrast and bold with sharp edges. The colors are highly saturated, very often against black. The colors vary, but the palette is primarily red-on-black, green-on-black, and blue-on-black.

Mostly red-on-black

The overwhelming majority of evil technologies are blood-red on black. This pattern appears across the technologies of evil, whether screen, costume, sets, or props.

Red-on-black accounts for maybe 3/4 of the examples I gathered.

Sometimes a sickly green

Less than a quarter focus on a sickly or unnatural green.

Occasionally calculating blue

A handful of examples are a cold-and-calculating blue on black.

A note of caution: While evil is most often red-on-black, red does not, in and of itself, denote evil. It is a common color to see for urgency warnings in sci-if. See the tag for big red label examples.

Not evil, just urgent.

2. Also, evil is pointy

Evil also has a lot of acute angles in its interfaces. Spikes, arrows, and spurs appear frequently. In a word, evil is often pointy.

Why would this be?

Where would this pattern of high-saturation, high-constrast, pointy, mostly red-on-black come from?

Now, usually, I try and run numbers, do due diligence to look for counter-evidence, scope checks, and statistical significance. But this post is going to be less research and more reason. I’m interested if anyone else wants to run or share a more academically grounded study.

I can’t imagine that these patterns in sci-fi are arbitrary. While a great number of shows may be camping on tropes that were established in shows that came before them, the tropes would not have survived if they didn’t tap some ground truth. And there are universal ground truths to work with.

My favorite example of this is the takete-maluma effect from phonosemantics, first tested by Wolfgang Köhler in 1929. Given the two images below, and the two names “maluma” and “takete”, 95–98% of people would rather assign the name “takete” to the spiky shape on the left, and “maluma” to the curvy shape on the right. This effect has been tested in 1947 and again in 2001, with slightly different names but similar results, across cultures and continents.

What this tells us is that there are human universals in the interpretation of forms.

I believe these universals come from nature. So if we turn to nature, where do we see this kind of high-contrast, high-saturation patterning? There is a place. To explain it, we have to dip a bit into evolution.

Aposematics: Signaling theory

Evolution, in the absence of heavy reproductive pressures, will experiment with forms, often as a result of sexual selection. If through this experimentation a species develops conspicuousness, and the members are tasty and defenseless, that trait will be devoured right out of the gene pool by predators. So conspicuousness in tasty and defenseless species is generally selected against. Inconspicuousness and camouflage are selected for.

Would not last long outside of a pig disco.

But if the species is unpalatable, like a ladybug, or aggressive, like a wolverine, or with strong defenses, like a wasp, the naïve predator learns quickly that the conspicuous signal is to be avoided. The signal means Don’t Fuck with Me. After a few experiences, the predator will learn to steer clear of the signal. Even if the defense kills the attacker (and the lesson lost to the grave), other attackers may learn in their stead, or evolution will favor creatures with an instinct to avoid the signal.

In short, a conspicuous signal that survives becomes a reinforcing advertisement in its ecosystem. This is called aposematic signaling.

There are many interesting mimicry tactics you should check out (for no other reason that they can explain things like Dolores Umbridge) but for our purposes, it is enough to know that danger has a pattern in nature, and it tends toward, you guessed it, bold, high-contrast, high saturation patterns, including spikes.

Looking at the color palette in nature’s examples, though, we see many saturated colors, including lots of yellows. We don’t see yellow predominant in sci-fi evil interfaces. So why is sci-fi human evil red & black? Here I go out on a limb without even the benefit of an evolutionary theory, but I think it’s simply blood and night.

Not blood, just cherry glazing.

When we see blood on a human outside of menstruation and childbirth, it means some violence or sickness has happened to them. (And childbirth is pretty violent.) So, blood red is often a signal of danger.

And we are a diurnal species, optimized for daylight, and maladapted for night. Darkness is low-information, and with nocturnal predators around, high-risk. Black is another signal for danger.

Image result for nighttime scary
This is fine.

And spikes? Spikes are just physics. Thorns and claws tell us this shape means pointy, puncturing danger.

So I believe the design of evil in sci-fi interfaces (and really, sci-fi shows generally) looks the way it does because of aposematics, because of these patterns that are familiar to us from our experience of the world. We should expect most of evil to embody these same patterns.

What do designers do with this?

So if I’m right, it bears asking, What we do with this? (Recall that the “tag line” for this project is “Stop watching sci-fi. Start using it.”) I think it’s a big start to simply be aware of these patterns. Once you are, you can use it, for products and services whose brand promise includes the anti-social, tough-guy message Don’t Fuck with Me.

Or, conversely, if you are hoping to create an impression of goodness, safety, and nurturance, avoid these patterns. Choose different palettes, roundness, and softness.

What should people not do with this?

As a last note, it’s important not to overgeneralize this. While a lot of evil, like, say, Nazis, utilize aposematic signals directly, some will adopt mimicry patterns to appear safe, welcoming, and friendly. Some evil will wear beige slacks and carry tiki torches. Others will surround themselves with in-group signals, like wrapping themselves in the flag, to make you think they’re a-OK. Still others will hang fuzzy-wuzzy kitty-witty pictures all over their office.

Image result for dolores umbridge
Is there a better example in sci-fi? @me.

