Interview with Sci-Fi Author Bruce Sterling: Alien-Computer Interfaces

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Bruce Sterling

Aaron Marcus: Do sci-fi movies adequately deal with alien-computer interfaces?

Bruce Sterling: My philosophy is to let Hollywood be Hollywood. They’re an old and well-entrenched entertainment industry. They deal with their issues “adequately” from their own perspective.

Hollywood people don’t get up first thing in the morning saying “it’s time to design some diegetic [telling, recounting, as opposed to showing, enacting] prototypes to affect public understanding of difficult user-interface issues.” It’s just not part of their business model.

For Hollywood, it’s adequate if it works on the screen and maybe sells some tie-in collectibles. Hollywood is not required to make a lot of objective sense under sharp critical inquiry. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) movie is a superhero comic book, it’s childishly absurd on its face, but it’s got some rather interesting speculative user-interface work in it. Best stuff in the movie actually, unless you are into green Photoshopped guys beating up demigods.

AM: Do we really understand the aliens and their user interfaces?

BS: The point of a movie is dramatization; it’s not understanding. A drama isn’t a geometric proof. It doesn’t produce any stark glow of direct comprehension. No one goes “A-ha, now I understand them and their user interfaces,” at the end of Casablanca (1942). Although, when Rick forces Captain Renault, at gunpoint, to make a phone call to the airport allowing Ilsa’s escape, it’s kind of a neat telecom hack.

AM: Would we understand aliens?

BS: Well, it helped me to understand “Hollywood interfaces” when I learned more about the genuine user interfaces that actually make Hollywood movies. A lot of Hollywood is about Hollywood, and a lot of “special FX” is about special FX technology.

For instance, take the famous scene in Blade Runner (1982), in which Harrison Ford analyzes a photo. This scene is obviously of keen, heartfelt interest to the guys in the “Blade Runner FX Lab.” Similarly, the tech guys doing FX for Minority Report (2002) are really licking their chops over that gesture-based Oblong Industries interface, which, by the way, exists in Los Angeles today and is used mostly to make cinema.

What you’re seeing in those film sequences is digital imaging professionals projecting their own power fantasies to a large popular audience. That’s pretty much bound to be interesting to scholars of technology. It really is diegetic too, since the Minority Report interface is used again and again to clue people in about gesture recognition technologies. They still don’t know how it works, but it helps to persuade them that it’s coming.

Prometheus (2012) tried to address understanding aliens, but only because the aliens were super previous humans, and the thing that learned how to communicate with them was an android that had studied and mastered all previous human languages—and the aliens still tore its head off! Also, District 9 (2009) dealt with this topic when the human hero sat in an alien’s seat that just happened to fit his rear end and was able to use the controls. Marvelous coincidence, no? Or was the alien technology so advanced it could anticipate weird users, like humans?

Even though I’m a science fiction writer, I’m not too worried about our insulting space aliens by misrepresenting them and their hardware in our films. It’s not like they’ll complain to Amnesty International.

“Realistic” aliens—like the postulated inhabitants of Jupiterian gas-bag planets—aren’t going to show up in Hollywood movies because they’re hard to dramatize on a movie screen. What kind of dramatic dialogue is the screenwriter going to pen for an imaginary creature that lives for millennia, breathes liquid ammonia, and is a couple of kilometers across? Even if you worked all that out in exquisite extrapolatory sci-fi detail, the audience would just leave the theater when shown it. It’s not proper movie material; the viewers would find it abstract and dull. It’s like asking the audience in the film Avatar (2009) to identify with the mystic magic tree rather than all the sexy blue people.

Hal Clement’s science fiction novel Mission of Gravity has some pretty good alien invention in it. These aliens live under massive gravity, so they’re basically intelligent centipedes. If you’re into the imaginative invention of severely alien life forms, Hal Clement did a bang-up job there. No Hollywood producer is going to finance a movie about intelligent centipedes. Because they’re creepy and genuinely alien, they don’t have that Hobbit-style huggability that commands a wide audience.

However, one might do a pretty good five-minute Vimeo style FX film about intelligent alien centipedes. It would have a niche audience, but it would also have a niche cost. This is one reason why “design fiction” is thriving in short online movies today. Nowadays we’ve got the technical capacity to visually dramatize truly startling things, effectively, on a small scale.

AM: If we saw people using technology twenty to fifty years from now, would we actually understand anything at all of what was going on? 

BS: Not at first, no. But I wouldn’t expect interfaces twenty years from now to be completely opaque to us. Kids and the elderly would be using them, so designers would surely create some approachable learning curve for these experiences.

