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, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the least complicated of the bunch, the beneficiaries.
We have to do a little extrapolation here because the way we see it in the movie is not the way we imagine it would work normally. What we see is Thorn entering the building and telling staff there to take him to Sol. He is escorted to an observation room labeled “beneficiaries only” by an usher. (Details about the powerful worldbuilding present in this label can be found in the prior post.) Sol has already drunk the “hemlock” drink by the time Thorn enters this room, so Sol is already dying and the robed room attendants have already left.
This room has a window view of the “theater” proper, with an interface mounted just below the window. At the top of this interface is a mounted microphone. Directly below is an intercom speaker beside a large status alert labeled SPEAKING PERMITTED. When we first see the panel this indicator is off. At the bottom is a plug for headphones to the left, a slot for a square authorization key, and in the middle, a row of square, backlit toggle buttons labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, and CHAMBER 1. When the Sol is mid-show, EFFECTS and VISUAL are the only buttons that are lit.
When the usher closes the viewing window, explaining that it’s against policy for beneficiaries to view the ceremony, Thorn…uh…chokes him in order to persuade him to let him override the policy.
“Persuaded,” the usher puts his authorization key back in the slot. The window opens again. Thorn observes the ceremony in awe, having never seen the beautiful Earth of Sol’s youth. He mutters “I didn’t know” and “How could I?” as he watches. Sol tries weakly to tell Thorn something, but the speaker starts glitching, with the SPEAKING PERMITTED INDICATOR flashing on and off. Thorn, helpfully, pounds his fist on the panel and demands that the usher do something to fix it. The user gives Thorn wired earbuds and Thorn continues his conversation. (Extradiegetically, is this so they didn’t have to bother with the usher’s overhearing the conversation? I don’t understand this beat.) The SPEAKING PERMITTED light glows a solid red and they finish their conversation.
Sol dies, and the lights come up in the chamber. Two assistants come to push the gurney along a track through a hidden door. Some mechanism in the floor catches the gurney, and the cadaver is whisked away from Thorn’s sight.
So that’s Thorns corrupt, thuggish cop experience of the thanatorium. Let’s now make some educated guesses about what this might imply for the regular, non-thug experience for beneficiaries.
- The patient and beneficiaries enter the building and greeted by staff.
- They wait in queue in the lobby for their turn.
- The patient is taken by attendants to the “theater” and the beneficiaries taken by the usher to the observation room.
- Beneficiaries witness the drinking of the hemlock.
- The patient has a moment to talk with the beneficiaries and say their final farewells.
- The viewing window is closed as the patient watches the “cinerama” display and dies. The beneficiaries wait quietly in the observation room with the usher.
- The viewing window is opened as they watch the attendants wheel the body into the portal.
- They return to the lobby to sign some documents for benefits and depart.
So, some UX questions/backworlding
We have to backworld some of the design rationales involved to ground critique and design improvements. After all, design is the optimization of a system for a set of effects, and we want to be certain about what effects we’re targeting. So…
Why would beneficiaries be separated from the patient?
I imagine that the patient might take comfort from holding the hands or being near their loved ones (even if that set didn’t perfectly overlap with their beneficiaries). So why is there a separate viewing room? There are a handful of reasons I can imagine, only one of which is really satisfying.
Maybe it’s to prevent the spread of disease? Certainly given our current multiple pandemics, we understand the need for physical separation in a medical setting. But the movie doesn’t make any fuss about disease being a problem (though with 132,000 people crammed into every square mile of the New York City metropolitan area you’d figure it would be), and in Sol’s case, there’s zero evidence in the film that he’s sick. Why does the usher resist the request from Thorn if this was the case? And why wouldn’t the attendants be in some sort of personal protective gear?
Maybe it’s to hide the ugly facts of dying? Real death is more disconcerting to see than most people are familiar with (take the death rattle as one example) and witnessing it might discourage other citizens from opting-in for the same themselves. But, we see that Sol just passes peacefully from the hemlock drink, so this isn’t really at play here.