Do not be fooled. Evil is as evil does, and signaling in sci-fi is a narrative convenience. Treat the surface of things as a signal to consider, subordinate to a person—or a group’s—actual behavior.

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Gendered AI: An infographic

To date, the #GenderedAI study spans many posts, lots of words and some admittedly deep discussion. If you’re a visual person like me, sometimes you just want to see a picture. So, I made an infographic. It’s way too big for WordPress, so you’ll have to peruse this preview and head over to IMGUR to scroll through the full-size thing in all its nerdy glory. (https://imgur.com/k6wtuop) That site does marvelously with long, tall images.

Anyway this should make it easy to grok the big takeaways from the study and to share on social media so more people can get sensitized to these issues. Also… (more below)

…Please help me get this content in front of creators at SxSW 2020. Head over to their panelpicker and vote up the submission (You can use that link or this one). If accepted, the panel will include awesome sci-fi author and futurist Madeline Ashby and awesome author and podcaster Leila A. McNeill of the Lady Science podcast and of course myself! Thank you!

http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/98525

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.

***

IDIOCRACY-time-masheen01

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?

Idiocracy_time-masheen02

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

Continue reading

A surprisingly empty survey: Strong fascism in screen sci-fi

23 AUG 2108 UPDATE: Owing to commenter Mark Connelly’s smart observations, I’ve upped the total to 2. See below.

Equipped with some definitions for fascism, I turned to movies and TV shows that showcased fascism in some way to see what was there. (Reminder: This project focuses on screen sci-fi for reasons.) It’s not a big list, and I’m sure it’s not exhaustive. But I think it was a good list to start with.

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HYDRA scum with a double-fist salute. Captain America: The First Avenger. (2011)

Building a list of candidates to consider

In the future it would be awesome to be able to describe some criteria and have an AI read sci-fi scripts or watch the shows to provide results. I’m sure it would surprise us. But we’re not there yet. So first I worked from unaided memory, pulling up top-of-mind examples. Then I worked with aided memory, reviewing the shows I already had in the scifiinterfaces survey. Finally I looked for shows I didn’t know about, soliciting friends and colleagues and finally augmenting with web searches for discussions on the topic and pre-made lists. I wound up with 33 candidate movies and television shows. Then I went one by one and compared them to my five aspects of fascism. That resulted in a lot of whittling down. A lot. At the end I wound up with only…2 (!)

Limits of narrative

We have to admit upfront that the stories we see in TV and movies exist in larger, speculative worlds, and we only see the parts that pertain to the story. (Unlike, say, a world book or fan wiki.) Some, like Infinity Chamber, are built around showing us only the tiniest sliver of the world and leave it up to us to figure the rest out. Over the course of a longer-format show, like television, we might even get to see a great deal of its world, but we won’t ever see everything. We see and hear stuff that happens. That means we might see some aspects of fascism and even a great deal of hinting that it’s the real deal, but we can’t be sure. So, for instance, we never see a charismatic leader responsible for the oppressive bureaucracy in Brazil, but it might just be that the story didn’t take us there.

There are even some shows with actual swastika-wearing Nazis or even Hitler in them, but in most of these we don’t see evidence of all the key aspects of real world fascism. It’s more like the show relies on your knowledge that Nazis are bad, mmkay?

So some groups or societies might be fascist, but we never see enough to say for sure. These got a question mark in the spreadsheet, and are tagged “maybe.”

IronSky2_Hilter.png

Actual half-Hitler, half-dinosaur. From the Iron Sky: The Coming Race trailer.

The “almost” stuff

Describing why a show is almost-but-not-quite can be quite instructive, so let’s discuss the “almost”s. All of these examples might still fit “weak fascism” as discussed in the prior post but that’s little better than calling them “bullies,” which isn’t that useful.

Not violent

The Prisoner, the late 1960s serial, had some weird recapture balloons knocking people down, but just wasn’t violent enough to count. Violence was a romanticized ideal for Mussolini, and he suggested routine violence was important for (get this) good health. Nazis of course are almost cartoonishly associated with their horrific, at-scale violence. Violence and a fetishization of the military are key to fascists as a means for both their ultranationalism and for pursuing purity and rebirth. It just can’t be fascism without violence.

theprisoner.png

I am not a free man. The Prisoner (1967)

Other non-examples

  • Similarly, the society in Minority Report seemed authoritarian, but its technologies were carefully depicted as non-violent. Some were psychologically cruel, but bodily, bloodless. So it’s an almost-counts, too.

Not authoritarian

Fascists are collectivist, meaning they believe that the ingroup of pure people are more important than any individual. If pressed, they’d admit a belief that government should have a centralized power with little accountability, as long as it’s doing its questionable things to the right (wrong) people.

Authoritarian governments are very popular in sci-fi, and very often going hand-in-hand with violence. In this survey, nearly every show was authoritarian. The only way a show would disqualify is if we just didn’t see governmental power in action against its citizens.

The story in 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, happened within the context of a space exploration agency. If the individual liberties and pluralism were suffering back on Earth while the Discovery One was on its murderous, mind-expanding mission, we just don’t know about it.

