A new impressionistic documentary about Space City.
Tuesday, October 9th, 2018
Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Thursday, September 6th, 2018
Chris is putting his examination of interfaces in science fiction on pause while he examines a more pressing matter for today’s political climate—an examination of depictions of fascism in science fiction:
Tuesday, July 31st, 2018
A forthcoming documentary about the company spun out of Apple to create a handheld communication device …in 1990.
From mobile computing, social media, downloadable apps and e-commerce to touchscreens, emoji and USB, the products and services that now dominate the tech industry and our day-to-day lives were born at General Magic.
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Monday, May 28th, 2018
Wednesday, May 16th, 2018
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.
The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)
I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.
William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.
Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.
Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.
And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.
Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.
I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.
Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).
Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.
There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”
Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”
I’m sure those are just coincidences.
Sunday, April 15th, 2018
Some colour palette inspiration from films.
Friday, April 6th, 2018
2001 + 50
The first ten minutes of my talk at An Event Apart Seattle consisted of me geeking about science fiction. There was a point to it …I think. But I must admit it felt quite self-indulgent to ramble to a captive audience about some of my favourite works of speculative fiction.
The meta-narrative I was driving at was around the perils of prediction (and how that’s not really what science fiction is about). This is something that Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly, most famously in Hazards of Prophecy. Ironically, I used Clarke’s meisterwork of a collaboration with Stanley Kubrick as a rare example of a predictive piece of sci-fi with a good hit rate.
When I introduced 2001: A Space Odyssey in my talk, I mentioned that it was fifty years old (making it even more of a staggering achievement, considering that humans hadn’t even reached the moon at that point). What I didn’t realise at the time was that it was fifty years old to the day. The film was released in American cinemas on April 2nd, 1968; I was giving my talk on April 2nd, 2018.
Over on Wired.com, Stephen Wolfram has written about his own personal relationship with the film. It’s a wide-ranging piece, covering everything from the typography of 2001 (see also: Typeset In The Future) right through to the nature of intelligence and our place in the universe.
When it comes to the technology depicted on-screen, he makes the same point that I was driving at in my talk—that, despite some successful extrapolations, certain real-world advances were not only unpredicted, but perhaps unpredictable. The mobile phone; the collapse of the soviet union …these are real-world events that are conspicuous by their absence in other great works of sci-fi like William Gibson’s brilliant Neuromancer.
But in his Wired piece, Wolfram also points out some acts of prediction that were so accurate that we don’t even notice them.
Also interesting in 2001 is that the Picturephone is a push-button phone, with exactly the same numeric button layout as today (though without the * and # [“octothorp”]). Push-button phones actually already existed in 1968, although they were not yet widely deployed.
To use the Picturephone in 2001, one inserts a credit card. Credit cards had existed for a while even in 1968, though they were not terribly widely used. The idea of automatically reading credit cards (say, using a magnetic stripe) had actually been developed in 1960, but it didn’t become common until the 1980s.
I’ve watched 2001 many, many, many times and I’m always looking out for details of the world-building …but it never occurred to me that push-button numeric keypads or credit cards were examples of predictive extrapolation. As time goes on, more and more of these little touches will become unnoticeable and unremarkable.
On the space shuttle (or, perhaps better, space plane) the cabin looks very much like a modern airplane—which probably isn’t surprising, because things like Boeing 737s already existed in 1968. But in a correct (at least for now) modern touch, the seat backs have TVs—controlled, of course, by a row of buttons.
Now I want to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey again. If I’m really lucky, I might get to see a 70mm print in a cinema near me this year.
Saturday, January 6th, 2018
While not every white man who dislikes The Last Jedi overtly dislikes its gender balance or diversity, many feel a level of discomfort with this film that they can’t name, and that expresses itself through a wide variety of odd, conflicting complaints about its filmmaking.
Tuesday, December 26th, 2017
The Last Jedi
If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi (yet), please stop reading. Spoilers ahoy.
I am well aware that the last thing anybody wants or needs is one more hot take on this film, but what the heck? I figured I’d jot down my somewhat simplistic thoughts.
I loved it.
But I wasn’t sure at first. I’ve talked to other people who felt similarly on first viewing—they weren’t sure if they liked it or not. I know some people who, on reflection, decided they definitely didn’t like it. I completely understand that.
A second viewing helped to cement my positive feelings towards this film. This is starting to become a trend: I didn’t think much of Rogue One on first viewing, but a second watch reversed my opinion completely. Maybe I just find it hard to really get into the flow when I’m seeing a new Star Wars film for the very first time—an event that I once thought would never occur again.
My first viewing of The Last Jedi wasn’t helped by having the worst seats in the house. My original plan was to see it with Jessica at a minute past midnight in The Duke Of York’s in Brighton. I bought front-row tickets as soon as they were available. But then it turned out that we were going to be in Seattle at that time instead. We quickly grabbed whatever tickets were left. Those seats were right at the front and far edge of the cinema, so the screen was more trapezoid than rectangular. The lights went down, the fanfare blared, and the opening crawl begin its march up …and to the left. My brain tried to compensate for the perspective effects but it was hard. Is Snoke’s face supposed to look like that? Does that person really have such a tiny head?