If somebody from 1987 saw people today using touch-interface iPhones, they’d also be pretty weirded-out at first. But if you handed them an iPhone, it wouldn’t take them long to identify what was basically going on with the device. They’d be a lot more thrilled and awestruck about an iPhone than we are, but the user interface on an iPhone is actually rather friendly, and, in fact, more approachable than computers were in 1987.

Small kids can use iPads without any formal training. Even cats and dogs can “use” some aspects of iPads. They probably don’t understand these user interfaces at all, but they still experience them.

AM: Don’t most sci-fi movies and authors “dumb down” future technology and user experience in order to help readers/viewers to understand what is going on?

BS: Well, there’s no question that blockbuster FX movies are much dumber than, say, instructions that tell people how to write code in Processing or wire up an Arduino. But if you dazzle and entertain people properly, they don’t really demand much “understanding.” If you sling too much “understanding” at a movie audience, the drama gets dry and didactic. Nobody wants to watch a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy movie where the marshal stops the action to explain how the United States Marshals Service works as a federal law enforcement agency with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The part that works about the marshal within a western movie is that the guy is a strong, dynamic presence within the narrative. The viewer easily follows what is going on because he/she hears how people talk about the marshal, sees that the marshal inspires fear in the bad guys, and sees that the marshal is dressed as an authority and comports himself like a figure in charge. The marshal changes the behavior of the characters and the plot is transformed. People learn a lot through tangential social cues of this sort. They see that the marshal is heavy-duty.

In Minority Report the gestural interface is also heavy-duty. The way it works goes mostly unexplained, but the film characters take it with lethal seriousness, it’s clearly used in matters of life and death, and it enables the characters to do things no modern person can do. Viewers leave the theater and they’re emotionally engaged in the possibilities of a gestural interface. Even the dumb people get that quite easily; often more so than techno-literate smart guys who can likely list ten design-school reasons why that gizmo would never work in real life.

AM: Who from before the Renaissance, would have any idea about what technologies were doing. Would they be able to “read a toilet”? I always thought Don Norman’s idea of affordances was culture biased, as well as history biased. What would a King Arthur’s knight make of a ‘57 Chevy heading his way? Possibly, he might interpret it as a dragon and attempt to spear it with his javelin.

BS: Well, you could take a five-year-old kid from before the Renaissance and he’d catch on today practically as fast as any contemporary five-year old kid. We all have to be “taught to read a toilet.” Donald Norman has a point when he strongly urges usability for people who are foreign, sight- or hearing-impaired, differently abled, and so on. Why make situations unnecessarily puzzling?

I imagine that the experience of time travel would be much like other, more standard forms of culture shock. For Marco Polo, modern Italy would likely be about as alien to him as China once was. But Marco Polo did pretty well in China, by his own account.

When you’re an alien and culture-shocked, people tend to take you by the hand and socialize you. If you’re an adult woman, a kindly woman will teach you how to “read a toilet.” We’ve got plenty of contemporaries who’ve never seen toilets, but whenever plumbing extends to a Third World village, they all catch on pretty fast.

There are a number of comical movies of the Mark Twain variety about medieval knights confronting modernity. That’s good comic material. In real life, culture shock can be a severe trial for people. It’s pretty common for disaster victims in relief camps to curl up and go numb, not just from the grief of their loss, but also from a raw inability to understand what they are supposed to do next. A time traveler would also risk that bewildered condition. But it’s not primarily about strange new technical infrastructures; it’s mostly about the hurtful and frightening loss of routines and social roles. When people are humiliated, and they feel worthless, dishonored, and without some plausible role in society, they often become despairing, or violent.

The big challenge there isn’t the difficulty of understanding a car when you’ve never seen a car before. The crisis is all about self-esteem; about being demeaned. If you forced a medieval knight to drive a car, he would wreck it. But if you took the same knight to a prowl car with a SWAT team inside and you told him, “See, these are our fighters, they wear armor, they have badges and flags, they have sworn oaths of duty, and they have liege lords,” then he would respond, “Yes, fine, teach me the skills of these weapons.”

The medieval knight would get pretty homesick, but if he didn’t crack up in the first crucial six months of culture shock wonderment and crisis, he’d likely be okay in the long run. After seven years, he’d probably be pretty much like any similar immigrant from a Third World country.

AM: Would Leonardo get us? Would we grok him? A Berkeley Repertory Theater production about Leonardo actually made him seem human. He was petty and normal in addition to being a superman.

BS: I happen to be quite the Leonardo fan. I don’t believe that Leonardo was of “superhuman” intelligence. He was very intelligent, indeed, but the more you know about him, the more he comes across as a cranky, left-handed, gay creative with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a good bit of manic grandiosity.