2001-frank.png

HAL kills Frank, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Not ultranationalist

Going back through one of my earliest posts on the blog, I was reminded of the weird authoritarian state that Korben Dallas lives in, evidenced by the police raid of his apartment block. The built-in warrant reader. The beacons and sirens. The yellow circles everywhere for placing your hands while police do their policey business. Surely, I thought, this will be fascist.

thefifthelement-police-026.png

I am a meat popsicle. The Fifth Element (1997)

But we never get the sense over the course of the movie that there is a political party that is super into being American, or fetishizing national symbols, or believing that their country/people is much much better than all the others and therefore not beholden to the same rules. If this was just, say, Walt-Whitman-type of crush on a country, it would be one thing. But when combined with militaristic violence and a charismatic leader using strong government power claiming to purify the nation, you get fascism.

Other non-examples

  • The AI Samaritan in Person of Interest is wholly totalitarian, but we don’t get the sense that the AI is programmed to think America is better than other countries. It’s just focused on absolute control within.
  • The Upper City in Metropolis certainly enjoys their class privilege born of the oppression of the Lower City, but we don’t know at all how they feel about other nations.

Not dictatorial

Mussolini and Hitler held their supporters in a thrall with their public speeches. They sold their narrative. They made people believe they really could achieve some lost state of purity and purge society of its evils. They fomented violence. In turn, their supporters had no problem letting them run roughshod over constraints to their power. There’s a good question as to whether their societies would have turned to fascism if it weren’t for these charismatic, untethered leaders. Then we come to Starship Troopers, often cited as being so gung-go military and ultranationalist that it hurts. But nowhere in the film do we see all that jingoism coming from a political, charismatic leader. And the leader is key to the palingenetic narrative, next.

starshipt_009.jpg

Rasczak’s Roughnecks get chomped, Starship Troopers (1997)

Other non-examples:

  • THX 1138 and Brazil feature states that oppress by bureaucracy. Citizens have no idea what the power structure is that causes their grief.
  • Gattaca, in contrast, oppresses by every parent’s drive to want the best for their children and the resulting high-pressure meritocracy, needing no leader.
  • Children of Men violently oppresses because of global hyperscarcity, rather than dictatorial fervor.

Not palingenetic

That’s a fancy word, isn’t it? It means relating to rebirth or re-creation. I felt certain that when I watched Captain America: The First Avenger, Red Skull would be an open-and-shut case for fascism. But not so. HYDRA is certainly violent, authoritarian, dictatorial, and ultranationalist in their beliefs. But the movie shows that the organization splintered off of the Nazis because Hitler wasn’t ambitious enough. They weren’t there to reclaim a past glory or return their tribe to its former purity or cull a scapegoat.

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Red skull. Captain America: The First Avenger.

The palengenetic narrative is a key element to fascism because it is the mechanism by which the dictator gets the authoritarian power they want and convinces their supporters not just to hand it over, but to throw it over and ask what more can they give. They do so because of a fear of imminent collapse invoked by the dictator, and the promise of a return to abundance/purity by purging the scapegoat in their midst. Evidence won’t support these claims, and that’s why it matters that it comes from a dictator. His authority is because he said it.

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For this reason I’d also categorize the Empire and the First Order from Star Wars as something other than strong fascism. Weak fascism, maybe. They are (thanks, @artlung for pointing out that they are) ultraviolent to the point of planet-o-cide, so full marks there. But chasing rebels is a police action, an attempt to punish them for daring to rebel. It’s not the same as routing undesirables in the midst, or of reclaiming purity and lost greatness. It has no palingenetic narrative.

This political fairy tale is the thing that sets the citizenry against themselves as neighbors turn on neighbors in a wild fury. It’s what justifies the violence. It’s what justifies the dictator overstepping his role’s balanced authority.

Of course purity arguments wind up with a onion skin problem, where after purging one thing, they just find a next thing to purge, which in turn reveals a next thing, etc. etc. But fascists aren’t really long-term thinkers. They’ve bought in to the notion that there are wolves at the door and a promised land just beyond. All Great Leader needs is more guns and your loyalty, and your troubles will be over.

idiocracy02

President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, from Idiocracy (2006).

Other non-examples:

  • The Hunger Games’ eponymous to-the-death contests were doled out as a tool of control, not a purging of a class of undesirables.
  • The Terran Empire from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek never had a golden age to which they hoped to return. They were warlike because they had only ever known war.
  • Idiocracy is violent, dictatorial, authoritarian, and jingoistic (if not full-fledged ultranationalist) but they have a real problem to solve, and Camacho doesn’t invoke past greatness to demand immediate change.

Now we have noted why these examples aren’t strong fascism. That is not to dismiss them. Any one of those components would be bad enough. Totalitarianism just sucks. Oligarchy. Autocracy. Theocracy. There are plenty of other super shitty ideas about government out there, but the focus of these posts is on this one, because…*gestures vaguely at everything.* Well, there is another reason, but I’ll get to that in the last post.

The not-quite-there

So if those were all examples that were missing a component of fascism, the ones in this section have a component or two that are off a bit.

The comedy nazis

It’s a risky proposition to make light of real world horrors, but I get the notion that humiliation of the dictator sends a powerful message to would-be followers. Iron Sky, Kung Fury, and Danger 5, all have Nazis and, the last two have “actual” Hitler antagonists. These gonzo shows derive part of their comedy from breaking the fourth wall and throwing believability to the wind, so any fascism they show is largely just part of a gag meant to humiliate. It would be tricky to analyze and the whole time we’d be second guessing the intent. And sure, they have fascist characters in them, but it’s only because they are historical figures, rather than any attempt on the part of the writers to illustrate fascism. But for completeness, I have now mentioned them.