But while the spectacle was somewhat marred, the story unfolded in all its surprising delight. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of having the narrative rug repeatedly pulled out from under me.
I loved the unexpected end of Snoke in his vampiric boudoir. Let’s face it, he was the least interesting part of The Force Awakens—a two-dimensional evil mastermind. To despatch him in the middle of the middle chapter was the biggest signal that The Last Jedi was not simply going to retread the beats of the original trilogy.
I loved the reveal of Rey’s parentage. This was what I had been hoping for—that Rey came from nowhere in particular. After The Force Awakens, I wrote:
Personally, I’d like it if her parentage were unremarkable. Maybe it’s the socialist in me, but I’ve never liked the idea that the Force is based on eugenics; a genetic form of inherited wealth for the lucky 1%. I prefer to think of the Force as something that could potentially be unlocked by anyone who tries hard enough.
But I had resigned myself to the inevitable reveal that would tie her heritage into an existing lineage. What an absolute joy, then, that The Force is finally returned into everyone’s hands! Anil Dash describes this wonderfully in his post Every Last Jedi:
Though it’s well-grounded in the first definitions of The Force that we were introduced to in the original trilogy, The Last Jedi presents a radically inclusive new view of the Force that is bigger and broader than the Jedi religion which has thus-far colored our view of the entire Star Wars universe.
I was less keen on the sudden Force usage by Leia. I think it was the execution more than the idea that bothered me. Still, I realise that the problem lies just as much with me. See, lots of the criticism of this film comes from people (justifiably) saying “That’s not how The Force works!” in relation to Rey, Kylo Ren, or Luke Skywalker. I don’t share that reaction and I want to say, “Hey, who are we to decide how The Force works?”, but then during the Leia near-death scene, I found myself more or less thinking “That’s not how The Force works!”
This would be a good time to remind ourselves that, in the Star Wars universe, you can substitute the words “The Force” for “The Plot”—an invisible agency guiding actions and changing the course of events.
The first time I saw The Last Jedi, I began to really worry during the film’s climactic showdown. I wasn’t so much worried for the fate of the characters in peril; I was worried for the fate of the overarching narrative. When Luke showed up, my heart sank a little. A deus ex machina …and how did he get here exactly? And then when he emerges unscathed from a barrage of walker cannon fire, I thought “Aw no, they’ve changed the Jedi to be like superheroes …but that’s not the way The Force/Plot works!”
And then I had the rug pulled out from under me again. Yes! What a joyous bit of trickery! My faith in The Force/Plot was restored.
I know a lot of people didn’t like the Canto Bight diversion. Jessica described it as being quite prequel-y, and I can see that. And while I agree that any shot involving our heroes riding across the screen (on a Fathier, on a scout walker) just didn’t work, I liked the world-expanding scope of the caper subplot.
Still, I preferred the Galactica-like war of attrition as the Resistance is steadily reduced in size as they try to escape the relentless pursuit of the First Order. It felt like proper space opera. In some ways, it reminded of Alastair Reynolds but without the realism of the laws of physics (there’s nothing quite as egregious here as J.J. Abrams’ cosy galaxy where the destruction of a system can be seen in real time from the surface of another planet, but The Last Jedi showed again that Star Wars remains firmly in the space fantasy genre rather than hard sci-fi).
Oh, and of course I loved the porgs. But then, I never had a problem with ewoks, so treat my appraisal with a pinch of salt.
I loved seeing the west of coast of Ireland get so much screen time. Beehive huts in a Star Wars film! Mind you, that made it harder for me to get immersed in the story. I kept thinking, “Now, is that Skellig Michael? Or is it on the Dingle peninsula? Or Donegal? Or west Clare?”
For all its global success, Star Wars has always had a very personal relationship with everyone it touches. The films themselves are only part of the reason why people respond to them. The other part is what people bring with them; where they are in life at the moment they’re introduced to this world. And frankly, the films are only part of this symbiosis. As much as people like to sneer at the toys and merchandising as a cheap consumerist ploy, they played a significant part in unlocking my imagination. Growing up in a small town on the coast of Ireland, the Star Wars universe—the world, the characters—was a playground for me to make up stories …just as it was for any young child anywhere in the world.
One of my favourite shots in The Last Jedi looks like it could’ve come from the mind of that young child: an X-wing submerged in the waters of the rocky coast of Ireland. It was as though Rian Johnson had a direct line to my childhood self.
And yet, I think the reason why The Last Jedi works so well is that Rian Johnson makes no concessions to my childhood, or anyone else’s. This is his film. Of all the millions of us who were transported by this universe as children, only he gets to put his story onto the screen and into the saga. There are two ways to react to this. You can quite correctly exclaim “That’s not how I would do it!”, or you can go with it …even if that means letting go of some deeply-held feelings about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if it were our story.
That said, I completely understand why people might take against this film. Like I said, Rian Johnson makes no concessions. That’s in stark contrast to The Force Awakens. I wrote at the time:
Han Solo picked up the audience like it was a child that had fallen asleep in the car, and he gently tucked us into our familiar childhood room where we can continue to dream. And then, with a tender brush of his hand across the cheek, he left us.
