Hein (fub) wrote,
Hein
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The role of computers and technology in movies

When I had made this 'weird pseudo-informative display' icon, I posted about it. Apparently breyten disagreed with me, so he wrote a post in his own Journal about how computers and technology are portrayed in movies.

Of course, I disagree with him, and here is why:

He writes that I look at things from a technical point of view, but:
"What you see on that screen isn't something that is meant to be a form of communication between the actor and the computer, but in all it's purposes it's meant to communicate something to the viewer of a movie."
I disagree with this. What is on the screen is, often, completely irrelevant to the plot of the movie. Consider my example of Jurassic Park. What the little girl sees on the screen is not important: the audience doesn't even need to see the screen -- all they have to know is that the girl can somehow manipulate the machine into showing her the information she needs. That this is visualised by way of navigating a 3D representation of the file system is completely irrelevant -- it does not convey any message that is pertinent to the movie itself.
Take, for instance, The Matrix Reloaded. In a certain scene, Trinity uses nmap to discover a known ssh exploit to hack into a computer. No fancy animations here: just a text-interface, and she typing on the keyboard. The audience knows she is a l33t haxx0r and that she is haxx0ring very l33tly indeed, even though they don't understand what exactly is happening -- it doesn't matter, because it's not important to the plot how she does it.

In my post, I theorised that movie makers want to make us feel alienated by technology. breyten says:
"Why would they want us to feel alienated from technology, when they know like no other what the possibilities are, and what the impossibilities are?"
You see, there you have it: we, as a society, are both enamoured and terrified of technology.

What makes a good movie? A good movie speaks to us about our hopes and our fears. We fear the unknown, and technology is one of those things, even though we rely on that same technology every day. Consider the role of computers and technology in movies. If a major part is reserved for a robot or a computer system, it is always the bad guy. Consider Jurassic Park, The Matrix, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or I, Robot, or The Terminator, or Tron. The only time we see a machine do Good Things is when they are used to counter-act a machine that is doing Bad Things (Tron, The Terminator 2) -- we never see a machine being genuinely benign, robot pets aside.
The fact is that technological development has progressed tremendously in the last fifty years -- and the rate of development is still speeding up. Moore's Law still stands -- so far, chips have followed the logarithmic scale predicted by one of Intel's founders. Aided by computers, and soon extensive genetic engineering and nanotechnology, we will soon be able to do many things that ten years ago were the realm of science fiction.

That is frightening to many people. They aren't used to this fast pace, where new technologies are introduced while the stuff it's supposed to improve upon hasn't even been around for that long. DVDs are relatively new, yet the new standards are already lined up, and the first consumer products are already appearing. But the prototypes of the new systems (holographic!) technologies are already working in the development labs. The lifecycles of products are shortening, and the products themselves are growing more and more complex. Philips' new credo of 'Sense and Simplicity' notwithstanding, adding more and more complex features to a system makes it more and more complex to work.(*) People feel alienated by this, they feel powerless and insignificant. They feel threatened.

In William Gibson's "All Tomorrow's Parties", which is set in the near future, one of the characters visits a vintage hardware shop:
Looking past the dislay, she could see a lot of old hardware side by side on shelves, most of it in that grubby beige plastic. Why had people, for the first twenty years of computing, cased everything in that? Anything digital, from that century it was pretty much guaranteed to be that sad-ass institutional beige, unless they'd wanted it to look more dramatic, more cutting edge, in which case they'd opted for black. But mostly this old stuff was folded in nameless shades of next-to-nothing, nondescript sort-of-tan.
[...]
She pointed at the beige hardware. "How come this old shit is always that same color?"
His forehead creased. "There are two theories. One is that it was to help people in the workplace be more comfortable with radically new technologies that would eventually result in the mutation or extinction of the workplace. Hence the almost universal choice, by the manufacturers, of a shade of plastic most often encountered in downscale condoms." He smirked at Chevette.
"Yeah? What's two?"
"That the people who were designing the stuff were unconsciously terrified of their own product, and in order not to scare themselves, kept it looking as unexciting as possible. Literally 'plain vanilla,' you follow me?"
When I first read that passage, I dismissed it: clearly that was bullshit. But now I know it is true. Look around: there are beige computer cases everywhere, and only the snazzy hardware comes in a black case.
I know someone who opted to pay 300 euros for an iPod, instead of paying 25 euros less for the Archos Gmini 400 which has so many features that it makes the iPod look like its retarded cousin. His reasoning? He liked the design of the iPod better -- in other words, the buttons of the Gmini scared him and he didn't want to deal with that, even though it would enable him to do many more things that would have been useful to him.(**)

Good movie makers know what the public wants, and good movie makers know how to exploit those repressed emotions and fears. Hence the eternal role of technology as Bad Thing. But obviously, the public works with technology as well -- surely they would recognize Excel as being a spreadsheet and not a Tool Of Evil?
And thus the movie makers need to invent weird displays and Blinken Lights, to stress that this computer/technology is different from the small and harmless PC that lives in the study. Instead, this computer is a large monolithic block, set in a clean room with lots of machinery surrounding it. An acolyte in labcoat checks the various subsystems, and the audience knows: This is Technology that is Unknowable. It could do Bad Things and we wouldn't know until it was too late.

It is too bad that this negative portrayal of technology is so pervasive. Neo-luddism is putting a serious brake on, for instance, genetic technologies. We need those technologies to thrive and survive in the future.(***)

I was going to write here that the only movies that I know of that present a neutral (and perhaps even favourable) view on technology are the Ghost in the Shell and GitS: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii is a known transhumanist), but these also feature scenes of 'brain hacking' and all sorts of negative consequences of further technological development.
Does anyone know of a movie that is optimistic about technology?

(*): At work, I sometimes have to make interfaces onto databases, so that the client can, for instance, edit the information about the products that need to be presented on the website. Sometimes, this is pretty complex, because the rules and the features of the products are complex -- and this results in a complex interface. I do not try very hard to make this 'easy': if it is complex, then you are doing your users a disservice by pretending it is easy. The most common interactions with the system should be simple, yes -- but if the complexity is inside the system, then no amount of fudging can make it completely simple, short of cutting features.
(**): That, or he is the victim of marketing and mass hysteria -- I don't know what is worse.
(***): Amongst others, in space.
Tags: philosophy, technology
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