I just seem to keep coming back to Idiocracy.

The so-close

There are a few societies where with just a tweak of their circumstance they can be thought of as strongly fascist.

  • The Martian Congressional Republic from The Expanse is damned close, except their nationalism (planetism) is derived from a fear of becoming what Earth is rather than something they themselves used to be. So it’s close but there isn’t a scapegoat.
  • Equilibrium and Fahrenheit 451 read as fascist, but the scapegoats are emotions and books, respectively, rather than a class of undesirable people that need rooting out.
  • The underground city of Topeka from A Boy and His Dog only lacks a charismatic leader, having a bored and bureaucratic committee in his place. If they were more charismatic, I’d overlook their being a triumvirate.
  • Zarek’s rebellion from the Battlestar Galactica reboot seemed like it had everything, but ultimately he was on the other side of a wicked problem, not bullshitting a populace to get them to give over control.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (both films) was more totalitarian, oppressive. It is so close, but doesn’t really use a palingenetic narrative to fire citizens up. It ferrets out dissent for absolute control over them: their behavior, their loyalty, and their thoughts.

The not screen, not sci-fi stuff

There are plenty of fascist-forward, awesome shows like V for Vendetta, The Handmaid’s Tale, and that are in different genres that illustrate fascism, but our focus is on sci-fi, so I have to leave these excellent shows out. The same goes for alternate history texts like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I know this begs the question of genre, but I have to leave that for another time.

The strongest Nazi yes

The Dick novel The Man in the High Castle is deliberately ambiguous about the source of the alternate-alternate universe audio recordings, so it is more fully alternate timeline than sci-fi. But the television series is hinting more directly that the Nazis are playing with technologies that have them (and other characters in this universe) dimension-hopping. So the TV show is more squarely sci-fi. (Again, thanks to Mark Connelly for the pointer.)

The-Man-in-the-High-Castle-2.jpg

Now as we see with the comedy nazis, it’s entirely possible to wear the costumes worn by fascism but not embody it or illustrate it fully. But in this case, the show illustrates all the points of strong fascism that I’d identified in the prior post.

  • Violent: Like real world Nazis, Castle Nazis are violent through and through.
  • Authoritarian: Straight-up, strict father, hyper-empowered government as well as squelching of individualism.
  • Ultranationalist: True to form, the Castle Nazis believe their country is exceptional and special and better than the rest. It is part of the source of their tensions with their Japanese allies after they’ve won the war against the Allied forces.
  • Dictatorial: The Führer is still alive at the beginning of the series, and on his death Martin Heusmann takes the dictatorial reins.
  • Palingenetic: True to history, the Nazis are still trying to “cleanse” the Jewish and other undesirables from the population. The Lebensborn program is still underway.

So yeah. Fascist.

Now I don’t want to discount this show, but I do want to contextualize it. It’s entirely possible that the showrunners and writers here are not looking to work through the nature and issues of fascism, but rather being as accurate as possible to the historical and fictional sources they inherited, and in doing so, happened to depict fascism.

There is a difference in sci-fi’s consciously depicting a thing and depicting it as a secondary effect. Take for instance how the Cheronian race in Star Trek, the original series, helped audiences think through race issues. Or how pre-cataclysm Kryptonians illustrate the folly of climate change denialism. Or how Minority Report examined what society will do with strong prediction in AI. I won’t say these kinds of narrative mirrors are better, but they are certainly more instructive than accidental or secondary versions of the same thing. So for my money, in doing this analysis, I’d hoped to see an illustration of strong fascism not wrapped up in historical fascist drag.

Fortunately, there is one.

The strongest non-Nazi yes

So that leaves us, nearest to the center of the bullseye, one show that most shows every aspect of fascism in a sci-fi setting. If you want to look to sci-fi to see this revolting ideology writ there, look to…Star Trek Discovery.

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Star Trek Discovery (2017)

In Season 1, the Klingons who follow Kahless fight to reunite the warring houses and refocus their fury on their lost glory days of fighting the Federation. This B story exhibits strong fascism.

  • Violent: The Klingons are a warrior race, violent as a matter of principle. Their lives are militaristic.
  • Authoritarian: Through their culture of honor, they bow to the will of the leader of their Houses.
  • Ultranationalist: They seek to conquer the galaxy. They look down on other cultures.
  • Dictatorial: First T’Kuvma, then Voq, then Kol, then L’Rell each take control as leader of the Klingons.
  • Palingenetic: In the first season T’Kuvma is explicitly trying to reunite the houses to take back their position against the Federation and regain lost glory. “The Empire’s resurrection” in the above subtitled screen grab.

Only one thing missing: There is no explicit scapegoat that they’re trying to expunge or using as an bullshit excuse to rile up the population. So even this example, that is closest, is still not everything we’d need to match up to the real world.

But wait, you forgot…

If you can think of other examples, be sure and leave them in the comments. I’d love to have a full collection. If you do, be sure to explain, as I have above, how your example fulfills those five points.

So, what have we learned?

