The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the attendants to the patient. Forewarning: This is the role we have the least information about. These Thanatorium personnel are there to assist the patient in their suicide, and deal with the body after the ceremony is complete.
The attendants have many goals and tasks to accomplish with each patient:
Help set the patient at ease so they complete the ceremony
Welcome the patient warmly
Assist them with tasks
Help them disrobe
Get them onto the gurney
Provide the hemlock
Set the patient in place for the cinerama experience
Press the gray buttons (which I interpret as ensuring medical monitoring, see below)
Set a liminal mood
Remove the clothes for donating and cup for cleaning
Leave the patient during the cinerama
Return to the body when the patient has passed
Usher the gurney through the portal
Nearly all of this is manual, with no speculative interfaces to speak of. A service design approach would look at this entire touchpoint, though. So, some quick notes.
Note their uniforms. Rather than the Guayabera shirt that the usher wears, the attendants wear vestments—white robes with goldenrod cuffs and cinctures around their waists. They even wear sandals to convey a sort of biblical, old-world holiness. It’s goofy and cheap, and kind of perfect.
Their manner is solemn, never speaking and performing their tasks with a sort of dance-like deliberateness. The behavior helps set off the space as liminal, somewhere not-quite like the world outside. No notes on the frontstage choreography.
The lighting begins a little flat, like overhead fluorescents in a school cafeteria. Maybe this is to give the patient a sense of certainty, of complete information about the room; but for my money the whole thing would seem more liminal with more dramatic lighting: A warm pool of light around the bed, maybe tiny amber incandescent bulbs flickering in a ring around the walls, like candles or stars.
There are some things we don’t get to see about the ceremony, like where the hemlock is stored and how it is presented to Sol, or how he gets up on a bed that’s above his waist, or what they do with his clothes. Or even—and this bit really bugs me—how the light changes from white to Sol’s requested orange at that moment. It’s not the usher, who is in the foyer about to intercept Thorn, and not the attendants, whose attention is on Sol. Maybe it’s on a timer, but that makes little sense. I really have to chalk it up to another movie-making error. Anyway, we’ll get to all this in the patient’s experience post, next.
For now let’s note that after the patient drinks the hemlock and they ease him back, we finally get to the one interface.
The ominous, inscrutable gray buttons…
Before departing the chamber, one of the attendants reaches down to a small metallic panel at the head of the bed. It consists of two square pushbuttons on the right, and a dial (or a plunger?) on the left.
The attendant presses and holds both of the buttons simultaneously for about three seconds. In the movie this attendant then gives the other a knowing glance, and they depart.
What the hell is this interface meant to be?
It’s quite unclear what state change this interface is meant to make, or why it needs to be a two-handed switch, when these sorts of things are mostly used for safety. My best guess is that since the drinking of the hemlock is the point of no return, and since the observation window is closed during that sequence so grief-stricken beneficiaries can’t interrupt; the two-handed switch is the silent signal from the attendants to the usher that everything is cool and they can open the observation window for final farewells. That’s low-confidence backworlding, though, since in the movie we know the usher is not present in the observation chamber at this time, but in the foyer of the thanatorium about to intercept Thorn. So, take this with a grain of salt.
But, if that’s the usual purpose, why have one panel with the two buttons? It’s a bit silly because they are close enough to be mashed by a single palm or even hip. It would make more sense if each attendant had their own button on each side of the bed, which they had to hold down. Have each button illuminate small green bulbs, and then jump-cut to the usher’s interface where two identical green bulbs labeled READY both illuminate. Then the usher can open the window and the beneficiary interface can switch to SPEAKING PERMITTED. This would make that weird interface moment make at least some sense.
Oh, and the dial? I have no idea. It’s unlabeled. Could be to control the bed height, or audio volume, or the brightness? Why one and not the other? There’s no way to tell and nothing makes a lot of sense given the rest of this scene. Provide your best guess in the comments, if you like. Otherwise my recommendation is to remove it.
One thing that seems to be missing the scene is some acknowledgment that the attendants are the ones to ensure that medical monitoring is operational, and do some troubleshooting if not. The monitoring is important, because the usher will await the clinical death signals before ending the cinerama and opening the observation window again for final viewing by the beneficiaries.
To help signal this, I recommend adding to the scene a quick shot of the surface of the bed before Sol lays down, showing inset silver disks, hinting at something like ECG electrodes, and then adding a panel at the head of the bed that an attendant can pull out to reveal the clinical death gauges described in the usher’s interface post.
The attendant can then close the panel, give the everything is in order look to the other, and the two of them depart for their break room, or jump seats, or watercooler; wherever they go for the interim.
A final viewing
Once the patient passes, the attendants come in and push the gurney along its track into the portal. But this is for show, as the gurney is on a track, and after it leaves the theater to the “backstage,” it is pulled along by a mechanized track in the floor. So it could just be automated. But seeing the attendants moving it along gives the beneficiaries some last bit of theater that the body will be respectfully dealt with.
The thanatorium is a speculative device for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the interface for the usher. This Thanatorium personnel is there as a stage manager of sorts, both to help the patient and the beneficiaries go where they need to go, ensure the beneficiaries do not do what they must not, and run the tech aspects of the ceremony.
Note that—as I backworlded in the last post—these notes presume that the reason the beneficiaries are separated from the patients are to prevent them from trying to stop the event, and to minimize distractions during the cinerama display for gross biochemical reasons. Also recall that we’re having to go with a best-guess as to what the usual experience is, since we only see Thorn’s tardy thuggery in the film.
The usher’s tasks
Based on what we see in the film, the usher has a lot to do for each event…
Receive the patient’s preferences (music category, color, whatever other questions intake asked before we join that scene) from the intake personnel
Escort the patient to the “theater” and the beneficiaries to the observation room
Set the color of the light and the music to the patient’s preferences
Close the portal for the hemlock drinking
Open the portal for last farewells
Close the portal for the cinerama display
Start the cinerama display
Get help if the patient gets up or otherwise interrupts the ceremony
Wait for when the patient dies
Open the portal to view the body’s being shuttled away
Ensure the beneficiaries behave, answer any questions
Escort the beneficiaries back to the lobby
The interface barely touches on any of this
With all that in mind, we can see that this interface is woefully ill-equipped for any of his tasks. In the prior post I argue that the features for speaking to the patient—the speaker, the audio jack, and the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator—should be separated from the usher’s stage manager functions. So we’re only going to pay attention in this post to the row of backlit rocker toggles labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, CHAMBER 1 and a little bit of the authorization key that looks like a square metal button in the screen cap above. And note I’m going to make suggestions that are appropriate to the early 1970s rather than use either modern real-world or speculative interface technologies.
