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 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.
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.
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.
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
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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.”
Once Dr. Sattler restores power to the park, Arnold needs to reboot the computer systems. To do this, he must switch off the circuits (C1–C3 in the screenshot above), and then switch off-and-on a circuit labeled “Main”.
It’s a good thing Arnold knows what he’s doing, since these switches are only labeled C1-3, and we don’t see any documentation in the camera frame. As he turns off each circuit, different parts of the computer terminals in the Control Room shut down. This implies that different computer banks are tied to the same power circuits as the systems they control.
So, since this is a major interface for the park, let’s make this bit explicit: When designing infrequently-used but mission-critical interfaces, take great care to explain use, using clear affordances and constraints so that mistakes are very, very difficult to make.
It might look like a mistake to have all the little electrical labeling to the sides, since this cover would have to be removed to get the components where this information would be of use. But that’s perfect. A user needing to remove this panel must encounter this reference information to get to those components, and so would know where to find them. This is a brilliant example of the pattern Put the Signal in the Path. Let’s hope there are similar signs on other access panels.
Wait…where are the backups?
These are the central computer terminals that run Jurassic Park, and keep visitors safe from the “attractions.” And there is no backup power.
When Arnold turns off the main circuit breaker, the computers (and servers behind them) turn off immediately. The purpose and effect of the power switch deactivates all the systems in Jurassic Park, without any kind of warning or backup system.
For something as dangerous as deadly deadly dinosaurs—raised from the 65 million-year deep grave of extinction—the system deactivation should at least trigger some kind of warning.
Tornado sirens have backup batteries in case the city power goes out. They are a solid example of a backup system that should exist, at minimum, to warn park-goers to move quickly towards shelter. A better backup system would be a duplicate server system that automatically activates all the fences in the park.
When Arnold cycles the visitor center’s power system, it also trips the breakers for all of the other power systems in the park. Primary safety systems like that should be on their own circuit. It’s ok if the fridges turn off and melt the ice cream (though it may be an inconvenience), but that same event shouldn’t also deactivate the velociraptor pen security. Especially when the ‘raptor pen is right next to the visitor center and is a known, aforementioned, deadly deadly threat.
The most interesting interface in the film belongs to the Ultimate Weapon, because it raises such unusual challenges to interface design.
The Design Challenge
According to the movie, the Ultimate Evil arrives every 5000 years, and this is the only time the weapon needs to be fired. (Its prior firing would be around 2737 B.C.E., and if it was on Earth before then, in prehistory.) Its designers must ensure that it will be usable to users separated by around 250 (human) generations. Given such an expanse of time, how can a designer ensure that any necessary inputs will be available between potential uses? What materials will survive that long to ensure structural and functional viability? What written instructions can survive the vast changes in language and cultural contexts? How can you ensure that spoken instructions or principles will be passed down accurately from generation to generation? Presuming some lossy transmission, what clues can you give in the interface itself as to the intended use?
Fortunately, the Mondoshawan physiology is not a substantial problem. In their suits they are still similarly-sized, bilateral, upright bipeds with a head where sensory organs are clustered at the top, and, emerging from the tops of their torsos, prehensile arms at the end of which are manipulator digits. This solves a great deal of what could be difficult interspecies issues. Imagine, for contrast, trying to design an interface usable by intelligent versions of both butterflies and cephalopods. Not easy. But an interface for two humanoid species: Much less difficult.
How to ensure the interface material lasts?
Certainly, the system must maintain some physical integrity over time. Passing over the creative license of advanced alien technologies, we see that the material for the weapon is quite-long lasting, i.e. stone and in the case of the key, metal. Additionally, the weapon is kept in a temple in the desert, a non-volatile environment suited to preserving such materials.
There are materials for the stones that could last longer and be more resistant to damage, like metal or industrial ceramics, but we do not know anything about the provenance of the weapon, and whether such materials were available.
How to hide the weapon from malefactors?
In the words of Cornelius, an evil person could stand on the platform and activate the weapon to “turn light to dark.” No one wants that to happen. The Mondoshawans hide the weapon in the Egyptian temple, and take pains to carefully conceal the presence of the door to the weapon room and its keyhole. Ordinarily Mondoshawans keep the key to the door of the room which houses the weapon to themselves offworld, but when they take the stones for protection, they leave the key with a member of a sect that worships the weapon, ensuring that the key is passed down through the generations along with the weapon’s instructions.
How to ensure the instructions persist?