That’s the mini-survey of fascism in screen sci-fi. You want a rousing weekend of cinema? Get your hands on these. I’m sure I’m missing some things. I trust you’ll let me know in the comments.

I’ll also note that if you came with me all the way through the almosts, it wound up being a bit of practice via fictional examples in teasing apart the components of fascism, and being able to tell when you’re seeing it first hand. That will also help when somebody is using newspeak to assert that the anti-fascists are the real fascists, here.

antifanewspeak
Yeah yeah pal. Sci-fi fans are not morons. We see through your bullshit.
We don’t just watch sci-fi. We use it.

***

Speaking of which, the paucity of examples leads us to ask WHY is strong fascism so absent from sci-fi? And that’s the next post.

Untold AI: Poster

As of this posting, the Untold AI analysis stands at 11 posts and around 17,000 words. (And there are as yet a few more to come. Probably.) That’s a lot to try and keep in your head. To help you see and reflect on the big picture, I present…a big picture.

click for a larger image

A tour

This data visualization has five main parts. And while I tried to design them to be understandable from the graphic alone, it’s worth giving a little tour anyway.

  1. On the left are two sci-fi columns connected by Sankey-ish lines. The first lists the sci-fi movies and TV shows in the survey. The first ten are those that adhere to the science. Otherwise, they are not in a particular order. The second column shows the list of takeaways. The takeaways are color-coded and ordered for their severity. The type size reflects how many times that takeaway appears in the survey. The topmost takeaways are those that connect to imperatives. The bottommost are those takeaways that do not. The lines inherit the takeaway color, which enables a close inspection of a show’s node to see whether its takeaways are largely positive or negative.
  2. On the right are two manifesto columns connected by Sankey-ish lines. The right column shows the manifestos included in the analysis. The left column lists the imperatives found in the manifestos. The manifestos are in alphabetical order. Their node sizes reflect the number of imperatives they contain. The imperatives are color-coded and clustered according to five supercategories, as shown just below the middle of the poster. The topmost imperatives are those that connect to takeaways. The bottommost are those that do not. The lines inherit the color of the imperative, which enables a close inspection of a manifesto’s node to see to which supercategory of imperatives it suggests. The lines connected to each manifesto are divided into two groups, the topmost being those that are connected and the bottommost those that are not. This enables an additional reading of how much a given manifesto’s suggestions are represented in the survey.
  3. The area between the takeaways and imperatives contains connecting lines, showing the mapping between them. These lines fade from the color of the takeaway to the color of the imperative. This area also labels the three kinds of connections. The first are those connections between takeaways and imperatives. The second are those takeaways unconnected to imperatives, which are the “Pure Fiction” takeaways that aren’t of concern to the manifestos. The last are those imperatives unconnected to takeaways, the collection of 29 Untold AI imperatives that are the answer to the question posed at the top of the poster.
  4. Just below the big Sankey columns are the five supercategories of Untold AI. Each has a title, a broad description, and a pie chart. The pie chart highlights the portion of imperatives in that supercategory that aren’t seen in the survey, and the caption for the pie chart posits a reason why sci-fi plays out the way it does against the AI science.
  5. At the very bottom of the poster are four tidbits of information that fall out of the larger analysis: Thumbnails of the top 10 shows with AI that stick to the science, the number of shows with AI over time, the production country data, and the aggregate tone over time.

You’ve seen all of this in the posts, but seeing it all together like this encourages a different kind of reflection about it.

Interactive, someday?

Note that it is possible but quite hard to trace the threads leading from, say, a movie to its takeaways to its imperatives to its manifesto, unless you are looking at a very high resolution version of it. One solution to that would be to make the visualization interactive, such that rolling over one node in the diagram would fade away all non-connected nodes and graphs in the visualization, and data brush any related bits below.

A second solution is to print the thing out very large so you can trace these threads with your finger. I’m a big enough nerd that I enjoy poring over this thing in print, so for those who are like me, I’ve made it available via redbubble. I’d recommend the 22×33 if you have good eyesight and can handle small print, or the 31×46 max size otherwise.

Enjoy!

https://www.redbubble.com/people/chrisnoessel/works/32638489-untold-ai?p=poster&finish=semi_gloss&size=medium

Maybe if I find funds or somehow more time and programming expertise I can make that interactive version possible myself.

Some new bits

Sharp-eyed readers may note that there are some new nodes in there from the prior posts! These come from late-breaking entries, late-breaking realizations, and my finally including the manifesto I was party to.

  • Sundar Pichai published the Google AI Principles just last month, so I worked it in.
  • I finally worked the Juvet Agenda in as a manifesto. (Repeating disclosure: I was one of its authors.) It was hard work, but I’m glad I did it, because it turns out it’s the most-connected manifesto of the lot. (Go, team!)
  • The Juvet Agenda also made me realize that I needed new, related nodes for both takeaways and imperatives:  AI will enable or require new models of governance. (It had a fair number of movies, too.) See the detailed graph for the movies and how everything connects.

A colophon of sorts

  • The data of course was housed in Google Sheets
  • The original Sankey SVG was produced in Flourish
  • I modified the Flourish SVG, added the rest of the data, and did final layout in Adobe Illustrator
  • The poster’s type is mostly Sentinel, a font from Hoefler & Co., because I think it’s lovely, highly readable, and I liked that Sentinels are also a sci-fi AI.