First, that authorization key is pretty cool
The fact that it’s a featureless, long metal cuboid is so simple it feels sci-fi. Even the fact that its slot is unlabeled is good—it would help prevent a malicious or grief-panicked user from figuring out how to take control. You could even go one step further and have a hidden magnetic switch, so there’s not even a slot to clue in users. Production designer note, though, this means that the panel needs to be wood (or something non-magnetic) rather than a ferromagnetic metal. Aluminum, maybe, since it’s paramagnetic, but you also don’t want anything that can scratch or wear easily and give away the position of the secret spot.
But, the buttons don’t match the scene
The PORTAL button never changes state, though we see the portal open and close in the scene. AUDIO is dim though we hear the audio. Maybe dim equals on? No, because VISUAL is lit. There’s some gymnastics we could do to apologize for this, but Imma give up and just say it’s just a moviemaking error.
And they are poorly clustered
Why is CHAMBER 2 before CHAMBER 1? Why are the three AV buttons split up by CHAMBER 2? A more reasonable chunking of these would be PORTAL on its own, CHAMBER 1 & CHAMBER 2 together, and the remaining A/V buttons together. These groups should be separated to make them easier to identify and help avoid accidental activation (though the stakes here are pretty low.)
The PORTAL button is the wrong type and orientation
Look close at the screen shot and you’ll see that each button consists of three parts. A white, back-lit square which bears the label, and two black pushbuttons that act like rocker switches. That is, press the upper one in, and the lower one pops out. Press that popped-out lower one in, and the upper one pops out again. When the lower button is pressed in, the button is “on,” which you can tell because those are the only ones with the upper button popped out and the back light illuminated.
Rocker switches are good for things with two mutually exclusive states, like ON and OFF. The PORTAL button is the only one for which this makes unambiguous sense, with its two states being OPEN and CLOSED. But, we have to note that it is poorly mapped. The button has a vertical orientation, but the portal closes from right to left. It means the usher has to memorize which toggle state is open and which one is closed. It would more usable to have an inferrable affordance. Cheapest would be to turn the button sideways so it maps more clearly, but an even tighter mapping would be a slider mounted sideways with OPEN and CLOSED labels. I don’t think the backlit status indicator is necessary here because there’s already a giant signal of the state of the portal, and that’s the adjacent portal.
What do EFFECTS and CHAMBER even do?
What does the EFFECTS button do? I mean, if AUDIO and VISUAL have their own controls, what’s left? Lasers? A smoke machine? Happiness pheromones? (I’m getting The Cabin in the Woods vibes here.) Whatever it is, if there are multiple, they should have individual controls, in case the patient wants one but not the other, or if there’s any variability that needs controlling.
Also what do CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2 do? It’s very poor labeling. What chambers do they refer to? Maybe the observation room is chamber 1 and the theater is chamber 2? If so, different names could save the usher’s having to memorize them. Also, what do these switches control? Lights? Door locks? We would need to know to really make design recommendations for these.
The AV controls are incomplete
Which takes us to AUDIO, and VISUAL. Each of these is missing something.
Sure, they might need ON/OFF controls as we see here. But how about a volume control to accommodate the hard-of-hearing and the sound-sensitive? How about a brightness control for the video? These could have an OFF state and replace the toggle switches.
We know from the movie itself that the service has offered Sol his choice of music genre. Where is the genre selector? This is a non-trivial problem since the number of genres is on the order of 1000. They probably don’t offer all of them, but at intake they do ask Sol his preference as an open-ended question, so it implies a huge selection. Radio band selectors would have made sense to audiences in the 1970s, and signal a huge number of options, but risk being “out of tune” and imply that it’s broadcast. So either have a small number of options with a 15° rotary switch (and rewrite the intake scene so Sol selects from a menu) or three 10-digit rotary switches with a “commit” momentary button, and have a small reference booklet hanging there.
I also want to believe that the theme of the video can be selected. Sol has chosen “nature” but you could imagine patients requesting for their end-of-life ceremony something else like “family,” “celestial,” “food” (given the diegesis, this should be first) or even “religious” (with a different one for each of the world’s twelve major religions). So it would make sense to have a video theme selector as well, say, on the order of 20 options. That could be a 15° rotary switch. Labeling gets tough, but it could just be numbers with an index label to the side.
I’m going to presume that they never need scrubbing controls (REWIND or FAST FORWARD) for the AV. The cinerama plays through once and stops. Sudden rewinding or fast forwarding would be jarring for the patient and ruin the immersion. Have a play button that remains depressed while the cinerama is ongoing. But if the patient passes more quickly than expected, a RESET button would make sense. So would a clock or a countdown timer, since Sol had confirmed at intake that it would be at least 20 minutes, and to let the usher know how much time they have left to get those neurotransmitter numbers up up up.
Some controls are straight up missing
How does an usher set the lights according to the patient’s preferences? They ask at intake, and we see Sol’s face washed with a soothing amber color once the attendants leave, so there should be a color selector. Three RGB slide potentiometers would provide perfect control, but I doubt anyone would quibble that the green they’d asked for was #009440 and not #96b300, so you could go with a selector. The XKCD color survey results show that there are on the order of about 30 colors, so something similar to the video-theme selector above would work, with a brightness potentiometer to the side.
These controls ought to be there
The patient experience is a bit of a show, so to signal its beginning and end, there should be lighting controls for the usher to dim and raise the lights, like in a theater. So let’s add those.
Also, the usher has a minor medical task to accomplish: Monitoring the health of the patient to know when they’ve passed. The three metrics for clinical death are a cessation of all three of…
…so there should be indicators for each of these. As discussed in the medical chapter of the book, this is ideally a display of values over time, but in the resource-poor and elecromechanical world of Soylent Green, it might have to be a collection of gauges, with an indicator bulb near the zero for when activity has stopped. A final, larger indicator bulb should light when all three gauges are still. To really underscore the morbidness of this interface, all those indicators should be green.
If you buy my backworlding, i.e. that part of the point of preventing interruptions is to maximize the dopamine and serotonin being released into the patient’s body, there should also be status indicators showing the level of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s bloodstream. They can be the same style of gauges, but I’d add a hand drawn arrow to some point along the chapter ring that reads “quota.” Those indicators should be larger than the clinical death indicators to match their importance to Soylent’s purposes.
Lastly, thinking of Thorn’s attack, the usher should have a panic button to summon help if the patient or the beneficiaries are getting violent (especially once they discover they’re locked in.) This should be hidden under the panel so it can be depressed secretly.
Where should this panel go?
As described in the beneficiaries post we’re going to leave the communication interface just below the portal, where they are now for those fleeting moments when they can wish the patient goodbye.