Maybe it’s to keep the cinerama experience hidden? It’s showing pictures of an old, bountiful earth that—in the diegesis—no longer exists. Thorn says in the movie that he’s too young to know what “old earth” was like, so maybe this society wants to prevent false hope? Or maybe to prevent rioting, should the truth of How Far We’ve Fallen get out? Or maybe it’s considered a reward for patients opting-in to suicide, thereby creating a false scarcity to further incentivize people to opt-in themselves? None of this is super compelling, and we have to ask, why does the usher give in and open the viewport if any of this was the case?
So, maybe it’s to prevent beneficiaries from trying to interfere with the suicide. This society would want impediments against last-minute shouts of, “Wait! Don’t do it!” There’s some slight evidence against this, as when Sol is drinking the Hemlock, the viewing port is wide open, so beneficiaries might have pounded on the window if this was standard operating procedure. But its being open might have been an artifact of Sol’s having walked in without any beneficiaries. Maybe the viewport is ordinarily closed until after the hemlock, opened for final farewells, closed for the cinerama, and opened again to watch as the body is sped away?
This rationale supports another, more horrible argument. What if the reason is that Soylent (the company) wants the patient to have an uninterrupted dopamine and seratonin hit at the point of dying, so those neurotransmitters are maximally available in the “meat” before processing? (Like how antibiotics get passed along to meat-eaters in industrialized food today.) It would explain why they ask Sol for his favorite color in the lobby. Yes it is for his pleasure, but not for humane reasons. It’s so he can be at his happiest at the point of death. Dopamine and seratonin would make the resulting product, Soylent green, more pleasurable and addictive to consumers. That gives an additional rationale as to why beneficiaries would be prevented from speaking—it would distract from patients’ intense, pleasurable experience of the cinerama.
For my money, the “ecstasy meat” rationale reinforces and makes worse the movie’s Dark Secret, so I’m going to go with that. Without this rationale, I’d say rewrite the scene so beneficiaries are in the room with the patient. But with this rationale, let’s keep the rooms separate.
Which leads us to rethinking this interface.
A first usability note is that the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator is very confusing. The white text on a black background looks like speaking is, currently, permitted. But then the light behind it illuminates and I guess, then speaking is permitted? But wait, the light is red, so does that mean it’s not permitted, or is? And then adding to the confusion, it blinks. Is that the glitching, or some third state? Can we send this to its own interface thanatorium? So to make this indicator more usable, we could do a couple of things.
- Put a ring of lights around the microphone and grill. When illuminated, speaking is permitted. This presumes that the audience can infer what these lights mean, and isn’t accessible to unsighted users, but I don’t think the audio glitch is a major plot point that needs that much reinforcing; see above. If the execs just have to have it crystal clear, then you could…
- Have two indicators, one reading SPEAKING PERMITTED and another reading SILENCE PLEASE, with one or the other always lit. If you had to do it on the cheap, they don’t need to be backlit panels, but just two labeled indicator lamps would do.
And no effing blinking.
I think part of the affective purpose of the interface is to show how cold and mechanistic the thanatorium’s treatment of people are. To keep that, you could add another indicator light on the panel labeled somewhat cryptically, PATIENT. Have it illuminated until Sol passes, and then have a close up shot when it fades, indicating his death.
A note on art direction. It would be in Soylent’s and our-real-world interest to make this interface feel as humane as possible. Maybe less steel and backlit toggles? Then again, this world is operating on fumes, so they would make do with what’s available. So this should also feel a little more strung together, maybe with some wires sticking out held together with electrical tape and tape holding the audio jack in place.
Last note on the accommodations. What are the beneficiaries supposed to do while the patient is watching the cinerama display? Stand there and look awkward? Let’s get some seats in here and pipe the patient’s selection of music in. That way they can listen and think of the patient in the next room.
If you really want it to feel extradiegetically heartless, put a clock on the wall by the viewing window that beneficiaries can check.
Once we simplify this panel and make the room make design sense, we have to figure out what to do with the usher’s interface elements that we’ve just removed, and that’s the next post.