The Hong Kong Mode (4 of 5)

In the prior three posts, I’ve discussed the goods-and-bads of the Eye of Agamotto in the Tibet mode. (I thought I could squeeze the Hong Kong and the Dark Dimension modes into one post, but turns out this one was just too long. keep reading. You’ll see.) In this post we examine a mode that looks like the Tibet mode, but is actually quite different.

Hong Kong mode

Near the film’s climax, Strange uses the Eye to reverse Kaecilius’ destruction of the Hong Kong Sanctum Sanctorum (and much of the surrounding cityscape). In this scene, Kaecilius leaps at Strange, and Strange “freezes” Kaecilius in midair with the saucer. It’s done more quickly, but similarly to how he “freezes” the apple into a controlled-time mode in Tibet.

HongKong-freeze-12fps.gif

But then we see something different, and it complicates everything. As Strange twists the saucer counterclockwise, the cityscape around him—not just Kaecilius—begins to reverse slowly. (And unlike in Tibet, the saucer keeps spinning clockwise underneath his hand.) Then the rate of reversal accelerates, and even continues in its reversal after Strange drops his gesture and engages in a fight with Kaecilius, who somehow escapes the reversing time stream to join Strange and Mordo in the “observer” time stream.

So in this mode, the saucer is working much more like a shuttle wheel with no snap-back feature.

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Tibet mode: Display for interestingness (2 of 5)

Without a display, the Eye asks Strange to do all the work of exploring the range of values available through it to discover what is of interest. (I am constantly surprised at how many interfaces in the real world repeat this mistake.) We can help by doing a bit of “pre-processing” of the information and provide Strange a key to what he will find, and where, and ways to recover exactly where interesting things happen.

watch.png

The watch from the film, for reasons that will shortly become clear.

To do this, we’ll add a ring outside the saucer that will stay fixed relative to the saucer’s rotation and contain this display. Since we need to call this ring something, and we’re in the domain of time, let’s crib some vocabulary from clocks. The fixed ring of a clock that contains the numbers and minute graduations is called a chapter ring. So we’ll use that for our ring, too.

chapter-rings.png

What chapter ring content would most help Strange? Continue reading

Eye of Agamotto (1 of 5)

This is one of those sci-fi interactions that seems simple when you view it, but then on analysis it turns out to be anything but. So set aside some time, this analysis will be one of the longer ones even broken into four parts.

The Eye of Agamotto is a medallion that (spoiler) contains the emerald Time Infinity Stone, held on by a braided leather strap. It is made of brass, about a hand’s breadth across, in the shape of a stylized eye that is covered by the same mystical sigils seen on the rose window of the New York Sanctum, and the portal door from Kamar-Taj to the same.

Eye-of-Agamoto-glyph.png

World builders may rightly ask why this universe-altering artifact bears a sigil belonging to just one of the Sanctums.

We see the Eye used in three different places in the film, and in each place it works a little differently.

  • The Tibet Mode
  • The Hong Kong Modes
  • The Dark Dimension Mode

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The Fermi Paradox

For its 60th anniversary I hosted a sci-if movie night at the Roxie cinema in San Francisco of the 1951 classic Forbidden Planet. It was delightful to see it on the big screen with the Roxie’s gorgeous projection system and hear that crazy soundtrack through their audio system.

You can practically hear this screen shot, can’t you?

After the show, I broke with my usual tradition of discussing any of the interfaces (after all, I’d already reviewed all of them on the blog years ago, and recently discussed the film in depth with the guys at Decipher Sci-fi) and instead discussed an idea that’s present in the film. In this handful of posts, I’m going to represent that content, but also add some additional content that there just wasn’t time for before we had to leave the cinema to make way for the next show.

Necessary Spoilers: In Forbidden Planet, a platoon travels to Altair IV to figure out why a 19-year old colony of scientists has gone silent. They meet Morbius, the only survivor of the original colony, and his daughter Altaira. They learn that Morbius has discovered the complete knowledge and technological remains of a long-dead, highly advanced civilization called the Krell. Through the Krell’s still-working machines Morbius has greatly enhanced his intelligence, but unwittingly unleashed an invisible “monster from the id” that has violently destroyed everyone but him and his family. Morbius refuses to return to Earth with Captain Adams, and so Adams grounds the mission while his crew uses parts of the ship to construct a communication device to ask for orders. During the downtime, with some truly wince-worthy 1950s slut-shaming courtship, Captain Adams somehow wins the heart of Altaira, who falls for it and defies her father and becomes engaged to the captain. Crushed by the betrayal, Morbius’ control of the monster wanes, and it attacks and defeats him. His world asunder, Morbius decides in his dying moments to scuttle the entire planet, including all traces of the Krell. From a safe observing distance in space, Adams, Altaira, and the surviving crew watch the explosion before heading back to Earth.

The movie presents one answer to a long-standing astronomical question,

“With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and billions of years of time since the start of the universe, even if only a very small fraction of stars produced advanced civilizations, where the hell is everybody? Why does space seem so devoid of life?

This question is commonly known as the Fermi Paradox. It’s not really a paradox in the logical sense, so it works better in discussions to call it the Fermi question.