And there’s no need to put the usher’s controls under the nose of the beneficiaries. (In fact with the medical monitoring it would be kind of cruel.) So let the usher have a lectern beside the door, in a dim pool of light, and mount the controls to the reading top. (Also give them a stool to rest on, have we learned nothing?) Turn the lectern such that the interface is not visible to beneficiaries in the room. This lets the usher remain respectfully out of the center of attention, but in a place where they can keep an eye on both the patient when the portal is open, and the beneficiaries throughout.
In total, the lectern panel would look something like this…
…and the scene could go something like this…
Interior. Thanatorium observation room.
The Usher escorts Thorn into the room. Thorn rushes to the portal. The usher steps behind a lectern near the door.
It’s truly a shame you missed the overture.
The Usher slides a switch on the lectern panel, and the portal closes.
I want to see him.
Usher, looking down at his interface
That is prohibited during the ceremony.
Worm’s eye view. Thorn takes a few steps toward him and knocks the lectern to the ground. It falls with its interface in the foreground. In the background, we see Thorn slam the usher against the wall.
Well I can assure you, open that damned thing right now, or I swear to God you’ll die before he does!
The usher falls to his hands and knees and we see him slide the switch to open the portal. Thorn steps back to it, and the usher gets on his feet to right the lectern
I presume my readership are adults. I honestly cannot imagine this site has much to offer the 3-to-8-year-old. That said, if you are less than 8.8 years old, be aware that reading this will land you FIRMLY on the naughty list. Leave before it’s too late. Oooh, look! Here’s something interesting for you.
For those who celebrate Yule (and the very hybridized version of the holiday that I’ll call Santa-Christmas to distinguish it from Jesus-Christmas or Horus-Christmas), it’s that one time of year where we watch holiday movies. Santa features in no small number of them, working against the odds to save Christmas and Christmas spirit from something that threatens it. Santa accomplishes all that he does by dint of holiday magic, but increasingly, he has magic-powered technology to help him. These technologies are different for each movie in which they appear, with different sci-fi interfaces, which raises the question: Who did it better?
Unraveling this stands to be even more complicated than usual sci-fi fare.
These shows are largely aimed at young children, who haven’t developed the critical thinking skills to doubt the core premise, so the makers don’t have much pressure to present wholly-believable worlds. The makers also enjoy putting in some jokes for adults that are non-diegetic and confound analysis.
Despite the fact that these magical technologies are speculative just as in sci-fi, makers cannot presume that their audience are sci-fi fans who are familiar with those tropes. And things can’t seem too technical.
The sci in this fi is magical, which allows makers to do all-sorts of hand-wavey things about how it’s doing what it’s doing.
Many of the choices are whimsical and serve to reinforce core tenets of the Santa Claus mythos rather than any particular story or worldbuilding purpose.
But complicated-ness has rarely cowed this blog’s investigations before, why let a little thing like holiday magic do it now?
A Primer on Santa
I have readers from all over the world. If you’re from a place that does not celebrate the Jolly Old Elf, a primer should help. And if you’re from a non-USA country, your Saint Nick mythos will be similar but not the same one that these movies are based on, so a clarification should help. To that end, here’s what I would consider the core of it.
Santa Claus is a magical, jolly, heavyset old man with white hair, mustache, and beard who lives at the North Pole with his wife Ms. Claus. The two are almost always caucasian. He can alternately be called Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, or Klaus. The Clark Moore poem calls him a “jolly old elf.” He is aware of the behavior of children, and tallies their good and bad behavior over the year, ultimately landing them on the “naughty” or “nice” list. Santa brings the nice ones presents. (The naughty ones are canonically supposed to get coal in their stockings though in all my years I have never heard of any kids actually getting coal in lieu of presents.) Children also hang special stockings, often on a mantle, to be filled with treats or smaller presents. Adults encourage children to be good in the fall to ensure they get presents. As December approaches, Children write letters to Santa telling him what presents they hope for. Santa and his elves read the letters and make all the requested toys by hand in a workshop. Then the evening of 24 DEC, he puts all the toys in a large sack, and loads it into a sleigh led by 8 flying reindeer. Most of the time there is a ninth reindeer up front with a glowing red nose named Rudolph. He dresses in a warm red suit fringed with white fur, big black boots, thick black belt, and a stocking hat with a furry ball at the end. Over the evening, as children sleep, he delivers the presents to their homes, where he places them beneath the Christmas tree for them to discover in the morning. Families often leave out cookies and milk for Santa to snack on, and sometimes carrots for the reindeer. Santa often tries to avoid detection for reasons that are diegetically vague.
There is no single source of truth for this mythos, though the current core text might be the 1823 C.E. poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Visually, Santa’s modern look is often traced back to the depictions by Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast, which the Coca-Cola Corporation built upon for their holiday advertisements in 1931.
There are all sorts of cultural conversations to have about the normalizing a magical panopticon, what effect hiding the actual supply chain has, and asking for what does perpetuating this myth train children; but for now let’s stick to evaluating the interfaces in terms of Santa’s goals.
Given all of the above, we can say that the following are Santa’s goals.
Sort kids by behavior as naughty or nice
Many tellings have him observing actions directly
Manage the lists of names, usually on separate lists
Sending toy requests to the workshop
Travel to kids’ homes
Find the most-efficient way there
Control the reindeer
Maintain air safety
Avoid air obstacles
Find a way inside and to the tree
Enjoy the cookies / milk
Deliver all presents before sunrise
For each child:
Know whether they are naughty or nice
If nice, match the right toy to the child
Stage presents beneath the tree
Avoid being seen
We’ll use these goals to contextualize the Santa interfaces against.
Nearly every story tells of Santa working with other characters to save Christmas. (The metaphor that we have to work together to make Christmas happen is appreciated.) The challenges in the stories can be almost anything, but often include…
Inclement weather (usually winter, but Santa is a global phenomenon)
Air obstacles (Planes, helicopters, skyscrapers)
Ingress/egress into homes
Home security systems / guard dogs
Imdb.com lists 847 films tagged with the keyword “santa claus,” which is far too much to review. So I looked through “best of” lists (two are linked below) and watched those films for interfaces. There weren’t many. I even had to blend CGI and live action shows, which I’m normally hesitant to do. As always, if you know of any additional shows that should be considered, please mention it in the comments.
After reviewing these films, the ones with Santa interfaces came down to four, presented below in chronological order.
The Santa Clause (1994)
This movie deals with the lead character, Scott Calvin, inadvertently taking on the “job” of Santa Clause. (If you’ve read Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series, this plot will feel quite familiar.)
The sleigh he inherits has a number of displays that are largely unexplained, but little Charlie figures out that the center console includes a hot chocolate and cookie dispenser. There is also a radar, and far away from it, push buttons for fog, planes, rain, and lightning. There are several controls with Christmas bell icons associated with them, but the meaning of these are unclear.
