I was recently sent this article comparing skylines of San Francisco in two of this summers science fiction blockbusters: Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation.
These two matte paintings pretty much sum up the perspectives these two franchises have on the the future of human race. In one world, the human race overcomes its petty differences and silly things like armed conflict and joins together into a planetary federation posited with the task of maintaining peace and diplomacy throughout the universe; a heady and high-minded ideal indeed. In the other, not only does humanity destroy itself by it’s own inventions, it’s fall is inevitable.
The theme of being destroyed by ones own creation is not a new one (dating back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or even the Golems of Jewish folklore) but is definitely very much the view of the future from a modern perspective. Even the production design of Star Trek evokes a “Retro” feeling, an update of the clean, geometric shape of things to come envisioned in the sixties and seventies.
I’ve just finished reading a memoir by David Beers entitled Blue Sky Dream about growing up in post war california, the son of an aerospace engineer at Lockheed when the future (as my eloquent co-worker Sean puts it) “was shiny and new.” And that’s the thing, if you look at when these two series’ were conceived, you will notice a marked shift in attitude towards the future. The 1960’s brought us not only Star Trek but also The Jetsons and Lost in Space with images of the future as a generally happy place where technology makes our lives better.
But, as Beers points out in his book, as government money for aerospace programs began to dry up, disillusionment set in. I don’t think it a coincidence that it is around this time (the 1980’s) we got movies like the Mad Max’s, Escape From New York, Blade Runner, and a whole host of other dystopias, not to Mention The first two Terminator movies. That’s not to say there weren’t optimistic visions of the future in the 80’s (that is when most of the Star Trek films were released) but I’d say that it is fair to argue that the 80’s are when that kind of view of the future really took hold of mainstream consciousness. A view that, I believe, still defines our attitudes today.
Take for example this talk by Bruce McCall: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bruce_mccall_s_faux_nostalgia.html
We laugh at these images but I think in that we’ve also lost something of the wide eyed gleam the future used to inspire; but why?
I think part of what happened is technology has gotten away from people in the sense that, as it becomes increasingly complex, it has also gotten less and less intuitive. Part of this is surely attributable to the increasingly rapid pace at which technology is developing in the world but part of it is also due to a failing in design.
I think everyone can relate to a how frustrating it is when a device or piece of software doesn’t work as described or has poor documentation. But even beyond that, people don’t want to read documentation. I think this is part of why apple has been so successful as of late, they’re gone to great lengths to make the user interface intuitive. Naturally they have the advantage of an environment where they control most of the variables but I think that they’re attempts at making the way we interact with the virtual world mimic the way we interact with the physical one are a great step in the right direction.
Take a look at this TED video for more of what I mean about putting the user back into user interface.
To come full circle, in Terminator 3, Kate Brewsters Dad, when General Brewster is pressed to allow Skynet full control over the military defense system he says “I’d like to keep a human in the loop”. And when he finally does acquiesce, Skynet is unleashed and destroys the world. Let’s keep humans in the loop.