Leonardo’s a more attractive, congenial figure than Benvenuto Cellini, another Italian Renaissance genius. Cellini truly enjoyed killing people, while Leonardo merely drew shocking sadistic doodles about ultra-powerful war machines, none of which were ever really built.

When you study how Leonardo earned his living, clearly most of his everyday activity is lost to us, because his main works were special FX extravaganzas to entertain royal and ducal courts. Leonardo’s primary career was as a well-rewarded aristocratic hanger-on. Leonardo spent his last years in the royal court of France just talking to the King of France, basically a series of private TED talks. That was Leonardo’s only duty in France; just being a wise man and conversing on this-and-that stimulating topic. Leonardo was given a castle for doing that.

Leonardo was 95 percent vaporware and hype. He drew heaps of speculative inventions, but except for cool FX toys like his one-off musical instruments and wind-up wooden lions, he never created any genuinely functional tool, machine, or device. Basically, Leonardo was a lot more like Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar than he was ever a real engineer or even a real artist. He was superb at painting, but it bored him. Once he got good at painting, it couldn’t hold his wandering interest any more.

Leonardo was never “petty and normal.” Renaissance creatives didn’t do “petty and normal.” Most Leonardo technical fantasies are very much his power-fantasies. They’re all about one person using machinery to do amazing, glorious things, specifically to make himself look amazing and glorious. If Leonardo showed up in our times, he would want to meet the creative artists among us who were as noble and glorious as kings. We don’t have any. Even our movie stars and music stars are pretty drab by his Renaissance standards. He’d probably end up in the court of some billionaire tech mogul.

AM: What do you make of Indian, Chinese, or Japanese sci-fi?

BS: I’m always interested in manifestations of science fiction. They don’t have to be good by American standards for me to manifest some sincere and lasting interest. If you know sci-fi well, but don’t know Japan well, Japanese sci-fi can make a good gateway to Japanese culture.

AM: Do you think there are essential cultural tropes or differences that distinguish the different sci-fi cultures and perhaps generate unique genres local to the culture? 

BS: No, I don’t; I’m not a cultural essentialist. Sci-fi cultures aren’t essential anyway because sci-fi is not some ancient, bedrock principle of anybody’s civilization. What makes sci-fi different in different cultures is mostly the different local means of production, distribution, and promotion.

American sci-fi is big because American publishing is big and the American population is big. Chinese sci-fi is also big, but they don’t eagerly export their fantasies like Americans do, because it doesn’t occur to them that other people might want to listen.

Singapore is very high-tech and English is very widespread there, but they don’t have any publishing industry, because they’re a city-state; they see themselves as a depot. Singapore is like a science fictional society without the fiction. Dubai is like a science fictional society without the science.

AM: What are some examples of sci-fi from other countries?

BS: Well, there have never been a ton of Bollywood sci-fi movies, but if you’ll trouble yourself to see a Tamil film called Endhiran the Robot, you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of potential there. That film was a major commercial success in India recently. The same goes for the Krrish series starring Hritik Roshan as a superhero contacted by UFO aliens. Qayamat is an interesting Bollywood techno-thriller. There have been a number of Bollywood spy movies that have a strong James Bond techno feeling about them.

India is huge, but the way their films are financed and shot, and the audiences they serve, are unique to the subcontinent. For instance, Bollywood is keen on musicals because the music sales are a major source of revenue for the Indian film business. If Hollywood sci-fi flicks had to earn out through the soundtracks, they’d be musicals, too.

AM: Is it in our human genetic destiny that we are to invent robots and they are to take over after us? Is the human race just the cocoon of the caterpillar before the robot butterfly emerges?

BS: Well, I’ve heard a lot of that talk in my lifetime, and it would be wrong to be all cornily conservative about the prospect, but the more one learns about robots and algorithms, the less akin to us they appear. They’re not our rivals or our mind-children. They’re not our “successors” any more than smokestacks or mathematics textbooks are our successors. Militarized robots might wipe us out, but we could be wiped out by our coal mines, or our hydrogen bombs, or even by some minor virus, or an asteroid. That doesn’t make robot drones, fossil fuels, bombs, illness, or cosmic accidents our successors. They’re of a different category than us. We modern homo sapiens will most likely be done in by some of our own close hominid relatives if we play true to type over our last two million years.

Robots just don’t want to live. They’re inventions, not creatures; they don’t have any appetites or enthusiasms. I don’t think they’d maintain themselves very long without our relentlessly pushing them uphill against their own lifeless entropy. They’re just not entities in the same sense that we are entities; they don’t have much skin in our game. They don’t care and they can’t be bothered. We don’t yet understand how and why we ourselves care and bother, so we’d be hard put to install that capacity inside our robot vacuum cleaners.

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