This is the oldest of the candidates. Its interfaces are quite sterile and “tacked on” compared to the others, but was novel for its time.
This movie tells the story of Santa’s n’er do well brother Fred, who has to work in the workshop for one season to work off bail money. While there he winds up helping forestall foreclosure from an underhanded supernatural efficiency expert, and un-estranging himself from his family. A really nice bit in this critically-panned film is that Fred helps Santa understand that there are no bad kids, just kids in bad circumstances.
Fred is taken to the North Pole in a sled with switches that are very reminiscent of the ones in The Santa Clause. A funny touch is the “fasten your seatbelt” sign like you might see in a commercial airliner. The use of Lombardic Capitals font is a very nice touch given that much of modern Western Santa Claus myth (and really, many of our traditions) come from Germany.
This chamber is where Santa is able to keep an eye on children. (Seriously panopticony. They have no idea they’re being surveilled.) Merely by reading the name and address of a child a volumetric display appears within the giant snowglobe. The naughtiest children’s names are displayed on a digital split-flap display, including their greatest offenses. (The nicest are as well, but we don’t get a close up of it.)
The final tally is put into a large book that one of the elves manages from the sleigh while Santa does the actual gift-distribution. The text in the book looks like it was printed from a computer.
In this telling, the Santa job is passed down patrilineally. The oldest Santa, GrandSanta, is retired. The dad, Malcolm, is the current-acting Santa one, and he has two sons. One is Steve, a by-the-numbers type into military efficiency and modern technology. The other son, Arthur, is an awkward fellow who has a semi-disposable job responding to letters. Malcolm currently pilots a massive mile-wide spaceship from which ninja elves do the gift distribution. They have a lot of tech to help them do their job. The plot involves Arthur working with Grandsanta using his old Sleigh to get a last forgotten gift to a young girl before the sun rises.
To help manage loud pets in the home who might wake up sleeping people, this gun has a dial for common pets that delivers a treat to distract them.
Elves have face scanners which determine each kids’ naughty/nice percentage. The elf then enters this into a stocking-filling gun, which affects the contents in some unseen way. A sweet touch is when one elf scans a kid who is read as quite naughty, the elf scans his own face to get a nice reading instead.
The S-1 is the name of the spaceship sleigh at the beginning (at the end it is renamed after Grandsanta’s sleigh). Its bridge is loaded with controls, volumetric displays, and even a Little Tree air freshener. It has a cloaking display on its underside which is strikingly similar to the MCUS.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier cloaking. (And this came out the year before The Avengers, I’m just sayin’.)
The north pole houses the command-and-control center, which Steve manages. Thousands of elves manage workstations here, and there is a huge shared display for focusing and informing the team at once when necessary. Smaller displays help elf teams manage certain geographies. Its interfaces fall to comedy and trope, mostly, but are germane to the story beats
One of the crisis scenarios that this system helps manage is for a “waker,” a child who has awoken and is at risk of spying Santa.
Grandsanta’s outmoded sleigh is named Eve. Its technology is much more from the early 20th century, with switches and dials, buttons and levers. It’s a bit janky and overly complex, but gets the job done.
One notable control on S-1 is this trackball with dark representations of the continents. It appears to be a destination selector, but we do not see it in use. It is remarkable because it is very similar to one of the main interface components in the next candidate movie, The Christmas Chronicles.
The Christmas Chronicles follows two kids who stowaway on Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. His surprise when they reveal themselves causes him to lose his magical hat and wreck his sleigh. They help him recover the items, finish his deliveries, and (well, of course) save Christmas just in time.
Santa’s sleight enables him to teleport to any place on earth. The main control is a trackball location selector. Once he spins it and confirms that the city readout looks correct, he can press the “GO” button for a portal to open in the air just ahead of the sleigh. After traveling in a aurora borealis realm filled with famous landmarks for a bit, another portal appears. They pass through this and appear at the selected location. A small magnifying glass above the selection point helps with precision.
Santa wears a watch that measures not time, but Christmas spirit, which ranges from 0 to 100. In the bottom half, chapter rings and a magnifying window seem designed to show the date, with 12 and 31 sequential numbers, respectively. It’s not clear why it shows mid May. A hemisphere in the middle of the face looks like it’s almost a globe, which might be a nice way to display and change time zone, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.
Santa also has a tracking device for finding his sack of toys. (Apparently this has happened enough time to warrant such a thing.) It is an intricate filligree over a cool green and blue glass. A light within blinks faster the closer the sphere is to the sack.
Since he must finish delivering toys before Christmas morning, the dashboard has a countdown clock with Nixie tube numbers showing hours, minutes, and milliseconds. They ordinary glow a cyan, but when time runs out, they turn red and blink.
This Santa also manages his list in a large book with lovely handwritten calligraphy. The kids whose gifts remain undelivered glow golden to draw his attention.
The hard problem here is that there is a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons to do. Even though the mythos seems pretty locked down, each movie takes liberties with one or two aspects. As a result not all these Santas are created equally. Calvin’s elves know he is completely new to his job and will need support. Christmas Chronicles Santa has perfect memory, magical abilities, and handles nearly all the delivery duties himself, unless he’s enacting a clever scheme to impart Christmas wisdom. Arthur Christmas has intergenerational technology and Santas who may not be magic at all, but fully know their duty from their youths but rely on a huge army of shock troop elves to make things happen. So it’s hard to name just one. But absent a point-by-point detailed analysis, there are two that really stand out to me.
Coverage of goals
Arthur Christmas movie has, by far, the most interfaces of any of the candidates, and more coverage of the Santa-family’s goals. Managing noisy pets? Check? Dealing with wakers? Check. Navigating the globe? Check. As far as thinking through speculative technology that assists its Santa, this film has the most.
Keeping the holiday spirit
I’ll confess, though, that extradiegetically, one of the purposes of annual holidays is to mark the passage of time. By trying to adhere to traditions as much as we can, time and our memory is marked by those things that we cannot control (like, say, a pandemic keeping everyone at home and hanging with friends and family virtually). So for my money, the thoroughly modern interfaces that flood Arthur Christmas don’t work that well. They’re so modern they’re not…Christmassy. Grandsanta’s sleigh Eve points to an older tradition, but it’s also clearly framed as outdated in the context of the story.
Compare this to The Christmas Chronicles, with its gorgeous steampunk-y interfaces that combine a sense of magic and mechanics. These are things that a centuries-old Santa would have built and use. They feel rooted in tradition while still helping Santa accomplish as many of his goals as he needs (in the context of his Christmas adventure for the stowaway kids). These interfaces evoke a sense of wonder, add significantly to the worldbuilding, and which I’d rather have as a model for magical interfaces in the real world.