The Last Jedi, on the other hand, thrusts us into this new narrative in the same way you might teach someone to swim by throwing them into the ocean from the peak of Skellig Michael. The polarised reactions to the film are from people sinking or swimming.
I choose to swim. To go with it. To let go. To let the past die.
And yet, one of my favourite takeaways from The Last Jedi is how it offers a healthy approach to dealing with events from the past. Y’see, there was always something that bothered me in the original trilogy. It was one of Yoda’s gnomic pronouncements in The Empire Strikes Back:
Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.
That always struck me as a very bro-ish “crushing it” approach to life. That’s why I was delighted that Rian Johnson had Yoda himself refute that attitude completely:
The greatest teacher, failure is.
That’s exactly what Luke needed to hear. It was also what I—many decades removed from my childhood—needed to hear.
Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
This looks like a rather good documentary about the best band in the world.
A nexus of hypermedia on all things Blade Runner, from links to Tumblr blogs to embedded screenplays, documentaries, and scanned images.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
It had been a while since we had a movie night at Clearleft so I organised one for last night. We usually manage to get through two movies, and there’s always a unifying theme decided ahead of time.
For last night, I decided that the broad theme would be …transport. But then, through voting on Slack, people could decide what the specific mode of transport would be. The choices were:
- getaway car,
- truck, or
Nobody voted for submarines. That’s a shame, but in retrospect it’s easy to understand—submarine films aren’t about transport at all. Quite the opposite. Submarine films are about being trapped in a metal womb/tomb (and many’s the spaceship film that qualifies as a submarine movie).
There were some votes for taxis and trucks, but the getaway car was the winner. I then revealed which films had been pre-selected for each mode of transport.
- Collateral, Michael Mann, 2004 (86% 🍅)
- Night On Earth, Jim Jarmusch, 1991 (73% 🍅)
- Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, 1976 (99% 🍅)
- Baby Driver, Edgar Wright, 2017 (93% 🍅)
- Wheelman, Jeremy Rush, 2017 (88% 🍅)
- Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011 (93% 🍅)
- The Driver, Walter Hill, 1978 (80% 🍅)
- Below, David Twohy, 2002 (64% 🍅)
- Crimson Tide, Tony Scott, 1995 (87% 🍅)
- The Hunt For Red October, John McTiernan, 1990 (86% 🍅)
I thought Baby Driver would be a shoe-in for the first film, but enough people had already seen it quite recently to put it out of the running. We watched Wheelman instead, which was like Locke meets Drive.
So what would the second film be?
Well, some of those films in the full list could potentially fall into more than one category. The taxi in Collateral is (kinda) being used as a getaway car. And if you expand the criterion to getaway vehicle, then Furiosa’s war rig surely counts, right?
Okay, we were just looking for an excuse to watch Fury Road again. I mean, c’mon, it was the black and chrome edition! I had the great fortune of seeing that on the big screen a while back and I’ve been raving about it ever since. Besides, you really don’t need an excuse to rewatch Fury Road. I loved it the first time I saw it, and it just keeps getting better and better each time. The editing! The sound! The world-building!
With every viewing, it feels more and more like the film for our time. It may have been a bit of stretch to watch it under the thematic umbrella of getaway vehicles, but it’s a getaway for our current political climate: instead of the typical plot involving a gang driving at full tilt from a bank heist, imagine one where the gang turns around, ousts the bankers, and replaces the whole banking system with a matriarchal community.
“Hope is a mistake”, Max mansplains (maxplains?) to Furiosa at one point. He’s wrong. Judicious hope is what drives us forward (or, this case, back …to the citadel). Watching Fury Road again, I drew hope from the character of Nux. An alt-warboy in thrall to a demagogue and raised on a diet of fake news (Valhalla! V8!) can not only be turned by tenderness, he can become an ally to those working for a better world.
Wednesday, October 4th, 2017
If you subtract the flying cars and the jets of flame shooting out of the top of Los Angeles buildings, it’s not a far-off place. It’s fortunes earned off the backs of slaves, and deciding who gets to count as human. It’s impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. It’s having empathy for the right things if you know what’s good for you. It’s death for those who seek freedom.
A thought-provoking first watch of Blade Runner …with an equally provocative interpretation in the comments:
The tragedy is not that they’re just like people and they’re being hunted down; that’s way too simplistic a reading. The tragedy is that they have been deliberately built to not be just like people, and they want to be and don’t know how.
That’s what really struck me about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: the tragedy is that these people can’t take action. “Run! Leave! Go!” you want to scream at them, but you might as well tell someone “Fly! Why don’t you just fly?”
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017
What an excellent example of a responsive calendar!
Monday, June 12th, 2017
The following film describes an unusual motion picture now being produced in London for release all over the world, starting in early 1967.
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
A minority report on artificial intelligence
Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.
It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.
At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.
Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.
The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.
But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:
It helps not to think of them as human.
To which the response is:
No, they’re so much more than that.
Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.
Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.
Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.
Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.
Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.
When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.
Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…
Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.
At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.
Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.
There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.
The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:
SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.