“The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
–Carl Sagan

In this post I’m going to review a categorical deconstruction of the many hypotheses that seek to answer the question. If you’re already familiar with the topic, feel free to skip this post and check out the next one, in which I look at which of the hypotheses that screen sci-fi likes to talk about. If you’re not familiar with these hypotheses, would like a refresher, or want to check how I did in my explanation, read on.

The question poses is deeply troubling for a tribal species who came into being on a planet just lousy with life. Many people have put forth many theories, but by my reckoning they break down categorically into two broad supergroups five subgroups. But before we talk about those hypotheses, we should take a look at an equation.

Drake’s buzzkill

About eleven years after Fermi asked his question, an astrophysicist named Frank Drake created a probabilistic equation by which we could come up with some answer about how many civilizations we might expect to find out there in the void. Now this isn’t like most equations for which you expect to get a single answer. This equation hopes to get us at least in the ballpark of the right right answer, say to an order of magnitude within the actual one. Just so we can know whether we’re talking about 10, 100, or 1,000 civilizations, etc. Drake’s equation has seven variables which we multiply together to produce an answer.

  1. How often are stars created?
  2. What fraction of these stars have planets?
  3. What fraction of these planets could support life?
  4. What fraction of these planets do support life?
  5. What fraction of these develop symbolic intelligence?
  6. What fraction of these produce detectable signs?
  7. How long do these civilizations last (in a detectable way)?

Since each of these are an estimate, with only statistically insignificant observed data to inform them, the equation ultimately produces a broad range of numbers. With the variables filled in, Drake got a low number of 1,000. At the high end, with the dials of the components each turned up to a scientifically plausible maximum, there can be upwards of 100 million civilizations. More modern estimates put it much higher, with a high estimate of 280 million civilizations out there—right now—that we should be able to detect. Many of which should be much, much older and presumably much more advanced than ours, and spread throughout the universe.

That puts the question into some context by which we can think about it, and begin to understand some of the hypotheses.

image00.png

Life is rare

The first group of hypotheses wrap around components 2–6 of the Drake equation, by asserting that each of these things are prohibitively rare. Even with more and more exoplanets being found all the time, theories go that having all the conditions is too fantastic of a proposition. We are biased to think we’re likely because we exist, but we must consider that our sun is just the right size, our planet is just the right kind of rocky and orbits in just the right zone around our star for favorable temperatures, we have just the right mix of chemicals present back in the day, we have a silent and invisible bodyguard in the solar system called Jupiter, &c &c. If any one of these links in the long chain that led to us was off, we wouldn’t be here. And for that reason, it’s just us.

There is another subcategory of why there are no aliens out there, but first let’s look at the reasons why they might be there, and being silent.

There are aliens out there, they’re just silent

There are a lot of these, but you can think of them as being a result of danger, policy, or logistics.

It’s Dangerous

It’s possible that there exist untold dangers in space, and so it is wise to hide. This could be because a superpredator species patrols the darkness, ensuring its place atop the space food chain by destroying any others it comes into contact with, and so surviving species have learned to hide themselves. Broadcasting our presence on earth is like banging a drum and shouting while walking through a jungle teeming with hungry tigers.

Another of these explanations is that messages themselves might be dangerous. The threat comes from the ideas that are conveyed between the stars, that drive receiving species insane or trick them into self-destruction. Even if there’s no hope of bodily confronting aliens, you can’t even risk their information. So they go quiet.

It’s Policy

It might be that—even if there’s no inherent risk in contact—after thinking about it long and hard, alien civilizations have decided as a whole that they’re not interested in communication with us. It could be an isolationist policy derived from philosophical principles or part of intergalactic agreements. Maybe we’ve already been violating that Treaty of Silence. It would be a terrifically weird first encounter to receive our first verifiable message from alien intelligence, only to have it read, “Hush, you.”

It could be that advanced civilizations agree not to unduly influence or “pollute” primitive ones. Maybe there’s an endangered planets law in effect that keeps aliens at bay from this mudball of monkeys. Or maybe we have some technological or ethical threshold to cross before they’re allowed contact. The threshold could be surpassing the speed of light, picking up the giant phone they left orbiting Jupiter for us, or demonstrating ethical maturity by demonstrating compassion for all living beings instead of you know, slaughtering and subjugating everything in sight for profit, sport, or lunch. I’m lovin’ it.

It could be that we are mistaken about the nature of our reality. Maybe we live in a carefully constructed zoo or farm, and zookeepers/ranchers only let visitors observe our habitat from a distance or under careful concealment, or when some of us are being harvested for the deep fryers. Perhaps some vast distance from the center of our sun is a spherical planetarium display on which an empty universe glows very, very convincingly for us (and behind which the aliens watch). Or maybe we’re wrong about the nature of everything, and we are part of a virtual reality program, only as self-aware as we have been programmed to be.

It’s Logistics

Or maybe it’s not deliberate at all. It’s just the way things work. Perhaps they are all shouting their greetings, but that communication comes as a rare beam that sweeps around its source every million years or so. If we just missed the last passes, we might just need to wait a few million years for the next broadcast. Maybe they’re like space cicadas, and their life cycles have them out of the ground (and detectable) only once every several thousand years.