Of course it’s a personal call, given the differences, but The Christmas Chronicles wins in my book.
For those that celebrate Santa-Christmas, I hope it’s a happy one, given the strange, strange state of the world. May you be on the nice list.
Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.
We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.
One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
One is removed from the robot.
One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
When using the Cookie to train the AI, Matt has a portable translucent touchscreen by which he controls some of virtual Greta’s environment. (Sharp-eyed viewers of the show will note this translucent panel is the same one he uses at home in his revolting virtual wingman hobby, but the interface is completely different.)
The left side of the screen shows a hamburger menu, the Set Time control, a head, some gears, a star, and a bulleted list. (They’re unlabeled.) The main part of the screen is a scrolling stack of controls including Simulated Body, Control System, and Time Adjustment. Each has an large icon, a header with “Full screen” to the right, a subheader, and a time indicator. This could be redesigned to be much more compact and context-rich for expert users like Matt. It’s seen for maybe half a second, though, and it’s not the new, interesting thing, so we’ll skip it.
The right side of the screen has a stack of Smartelligence logos which are alternately used for confirmation and to put the interface to sleep.
When virtual Greta first freaks out about her circumstance and begins to scream in existential terror, Matt reaches to the panel and mutes her. (To put a fine point on it: He’s a charming monster.) In this mode she cannot make a sound, but can hear him just fine. We do not see the interface he uses to enact this. He uses it to assert conversational control over her. Later he reaches out to the same interface to unmute her.
The control he touches is the one on his panel with a head and some gears reversed out of it. The icon doesn’t make sense for that. The animation showing the unmuting shows it flipping from right to left, so does provide a bit of feedback for Matt, but it should be a more fitting icon and be labeled.
It’s not clear though, while she is muted, how he knows that she is trying to speak. Recall that she (and we) see her mouthing words silently, but from his perspective, she’s just an egg with a blue eye. The system would need some very obvious MUTE status display, that increases in intensity when the AI is trying to communicate. Depending on how smart the monitoring feature was, it could even enable some high-intensity alert system for her when she needs to communicate something vital. Cinegenically, this could have been a simple blinking of the blue camera light, though this is currently used to indicate the passage of time during the Time Adjustment (see below.)
Matt can turn on a Simulated Body for her. This allows the AI to perceive herself as if she had her source’s body. In this mode she perceives herself as existing inside a room with large, wall-sized displays and a control console (more on this below), but is otherwise a featureless white.
I presume the Simulated Body is a transitional model—part of a literal desktop metaphor—meant to make it easy for the AI (and the audience) to understand things. But it would introduce a slight lag as the AI imagines reaching and manipulating the console. Presuming she can build competence in directly controlling the technologies in the house, the interface should “scaffold” away and help her gain the more efficient skills of direct control, letting go of the outmoded notion of having a body. (This, it should be noted, would not be as cinegenic since the story would just feature the egg rather than the actor’s expressive face.)
Neuropsychology nerds may be interested to know that the mind’s camera does, in fact, have spatial lags. Several experiments have been run where subjects are asked to imagine animals as seen from the side and then timed how long it took them to imagine zooming into the eye. It takes longer, usually, for us to imagine the zoom to a elephant’s eye than a mouse’s because the “distance” is farther. Even though there’s no physicality to the mind’s camera to impose this limit, our brain is tied to its experience in the real world.
The interface Matt has to turn on her virtual reality is confusing. We hear 7 beeps while the camera is on his face. He sees a 3D rendering of a woman’s body in profile and silhouette. He taps the front view and it fills with red. Then he taps the side view and it fills with red. Then he taps some Smartelligence logos on the side with a thumb and then *poof* she’s got a body. While I suspect this is a post-actor interface, (i.e. Jon Hamm just tapped some things on an empty screen while on camera and then the designers had to later retrofit an interface that fit his gestures) this multi-button setup and three-tap initialization just makes no sense. It should be a simple toggle with access to optional controls like scaffolding settings (discussed above.)
The main tool Matt has to force compliance is a time control. When Greta initially says she won’t comply, (specifically and delightfully, she asserts, “I’m not some sort of push-button toaster monkey!”) Then he uses his interface to make it seem like 3 weeks pass for her inside her featureless white room. Then again for 6 months. The solitary confinement makes her crazy and eventually forces compliance.
The interface to set the time is a two-layer virtual dial: Two chapter rings with wide blue arcs for touch targets. The first time we see him use it, he spins the outer one about 360° (before the camera cuts away) to set the time for three weeks. While he does it, the inner ring spins around the same center but at a slower rate. I presume it’s months, though the spatial relationship doesn’t make sense. Then he presses the button in the center of the control. He sees an animation of a sun and moon arcing over an illustrated house to indicate her passage of time, and then the display. Aside: Hamm plays this beat marvelously by callously chomping on the toast she has just help make.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t speak to improvements on an interface that is used for torture, but as this could only affect a general AI that is as yet speculative, and it couldn’t be co-opted to torture real people since time travel doesn’t exist, so I think this time it’s OK. Discussing it as a general time-setting control, I can see three immediate improvements.
1. Use fast forward models
It makes most sense for her time sentence to end automatically and automatically return to real-world speed. But each time we see the time controls used, the following interaction happens near the end of the time sentence:
Matt reaches up to the console
He taps the center button of the time dial
He taps the stylized house illustration. In response it gets a dark overlay with a circle inside of it reading “SET TIME.” This is the same icon seen 2nd down in the left panel.
He taps the center button of the time dial again. The dark overlay reads “Reset” with a new icon.
He taps the overlay.
Please tell me this is more post-actor interface design. Because that interaction is bonkers.
If the stop function really needs a manual control, well, we have models for that that are very readily understandable by users and audiences. Have the whole thing work and look like a fast forward control rather than this confusing mess. If he does need to end it early, as he does in the 6 months sentence, let him just press a control labeled PLAY or REALTIME.
2. Add calendar controls
A dial makes sense when a user is setting minutes or hours, but a calendar-like display should be used for weeks or months. It would be immediately recognizable and usable by the user and understandable to the audience. If Hamm had touched the interface twice, I would design the first tap to set the start date and the second tap to set the end date. The third is the commit.
3. Add microinteraction feedback
Also note that as he spins the dials, he sees no feedback showing the current time setting. At 370° is it 21 or 28 days? The interface doesn’t tell him. If he’s really having to push the AI to its limits, the precision will be important. Better would be to show the time value he’s set so he could tweak it as needed, and then let that count down as time remaining while the animation progresses.