Even with durable materials, if the use of the weapon isn’t so completely intuitive as to be automatic, the instructions on how to activate it must endure transmission through time, across the lives of generations of people (and Mondoshawans). In this case, the instruction set is fairly simple; one must have access to “the” five elements for the weapon to work. Four are the familiar classical alchemical elements of earth, air, fire, and water. These are represented in the movie by four patterns of lines. The lines have subtle variations that reflect physical properties of that element. Earth was flat horizontal lines. Water was wavy horizontal lines at the base. Air was wavy horizontal lines at the top. Fire was vertical wavy lines.
The simplicity, replicability, and memetic nature of this part of the instruction set is demonstrated as we see the symbol repeated in a number of places: on the walls of the pyramid, on the sides of the stones, on the pedestals to which each stone fits, on Cornelius’ belt buckle, and as a mark on Leeloo’s skin. Had these symbols been more complex in nature, there would have been more risk that they would have shifted and evolved, like language does, beyond recognition and therefore use as a clue to the weapon’s function.
The walls of the temple.
The instructions are also kept alive through the ages via myth and religious fervor. The characters Cornelius and David belong to a sect devoted to the Ultimate Weapon. This is clever cultural design. Humans have historically demonstrated a desire to worship, and the Mondoshawans have taken advantage of this, providing the Ultimate Weapon a group of people wholly dedicated to its preservation regardless of whether or not their generation is the one to see it fire. The rites, rituals, and artifacts of this religion that act as a backup for the instructions on firing the Ultimate Weapon, as we see when Cornelius tries to explain it all to the President.
Cornelius shows illustrations in a manuscript to the President.
The transmission media of memes and religious fervor are not—as we see in the film—perfect. Language and culture are lossy media. But they do get the characters close enough so that they can figure out the rest on their own.
How to make sure it can be figured out?
The weapon is initialized by placing the sacred stones on the proper pedestals. But which stones go on which pedestal? Fortunately, anyone with a visual or tactile sense can match the right stone to the right pedestal by matching the pattern. Furthermore, since the stones and their fitting are almost triangular, it is easy to tell how they should be seated. See the pilot of Sci-Fi University for more about these affordances and constraints.
The main challenge within this part of the bigger challenge is the spans of time involved. Given 5,000 years between firings, entire cultures, countries, technologies, and languages come and go in that time. How many people alive now are fluent in languages from 5 millennia past? You have to use mechanisms that don’t depend on culture, technology, or language. Physical affordances and constraints are a fine tool for these reasons.
How to let users know they’re on the right track?
When a little bit of the required element is provided to the placed stones, there is immediate feedback as small rectangles open just a bit near the tops. It is this partway state that indicates to the protagonists that, even though they havent completely supplied enough material, they are on the right track. This clue gives them enough of a signal that they continue trying to deduce control of the interface.
What activation materials to use?
The stones require some small amount of each element to be supplied to their topmost surface to become active. For three of the four (earth, air, water), these elements are in abundance here on Earth.
To consider the fourth, fire, takes us to strategic questions about the design.
Why this design?
It’s possible that the design of the weapon is constrained by some unknown cosmogenic power source in the stones. <handwaving>It’s mystical physics that requires that there be 4 stones and 4 pillars and smooches in the center.</handwaving> But it is of course of more use to us to imagine that it wasn’t, but some deliberate design. Which leads me to ask why wasn’t it a single big button? Well, I can see five effects this particular design has.
1. It allows you to disable the weapon
A major part of the plot involves the fact that the stones—keys to operating the machine—have been removed from Earth to keep them safe. This proves to be a major complication and a minor mystery to the protagonists, but is in fact one of main features of the weapon. Much of it is architectural and would be very difficult to move. By adding activation keys, the Mondoshawans ensured that they could disable it if necessary.
2. It tests for environmental stewardship
If three of the activation elements were not available: earth, air, and water, it would raise serious issues about the human caretakers of the planet. Do they stand on a scorched earth? Is their air ruined? Have they let the water of Earth, like what happened on Mars, evaporate into space? Any of these scenarios raise serious doubts about whether life on the planet is worth saving. Or is there to save.
3. It tests for cultural stewardship
Unlike the other elements, fire isn’t as abundant. In pre-cultural Earth, it was an accident of geothermal activity and lightning. To be able to control it to a level that it can be applied to the stone speaks of a fundamental level of cultural and technological advancement. If humans have not kept stewardship of their culture well enough to be able to control fire, it again raises the question of whether they are worth saving.
The key to the weapon room similarly tests for cultural stewardship. It looks like a fragile thing, made of thin perforated metal. Having a reverant group treat it as a holy artifact ensures that it will not get crushed or rusted, and in the process lose access to the room that contains the weapon.
4. It tests for basic intelligence
The affordances and constraints that help the characters position the stones correctly require a level of basic, intelligence as individuals. Can they do pattern matching? Do they understand simple physics? This isn’t the strongest of tests, but I’m pretty had humans devolved to primates by this point or distracted by constant war, they’d have been screwed.