Or maybe they are happy to answer our greeting, but we’re just impatient, because it will take our messages a very very long time to reach them? In this phone’s still ringing hypothesis, if they’re pretty far away, or think on a much slower time scale, we may need to keep saying hello for thousands or millions of years before they realize it isn’t just a weird blip on the radar.

It could be that we were just unlucky enough to have evolved in Hicksville, far away from the big city lights. As a result our messages dilute too much before it reaches them. Or maybe we’re uninteresting. Sure, they heard us, and we’re just an annoyance, messing with their reception of the latest episode of Game of Space Thrones.

It could be that space is bigger than we think, and the numbers of civilizations are lower than we thought, and the distribution is too great between us. We are seafarers living on very distant islands. One theory complicates the problem even further by saying it’s not just distribution in space but across dimensions, too.

It could be that we’re shouting through a tin can and they’re talking on cell phones. Maybe we just don’t have the right technology yet to detect their messages, and they’re not listening to our primitive electromagnetic waves. Do you spend time at a lake looking for messages in the ripples on the water? I don’t.

It could be (and this is my favorite) they’re just too alien for us to conceive. We expect them to be some variation of life on our planet, but they’re nothing like what our brains can handle. Think of how difficult it would be for ants to conceive of humans, or to understand our efforts at communication. They don’t have the eardrums to receive the signals as we do, or the memories to keep the first part of the sentence in place while we get to the end. If we bothered to figure out their chemical language, the best we could hope is to convey “done/not done,” “Protect the queen!” or some such. Even if we expose ourselves physically to them, if they can conceive of us at all, we would be “threat” or “large mammal” at best, or possibly even “vast, warmish, irregular, hairy landscapes.”  Why would they think to communicate with the landscape? Why would we? We don’t have anything to say with ants, and we evolved on and live on the same planet.

That analogy helps explain another hypothesis. We are a species struggling with our own set of problems like feeding ourselves, caring for our young, avoiding wars, battling our worst natures, wondering about the meaning of life, enjoying life’s pleasures and getting there early enough for good seats at the sci-if movie. Our resources are already tapped out. How much money and effort do we want to spend trying to communicate with ants? It might just be too expensive in resources or effort to either colonize or communicate. They have other things on their minds.

A number of other hypothesis entail the last idea, that they are here, all around us, and they’re just well-hidden, perhaps for one of the other reasons we’ve already discussed.

So that is an overview of the reasons why they might be there but apparently silent from where we float. Let’s return now to the other (and darker) hypothesis about why they may not be out there at all.

Life doesn’t last

This last subcategory concerns the very last component of Drake’s equation, and that is how long civilizations tend to last in the universe, because of external or internal forces.

The universe is a chaotic place. Could it be that random natural disasters of an incalculable scale just occasionally happen? Like lightning that just seems to sort of appear out of nowhere and scar the ground as it leaps up to the skies, maybe events wipe out sections of the universe every billion years or so, and any civilizations that have evolved since then just go poof, caught up like ants unfortunate enough to have built their bed on the hill where the lightning is brewing. Consider that our sun has an estimated life span, and we only have about 5 billion years before it undergoes a transition to become a red giant, ballooning to eventually swallow Mars, Venus, and yes, Earth. To the best of our science, that’s a long way off but coming, and we have no idea how we would survive it.

Or maybe it’s some unfortunate fact about civilizations themselves. What if the sophistication that gives rise to civilization always entails self-destruction? Yes, we have sent Voyager into space, eradicated smallpox, and greatly eased life for some subset of humanity. But we’ve also trashed the planet, dumped millions of tons of plastic into our oceans that have broken down into a toxic slurry gyre that is poisoning our entire food chain. We’ve overfished the oceans and seas to the brink of extinction. We’ve relied on nuclear power that, when it fails, it maims and kills people in horrific ways and renders parts of the earth uninhabitable for millions of years. We continue to deplete limited natural resources for short term gains. We’ve overpopulated the planet to its breaking point, and anthropogenically warmed the atmosphere so that our glaciers are crumbling and weather patterns are swerving between greater and greater extremes. We are constantly at war with each other somewhere. We have poisoned, burned, gassed, and dropped fucking nuclear bombs on people. We’ve very nearly come to global thermonuclear war several times, rendering the surface of the planet a radioactive wasteland, fit only for the likes of insects and invertebrates. Every technology we build gets used for good and bad, and the more powerful those technologies become, the more at risk we put our very existence. Maybe this is some intractable truth for for every civilization in the universe, and not one of them has managed to control the technological genie once it’s out of the bottle.

OK. Whew. That’s it. Take a moment to walk off the existential dread there if you need to.

For purposes of argument, the literature about the we-are-alone hypotheses presume that there is one challenge that is greater than all the rest, and calls this the Great Filter. We’ll use the term as well. If the great filter is behind us, well, lucky us, but that will prove intergalactically lonely and a little depressing. This is it. We’re stuck with us. But hey, buck up little camper, at least we made it. We’re here. We got the chance to do the right thing.

If the great filter is ahead of us, in the form of a natural disaster or self-destruction, it goes from lonely to terrifying. Can we survive? What exactly is the nature of the threat? What do we need to do to prepare ourselves? Will our humanity survive The Thing We Must Do? Where do we put our resources in preparation?

Which brings us, as so many things do, to sci-fi, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

1. You build necessary skepticism.

Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

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