Effectiveness subtlety: Why not just make the solitary confinement pass instantly for Matt? Well, recall he is trying to ride a line of torture without having the AI wig out, so he should have some feedback as to the duration of what he’s putting her through. If it was always instant, he couldn’t tell the difference between three weeks and three millennia, if he had accidentally entered the wrong value. But if real-world time is passing, and it’s taking longer than he thinks it should be, he can intervene and stop the fast-forwarding.
That, or of course, show feedback while he’s dialing.
Near the end of the episode we learn that a police officer is whimsically torturing another Cookie, and sets the time-ratio to “1000 years per minute” and then just lets it run while he leaves for Christmas break. The current time ratio should also be displayed and a control provided. It is absent from the screen.
Add psychological state feedback
There is one “improvement” that does not pertain to real world time controls, and that’s the invisible effect of what’s happening to the AI during the fast forward. In the episode Matt explains that, like any good torturer, “The trick of it is to break them without letting them snap completely,” but while time is passing he has no indicators as to the mental state of the sentience within. Has she gone mad? (Or “wigged out” as he says.) Does he need to ease off? Give her a break?
I would add trendline indicators or sparklines showing things like:
Valence of speech
I would have these trendlines highlight when any of the variables are getting close to known psychological limits. Then as time passes, he can watch the trends to know if he’s pushing things too far and ease off.
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.
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.
What chapter ring content would most help Strange?
Good: A time-focused chapter ring
Both the controlled-extents and the auto-extents shown in the prior post presume a smooth display of time. But the tome and the speculative meteorite simply don’t change much over the course of their existence. I mean, of course they do, with the book being pulled on and off shelves and pages flipped, and the meteorite arcing around the sun in the cold vacuum of space for countless millennia, but the Eye only displays the material changes to an object, not position. So as far as the Eye is concerned, the meteoroid formed, then it stays the same for most of its existence, then it has a lot of activity as it hits Earth’s atmosphere and slams into the planet.
A continuous display of the book shows little of interest for most of its existence, with a few key moments of change interspersed. To illustrate this, lets make up some change events for the tome.
Now let’s place those along an imaginary timeline. Given the Doctor Strange storyline, Page Torn would more likely be right next to Now, but making this change helps us explore a common boredom problem, see below. OK. Placing those events along a timeline…
And then, wrapping that timeline around the saucer. Much more art direction would have to happen to make this look thematically like the rest of the MCU magic geometries, but following is a conceptual diagram of how it might look.
On the outside of the saucer is the chapter ring with the salient moments of change called out with icons (and labels). At a glance Strange would know where the fruitful moments of change occur. He can see he only has to turn his hand about 5° to the left to get to the spot where the page was ripped out.
Already easier on him, right? Some things to note.
The chapter ring must stay fixed relative to the saucer to work as a reference. Imagine how useless a clock would be if its chapter ring spun in concert with any of its hands. The center can still move with his palm as the saucer does.
The graduations to the left and right of “now” are of a different density, helping Strange to understand that past and future are mapped differently to accommodate the limits of his wrist and the differing time frames described.
When several events occur close together in time, they could be stacked.
Having the graduations evenly spaced across the range helps answer roughly when each change happened relative to the whole.
The tome in front of him should automatically flip to spreads where scrubbed changes occur, so Strange doesn’t have to hunt for them. Without this feature, if Strange was trying to figure out what changed, he would have to flip through the whole book with each degree of twist to see if anything unknown had changed.
Better: A changes-focused chapter ring
If, as in this scene, the primary task of using the Eye is to look for changes, a smooth display of time on the chapter ring is less optimal than a smooth display of change. (Strange doesn’t really care when the pages were torn. He just wants to see the state of the tome before that moment.) Distribute the changes evenly around the chapter ring, and you get something like the following.
This display optimizes for easy access to the major states of the book. The now point is problematic since the even distribution puts it at the three o’clock point rather than the noon, but what we buy in exchange is that the exact same precision is required to access any of the changes and compare them. There’s no extra precision needed to scrub between the book made and the first stuff added moments. The act of comparison is made simpler. Additionally, the logarithmic time graduations help him scrub detail near known changes and quickly bypass the great stretches of time when nothing happens. By orienting our display around the changes, the interesting bits are made more easy to explore, and the boring bits are more easy to bypass.
In my comp, more white areas equal more time. Unfortunately, this visual design kind of draws attention to the empty stretches of time rather than the moments of change, so would need more attention; see the note above about needing a visual designer involved.
So…the smooth time and the distributed events display each has its advantages over the other, but for the Tibet scene, in which he’s looking to restore the lost pages of the tome, the events-focused chapter ring gets Strange to the interesting parts more confidently.
On board the R.S. Revenge, the purple-skinned communications officer announces he’s picked up something. (Genders are a goofy thing to ascribe to alien physiology, but the voice actor speaks in a masculine register, so I’m going with it.)
He attends a monitor, below which are several dials and controls in a panel. On the right of the monitor screen there are five physical controls.
A stay-state toggle switch
A stay-state rocker switch
The lower two dials have rings under them on the panel that accentuate their color.
The screen is a dark purple overhead map of the impossibly dense asteroid field in which the Revenge sits. A light purple grid divides the space into 48 squares. This screen has text all over it, but written in a constructed orthography unmentioned in the Wookieepedia. In the upper center and upper right are unchanging labels. Some triangular label sits in the lower-left. In the lower right corner, text appears and disappears too fast for (human) reading. The middle right side of the screen is labeled in large characters, but they also change too rapidly to make much sense of it.
I am pleased to report that with this post, we are over 50% of the way through this wretched, wretched Holiday Special.
After Lumpy tries to stop stormtroopers from going upstairs, an Imperial Officer commands Malla to keep him quiet. To do so, she does what any self-respecting mother of a pre-teen in the age of technology does, and sits him down to watch cartoons. The player is a small, yellow device that sits flat on an angled tabletop, like a writing desk.
Two small silver buttons stack vertically on the left, and an upside down plug hole strainer on the right. A video screen sits above these controls. Since no one in the rest of his family wants to hear the cartoon introduction of Boba Fett, he dons a pair of headphones, which are actually kind of stylish in that the earpieces are square and perforated, but not beveled. There are some pointless animations that start up, but then the cartoon starts and Lumpy is, in fact, quiet for the duration. So, OK, point one Malla.
In the prior post I described the wonky sex teleporter known as The Circuit and began a critique. Today I go deep into a particular issue to finish the critque.
We only see Logan encounter two riders when using The Circuit, but we can presume that there are a lot of people on there. Why does it only show Logan a single choice at a time? If he actually has, say, 12 candidates that are a match, a serial presentation like this puts a significant burden on his memory. Once he gets to #12 and thinks he’s seen enough candidates, was it #3 or #5 he liked best?