5. It tests for a capacity for love
The “fifth element” (ignoring wu xing and similar actual 5-element philosophies) in this case is love. In the film Korben must overcome his reticence to confess his love for Leeloo. When he does, she realizes that humanity—including its capacity for war—are worth saving, and the weapon fires. Love is a big word of course, so it’s not clear whether familial, friendly, platonic, or even purely sexual love would suffice, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. The designers wanted to make sure that humanity still has some capacity for feeling intense care toward another. If not, why bother saving them?
It’s made a bit dubious because it’s specifically for the love of an “ultimate warrior,” a “perfect being.” Leeloo looks very much like a very fit, pretty example of one of a human, who has shown very human capacities for joy, pain, fear, delight, &c. It’s not that hard of a test for Korben to love her, except, to overcome his own sense of awkwardness and humility and openness to rejection (in front of a small crowd, no less.) If she had looked like a Mangalore it would have been a more difficult—and more telling—test of the capacity for altruistic love, but perhaps that’s not the point.
These five effects seem like pretty good reasons to design the interface to this weapon in this particular way. In total, they test to make sure there’s a humanity there worth saving. And fortunately for humanity in 2263, Korben (and the culture that produced him) prove just enough of a match.
As if that wasn’t enough, bear with me for just two more bits of nerdery about the weapon. These are a bit extraneous to the interface, but derived from study of the interface, and so may be of note to readers.
1. We can’t ignore the fact that the Ultimate Evil plummets toward the Earth in a straight line. A straight line, that is, that puts it directly in the path of the ultimate weapon, which fires a perfectly straight line. And recall that the weapon is on a planet that’s orbiting around a star, and precessing its rotational axis. This is too slim a chance to be coincidence. It stands to reason that this is not, as Cornelius says, a sentient evil bent on ending “all life” (which would just veer a few degrees out of the way to safety), but part of the same system as the weapon, designed to identify and tempt the worst of people, i.e. Zorg, and try and thwart these aspects of humanity that are ultimately tested. If that’s the case, and the Mondoshawans installed the weapon, did they, by extension, install the Ultimate Evil as well? Is this some sort of “invisible fence” meant to keep humanity in check, and destroy it if it ever evolves for the worse?
2. Many of these same issues have been addressed in the real world by the designers of containers of radioactive waste (the danger of which persists between 10,000 and 1,000,000 years) and, more positively, the the Long Now Foundation working on its main project, the Millennium Clock. For those unfamiliar with this project, it is a prospective, large-scale clock that once built, will chime every thousand years. The clock mechanism and function is intended to last for 10,000 years. The Long Now foundation is faced with similar long-term design challenges and have come to some similar conclusions as the designers for the film. The clock will be made of Bronze Age materials and technology, and it will be situated in the desert. The clock will largely be self-maintaining, but the Foundation is also developing a Rosetta Wheel containing many, many examples of existing human language, useful for decoding written instructions. The idea itself has many elements that ensure its persistence as a meme, being simple, distinct, and a powerful embodiment of an important message about the value of long-term thinking. The Long Now Foundation was begun in 01996, the year prior to the release of The Fifth Element. I am a huge fan of the Foundation and its initiatives, and I encourage readers to read further to learn more.
How do you ensure that a complicated weapon can be fired by people hundreds or even thousands of years in the future?
Sci-fi University critically examines interfaces in sci-fi that illustrate core design concepts. In this six-minute pilot episode, Christopher discusses how the Ultimate Weapon Against Evil brilliantly and subtly embodies the design concepts of affordances and constraints.
This is a pilot, to see if folks like the format. So please leave your thoughts in the comments, and if enough folks dig it—and if I run across other interfaces that bear such explication—I’ll do more sometime in the future. If you’d like to view it at a larger size, check it out on YouTube. Happy viewing!
If you haven’t been following it, there’s been some great discussion in the comments about my critique of the Mondoshawan flight interface. Clayton and Phil raised some great points and the discussion necessitates understanding the apparent capabilities of the actuators, i.e. thrusters. So here are some images for reference.
The capabilities may be fairly limited. The only evidence we have that the thrusters move at all are from early in the film. When the ship has to fight the gravity of a planet, they splay out like the ribs of an umbrella. Otherwise, in space we never see them move.
Ship continues in a straight line.
Ship crash lands on a planet.
What’s worse is that the actual maneuverability of the ship seems minimal. When the ship is attacked by Mangalores, it doesn’t even turn to try and evade.
Most of the time interaction designers don’t have the opportunity to redesign actuators, only controls and displays. If we presume that the Mondoshawan thrusters can only splay from the ship’s axis, how would this change the fit of the controls?