Wakandan tattoo

When I saw King Tchalla’s brother pull his lip down to reveal his glowing blue, vibranium-powered Wakandan tattoo, the body modification evoked for me the palpable rush of ancestral memories and spiritual longing for a Black utopia, an uncolonized land and body that Black American spirituals have envisioned (what scholars call sonic utopias.) 

The lip tattoo is a brilliant bit of worldbuilding. The Wakandan diaspora is, at this point in the movie, a sort of secret society. Having a glowing tattoo shows that the mark is genuine (one presumes it could only be produced with vibranium and therefore not easily forged). Placing it inside the lip means it is ordinarily concealed, and, because of the natural interface of the body, it is easy to reveal. Lastly, it must be a painful spot to tattoo, so shows by way of inference how badass the Wakandan culture is. But it’s more than good worldbuilding to me.

The Black Panther film tattoo electrifies my imagination because it combines both chemical augmentation and amplifies the African identity of being a Wakandan in this story. I think the film could have had even more backstory around the tattoo as a right of passage and development of it in the film. Is it embedded at birth? Or is there a coming of age ceremony associated with it? It would have been cool to see the lip tattoo as a smart tattoo with powers to communicate with other devices and even as a communication device to speak or subvocalize thoughts and desires.

How can we imagine the Wakandan tattoo for the future? I co-designed Afro-Rithms From The Future, an imagination game for creating a dynamic, engaging, and safe space for a community to imagine possible worlds using ordinary objects as inspirations to rethink existing organizational, institutional, and societal relationships. In our launch of the game at the Afrofutures Festival last year at the foresight consultancy Institute For The Future, the winner by declaration was Reina Robinson, a woman who imagined a tattoo that represented one’s history and could be scanned to receive reparation funds to redress and heal the trauma of slavery. 

Doreen Garner is a tattoo artist in Brooklyn who acknowledges that tattooing is “a violent act,” but reframes it in her work as an act of healing. She guides her client-patients through this process. Garner began the Black Panther Tattoo Project in January 2019 on MLK Day. She views the Black Panther tattoo as reclaiming pride as solidarity through a shared image. It represents Black pride and “unapologetic energy that we all need to be expressing right now.” Tattooing is a meditative exercise for her as she makes “a lot of the same marks,” and fills in the same spaces for her Black Panther Tattoo project clientele. When folx are at a concert, party, or panel—and recognize their shared image—they can link up to share their experiences. 

What if this were a smart tattoo where you could hear the tattoo as sound? Right now, the tech outfit Skin Motion can make your tattoo hearable “by pointing the camera on a mobile device at the tattoo,” where you’ll be able to hear the tattoo playback an audio recording. 

Garner, speaking as a Black female tattoo artist, exhorts future artists, “don’t be held back” by thinking that it is a white, male-dominated profession. “White people did not invent tattooing as a practice, because it belongs to us.” They are not the masters. There are many masters of tattooing across cultures.

One example: Yoruba tribal marks. (Apologies for the shitpic.)

The Wakandan tattoo as an ancestral marker reflects a centuries-old tradition in African culture. In Black Panther we see the tattoo as a bold, embedded pillar of Wakandan unity, powerfully inviting us to imagine how tattoos may evolve in the future.

Black Futures Matter

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support Black lives. For this post, support the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM): Sign up for their updates. The organization sends email notifications about special launches, network actions, programs, and partnerships. Being connected to the network is one way to stay unified and support BSAM work. Look out for the launch of the California BSAM regional hub network soon. Listen to the Afrofuturist Podcast with host Ahmed Best as well where Black Futures Matter.  

Upcoming BSAM event

On Aug. 17, join BSAM’s Look For Us in the Whirlwind event as it celebrates the Pan-African legacy of Marcus Garvey.

A Virtual Global Gathering of Afrofuturists and Pan-Afrikanists

This event is a global Pan-African virtual gathering to honour Marcus M. Garvey Jr.’s legacy. It will feature a keynote from Dr. Julius W. Garvey, the youngest son of Marcus and Amy Jacques Garvey.

OmniBro

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

Doc office

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

Prison

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

Carl’s Junior

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

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What’s good?

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

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

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

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

What’s questionable?

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

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

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

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

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

Rando vending surveillance

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

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

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

Fight the Idiocracy

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

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

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Sold out womp womp

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

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

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.

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Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.

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But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

Continue reading

Airport Security

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

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

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

Brain Upload

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

3. Building it

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

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

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

A Deadly Pattern

The Drones’ primary task is to patrol the surface for threats, then eliminate those threats. The drones are always on guard, responding swiftly and violently against anything they do perceive as a threat.

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During his day-to-day maintenance, Jack often encounters active drones. Initially, the drones always regard him as a threat, and offer him a brief window of time speak his name and tech number (for example, “Jack, Tech 49”) to authenticate. The drone then compares this speech against some database, shown on their HUD as a zoomed-in image of Jack’s mouth and a vocal frequency.

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Occasionally, we see that Jack’s identification doesn’t immediately work. In those cases, he’s given a second chance by the drone to confirm his identity. Continue reading

The SandPhone

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Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.

Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.

The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.

Notifications

Continue reading

Portable brainwave detector

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Through the atom transmitter Dianthus bestows several gifts on Barbarella to help her with her mission. The first of these is the “portable brainwave detector…to test for Durand-Durand’s presence.” To operate it, Barbarella must press “a contact,” (Dianthus is offscreen when he indicates the contact, but later we see her operating the leaf-like button near the wrist) and if Durand-Durand is around, the ball of lights will glow and an alarm will sound.

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The device is wearable, wrapping around Barbarella’s forearm, and held in place by a ring. This aspect of the design is good, since it means the device is ever-present for operation, and the design of it makes it lovely enough to be overlooked as a fashion accessory. In fact many characters see her wearing it and make no mention.

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Manual activation is less than ideal, though, since this might tip off the suspect. This is especially true with the blinking, glowing ball of light and audio feedback. And, in fact, this is what happens later in the film when Durand-Durand trips over the device. The blinking light and audio catch his attention, betray the device for what it is, and blow Barbarella’’s cover in the process.

Portable Brainwave Device

The best feedback would be invisible, like a haptic vibration through the cuff to her skin. Ideally, the device would be constantly on, to detect the subject passively, the moment he came into range. But presuming battery life is the issue, the activation cue should be something much more subtle, like Barbarella’s touching the back of the ring with the thumb of the same hand. Such a gesture would match the existing design of the object, be discreet to an observer, and yet still discrete enough to prevent accidental activation.

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.