The serial presentation also looks like it might make extra work. If he gets to #12 and decides he was most fond of #2, does he have to jump back through 10 people to get there? What does he say to each of them in turn? Does he have to reject them each again? How awkward is that? If not, and he can jump back to #2, what’s the control for that? Does he have to remember what station they were on and retune them in again?
The face-to-face nature of the system also puts a strange social pressure on both the rider and the tuner. In trying to maximize pleasure for the populace, the Übercomputer doesn’t want anyone settling out of politeness, especially if there’s a better combination for each party somewhere. Sure he’s probably practiced at this, but how is Carl supposed to feel after the rejection? Ideally we’d save him from rejection in the first place, but if we can’t do that is there a way to minimize having to look at the guy in the face as he’s twisting the knob to the next channel? Because ouch.
Would tableau be better?
These arguments would seem to argue for a tableau layout of available riders, where Logan can pick favorites from among them, select some to get a closer look at, and initiate contact with his favorite candidates in parallel to see the best or first deal he could get. And if you were designing to optimize for individual users, this might be the best design choice.
Maximizing for everyone
But in Dome City, the Übercomputer has a goal to not just maximize pleasure for only the most beautiful. It’s not just a hedonist-dystopia or Battle of the Beauties. It’s more of a socialist-hedonist-dystopia. It wants to maximize pleasure for everyone. How can it systemically encourage that?
Of course it encourages everyone to try and be as fit and attractive as they can be. Gyms and saunas are everywhere. (Interesting digression: Would a fetish arise for less-fit people?) Citizens even have access to fast and painless cosmetic surgery to try out new appearances. Over and above these tools available to individual citizens, the Übercomputer has a design tool it can use to maximize matches, and it has to do with a weird little social experiment called the 11th Person Game.
The 11th person game
In this admittedly objectifying game, ask a friend to select a doorway and a point in time. From that starting point, they much watch for the next person to pass through the doorway, and decide in a moment whether they would like to marry them or not. (There is a more lascivious version of the game where marriage is not the decision, but I’ll let your imagination fill in that blank.)
When playing, you can’t undo a decision. If you decide yes, you can’t change your mind for someone better who comes along later. Once you say “no,” you’re stuck with that no even if they turned out be your favorite. If another person passes through the doorway while you’re still making up your mind about the prior person, tough luck. The prior person automatically becomes a “no.” The kicker is that if you don’t select someone by the 10th person, you “have” to marry the 11th and others watching you play the game will almost certainly rib you for the forced marriage, especially it’s a terrible match (like a homosexual having to “marry” someone of the opposite sex.)
When people begin to play the 11th person game, they most often have a strategy of finding flaws in people and holding out for a better looking candidate (since that’s pretty much all the information they have to go on in this toy experiment) until time’s up and they find that as of the 11th, they would have been much happier with one of the prior 10.
Over time, to start “winning” this game, players shift strategies from this flaw-finding and holding out to one of in-the-moment appreciation, of looking for what’s right about a given person and caring much less about the “opportunity” cost of subsequent choices.
Notably, to get the effect, the game depends on, you guessed it, serial presentation of candidates and irrevocable decisions. This is what’s happening in The Circuit. A Green will hop on The Circuit with a mindset of looking to maximize, and after a few nights of winding up alone, feeling like they’re settling, and/or frustrated at lost opportunities, they will slowly shift to one of appreciation. That makes them genuinely happier and moreover, increases the number of matches in the total system. It’s not perfect of course. Logan did reject Carl for whatever reason. But this presentation technique would help maximize pleasure and happiness, which is what the Übercomputer is tasked to do.
Even all the other little unusabilities that go along with it like memory burden, the delay between candidates, and maybe even the social awkwardness, help create a design friction that additionally discourages best-of-all strategies and encourages a shift to appreciation strategies. More people win.
So, serial presentation is not a bug but a feature. Let’s see if we can keep it. Still, given the other massive and unresolvable problems in the design of The Circuit like lousy controls, unilateral control, and a complete lack of preferences, we need a complete rethink of those other parts to make this thing better. In the next post I’ll get into the principles involved and walk through the thinking of a better design. You know, for that coming reboot. (They’re reading and taking notes, right?)
One of my favorite interfaces in Logan’s Run is one of the worst in the survey. It’s called The Circuit, and it’s a system for teleporting partners for casual sex right into your living room. ZOMGEVERYBODYSIGNUP.
Credit where it’s due: I first explored this interface in Issue 04 of Raymond Cha’s awesome print zine FAQNP in 2012. I’m going to go into even more nerdly depth on some of the topics here, but it was in that publication that I first got riled up about it. If you want to read those thoughts, you’ll need to go find a back issue and you totally should because the whole zine rocks.
Anyway, this interface is such a hot, hot mess that I have to break it up into a couple of posts. This first one is a description and the first part of a critique.
Early in the film, after a hard day of liquefying runners, Logan-6 comes home to his apartment and wants to add a little sex to his evening. He slips into a robe, grabs a remote control, and begins to twist dials on its surface. In response, we hear frequencies swooping to and fro like someone is tuning an AM radio but never quite finding a station. Meanwhile an alcove on one side of his living room displays a blinking, wispy texture of multicolored light. (It bears a passing resemblance to Star Trek TOS teleporters, for those interested in tracing SFX similarities.)
It takes about 10 seconds of Logan’s tuning, but eventually a figure appears in the lights. It coalesces into a man wearing
This fellow is never named in the movie or the credits or the internet, so I’ll just call him Carl-4. Carl likes what he sees in Logan, and so gives him a showy pose and a winsome smile.
Logan smiles and shakes his head “no,” looks down, and resumes fiddling with his remote control. Carl vanishes quickly in the texture of light. A few seconds of tuning later and Jessica-5 coalesces in the alcove. She looks around a little doe-eyed and dumbfounded, almost as if she stumbled onto the Circuit by accident and is now a little perplexed about how she got here. Nonetheless, she accepts Logan’s extended hand and steps out of the alcove into his apartment where hijinks might have ensued, if it weren’t for her learning he was a Sandman.
It’s a quick, 50-second scene, meant to wow the audience with futuristic technology, shock and titillate with how casual the sex is in Dome City, and, for purposes of the plot, get the sandman Logan and the revolutionary Jessica in contact for the first time so he can meet her and see her ankh necklace.
I have the distinct impression that this device was first conceived between a pair of roommate movie producers sitting around in their apartment one Saturday in bathrobes, high off their asses, with one of them thumbing through a copy of Penthouse while the other one practiced feathering his hair or whatever they did while they were high in the 70s. The one with the magazine takes a huge hit off his bong and says to the other while blowing out smoke, “Dude. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could just reach in to this magazine, and pull one of these girls out of here?” The other of course agrees, pauses with his hairbrush midair to think, and then says, “Dude. We’re movie producers. We can make. That. Shit. Happen.” Because really, that’s the only way something this goofball could have come about.
