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software you can’t make fun of

factsandfictionsWe dream of Minority Report; what we have is The Drudge Report. Many of us would happily embrace the moral hazards of pre-crime enforcement—if we could only have some of the supercool holographic, seamless information technology manipulation we see in the movie.

Art is a powerful lens through which we can examine culture and society. Artistic expression is also a conduit through which we relate to each other and try to make sense of what’s happening around us. When it comes to technology, popular artistic expressions of it are interesting for two main reasons.

First, art reflects reality as widely perceived for a particular age. It acts as a mirror, and while it doesn’t represent objective reality, it can be a valid measure of how how we really see ourselves. When we see Homer Simpson struggle to use a computer, we can laugh at it because he is an oaf, but we can also relate to what he is going through, because we experience it everyday.

Second, art can also express our collective fears, desires and aspirations. For example, The Terminator falls squarely in the “fear” category (and what better way to represent fear of technology that than through a monomaniacal unstoppable killing machine with a heavy Austrian accent?) while Iron Man, at least in part, is more aspirational, a non-cynical view of Vorsprung durch Technik.

So what do popular representations of information technology in art tell us, not about what the tech industry thinks it is, but how people perceive it, how we relate to it, whether it’s doing what we want or not?

Asking this question leads to some uncomfortable answers. It is striking how art, and in particular popular art —TV, movies, bestselling books— is in almost universal agreement: in their current form software, hardware, the Internet and information technologies are (apparently) good for humor, but not much else.

The flip-side is that when information technologies have to be used for a “serious” purpose (say, by detectives trying to solve a crime, doctors trying to save a life, spies chasing terrorists), without cynicism but matter-of-factly as part of the world, they rarely if ever look like what actually exists. Not only that, they are qualitatively different than what is available today.

It’s not just in the context of science fiction: whether in contemporaneous or futuristic settings, when information technologies are involved, nothing looks or, more importantly, behaves like what’s available in our everyday reality.

Here’s a short clip with some of my favorite examples:

Think about it beyond the examples in the video. On TV, on books, on movies, and not just for comedy. If you see a “realistic” depiction of the technologies we have, it is almost invariably in the context of humor or, at best, a cynical point of view. This is not a case of confirmation bias. Examples of use of information technology in realistic settings are few and far between, and most of those are for highly specialized areas, like computer experts.

Even in those cases, it’s still notable when it happens. The new USA Show Mr. Robot (btw, watch this show, it’s awesome!) has actually gotten attention specifically because it stays true to reality.

Consider what you are exposed to everyday while using your computer or the Internet. The challenges involved in actually getting your work done (e.g., struggling to find the right information, reading through nearly incomprehensible email threads) or just everyday communication or entertainment (being bombarded with advertising, posting what you had for dinner, commenting on traffic). Now try to recall examples of media depictions of those activities in which they are just a matter of everyday life and not used as a comic foil, for humor, or acerbic/cynical commentary.

There aren’t many. We are spending significant portions of our lives in front of screens, and yet a straightforward, realistic depiction of this reality seems to automatically become a joke. Even non-fictional accounts of events tend to avoid the subject altogether.

The appearance of other technologies also involved humor, fear, cynicism, but there was also a good share of positive depictions and, more importantly, reflections of reality as reality without turning it into a punchline. Phones, for example, could be used for jokes (perhaps, most effectively, by Seinfeld) but also as an “everyday” communication mechanism. Cars, rockets, biotechnology, advanced medicine, modern industry, media itself, all have been depicted for good, for bad, but also as a staple of life.

It’s valid to consider that, perhaps, there’s something intrinsic in information technology that resists use in artistic representations, but that’s not the case.

In fact, art and popular media are awash in representations of information technologies used for purposes other than humor.

It’s just that those representations are completely removed from reality—drastically divergent from what we actually use today.

Many of these clips are for stories set in the future, but one would be hard pressed to trace a path between, say, the Mac Finder or Internet Explorer and the systems depicted. After all the main element that separates “futuristic” interfaces from those placed in alternate versions of the present like in James Bond movies is the common appearance of 3D holographic interactive displays. Even more: movies like the Iron Man series or TV Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. all manage to skip the part where it’s all in the future and place those interfaces and interaction mechanisms into the fictional “present” they depict.

Computers that don’t get in the way seems to be more  part of the ‘Fiction’ than the ‘Science’ in Science Fiction.

Apparently, to have your computer help you, without interrupting, and without getting in the way, seems like a fantastical notion. To enjoy entertainment without glitches or being flooded with inane commentary seems preposterous.

Literary representations of technology, even in dystopian contexts, also tend to prefer non-linear extrapolation. William Gibson’s description of Cyberspace is a good example:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

— William Gibson, Neuromancer

What is significant is that even though these representations of information technology are unrealistic, we still connect with them. They don’t strike us as nonsensical. They just seem far-fetched, particularly as we return to the reality of pages that never load, files that can’t be found, viruses, spam attacks, and a flood of data we can’t digest into anything sensible.

If these depictions represent something worth aspiring to, we need to start moving along that path instead of burrowing deeper into the hole we find ourselves in: we need software you can’t make fun of.

At least, not as easily as it is today.🙂

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