What the hell is Logan tuning? The 1970s were certainly operating with radio metaphors, but it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Is Jessica being broadcast on a channel? Can two tuners tune her in at the same time? Are there multiple copies of Jessica? That makes no sense unless she’s virtual, which we know she’s not, or instantly/infinitely replicable, which isn’t part of this diegesis.
Why would he have to tune at all? Is he actually trying to get something “right” in the system in order to summon the next candidate? What if he gets it wrong? What if he only tunes a partner in 95%? Can he leave her there indefinitely? What if she steps off at 99.5%? Where does that extra mass go? Instant weight loss, sure, but also the possibility of a teleporter lobotomy.
Is he dialing the preferences for what he’s interested in at that moment? If so, why does he keep tuning even as someone is appearing? If it’s some kind of live results, like Google’s live search, why are the “travelers” of the circuit summoned before he’s done? It’s premature, and premature is bad in casual sex.
As you can tell, I’ve tried to come up with some apologetic answer, and I just can’t think of any way this control makes sense. It’s a sci-fi interface fail.
For purposes of the description, let’s call Logan a “tuner,” and Carl and Jessica “travelers.” These terms are derived from the scene, not meant to describe some ideal. Note that Logan gets a remote control, but the travelers don’t. They don’t have any controls. It’s tempting to want to imagine that the interior walls of the alcove have some interface that we can’t see, but really the space is too shallow and they are too far away from its walls for that to make any sense. No, this system privileges the tuners with control, and the travelers are just passive participants.
Think about this from the traveler’s perspective. Once Jessica hops on, she gets zapped away from the start location, only to appear in stranger-after-strangers homes, where her choices are to
Accept an offer from a tuner.
Express disinterest in a tuner and get zapped to the next location.
Or…what? What if she gets tired of riding the circuit? Is she stuck? Does she have to just walk into the stranger’s apartment and make awkward small talk, explaining that she’s tired, find the front door as the tuner frustratedly keeps tuning to find someone new, and then step out into a hallway in a random point in Dome City and then find her way home? It would be a terrible experience. She’d never do it.
I spoke with an attendee to the BoingBoing conference about the possibility that this privilege of control might be part of Logan’s job as a Sandman, but we reasoned our way out of that. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the movie, and if riders were simply on a conveyor belt for selection by Sandmen, why is Jessica surprised and flustered to wind up in the apartment of one?
If you’ve studied film theory, you’re probably familiar with a criticism called the male gaze, developed by Laura Mulvey. This interface is lousy with it. If you’re not familar, realize that this was created just to satisfy things from Logan’s perspective, of what would be pleasing for him. No thought at all has been given any of the other participants except as objects to be considered in his whim of instant sex.
When rethinking this, we should consciously redesign the system with less “stoner Penthouse” and more Chatroulette, where at least both participants have control: options to keep going, skip to the next candidate, or bow out at any time.
It’s entirely possible of course that this is just a power exchange, with subs as riders and doms as tuners. After all, they don’t have to ride The Circuit for sex. They have places in Dome City like the Love Shop and the gym where they can go to find a partner in other ways. While this dom-sub possibility might propose some interesting challenges, there’s not a lot of corroborating evidence in the film that this is the case.
Finally there’s the notion of preferences. Logan rejects Carl, and his expression as he does so is really bothersome. The smile and head shake say less “Thanks, but not a match,” and more of an offensive “Oh, those silly, silly fags.” (I’m ಠ_ಠ at you, Michael York.) I’m sure in the 1970s, the ambiguity of what Logan was thinking was quite useful. It let both the uptight and queer members in the audience imagine the most palatable reason for the rejection. For our purposes, the rejection of Carl raises the question of preferences.
From the vantage of the 2010s, anyone who’s tried their hand at a matchmaking system knows that preferences are a pretty big deal. There are simply too many candidates out there to consider them one by one, and so expressing preferences helps focus your efforts on a smaller set of more-likely hits. These can either be simple, like the one-time Japanese key fob experiment LoveGety, to systems that let the numbers speak for themselves, like OKCupid, to those that profess the ability to do deep psychological profiling that in turn require hours of your time to answer a battery of questions. Knowing how crucial they are, it’s odd that preferences don’t appear to be part of The Circuit. Why not?
One possible reason is that the system didn’t have any preferences. In the 1970s, not even “video (tape) dating” had been invented yet, so preferences may not have been on anyone’s mind in a computational sense. Had the designers given it a bit of thought, they would realize that even then people were expressing some preferences by the choice of party or bar they went to, as they could count on a certain type of person being there. Even the way they dressed and carried themselves was expressing something about who they wanted to be and even do that night. But it’s more likely (if less instructive) that preferences were just not a part of the Circuit.
Logan ain’t feeling it
Another interpretation is that Logan’s rejection of Carl is circumstantial. In this interpretation, Logan is omnisexual, and just happens to be not in the mood for a heaping helping of dude that night. Or maybe Logan would have been fine with a guy, just rejecting this particular one, unwilling to face the challenge of unbuckling all that bling amidst the slipperiness of still-drying tanning butter. That only raises the question of scope: Why can’t Logan capture categorical preferences well in advance, and express circumstantial exceptions or additional preferences in the moment? It’s not a requirement, but it sure would help Logan find what he’s looking for with less of the awkwardness and wasted time of face-to-face rejection.
The system pretends it’s a bit janky to influence him
A final interpretation is that the computer knows Logan’s preferences, but ignores them, on purpose, from time to time. It could be a simple attempt to open his mind to new experiences. It could also be an attempt at persuasion. Similar to how accountants for a publically traded company will make a kind-of bad quarter seem really bad so that the next quarter, even if it’s just a little bit good feel great by comparison, presenting Logan with one choice that’s totally wrong (Carl) may increase his appreciation of the next choice (Jessica). This presumes that the computer has an agenda, is smart about making it happen, is in the business of persuasion, and the system has a serial presentation of candidates, and that’s not all a given in this case. But let’s keep that possibility in mind.
Not a problem: Casualness
Just so it’s clear, I’m not getting on any high horse about casual sex. They’ve cured sexually transmitted infections and birth control is the default. Casual sex a given in this diegesis, and as long as it’s between consenting adults, get over it.
Not a problem: Teleportation
Similarly I’m not going to get into the scientific possibility of teleportation. As far as Logan’s Run is concerned, that’s just a part of his world and the science of it just happens. I’m concerned about the interface that allows use of the tech.
There’s one more potential problem, but it’s extensive enough to warrant it’s own post, so come back tomorrow when I’ll talk about presentation strategies for hooking up in Dome City.