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.
Wednesday, December 20th, 2017
A nexus of hypermedia on all things Blade Runner, from links to Tumblr blogs to embedded screenplays, documentaries, and scanned images.
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.
Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017
Science fiction isn’t about technology, it’s about people …and how people change in response to technology.
So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.
Friday, March 24th, 2017
I know it’s just a landing page for YouTube channel of movie reviews but I really like the art direction and responsiveness of this.
Friday, January 6th, 2017
As always with sci-fi interfaces, the important part is telling the story, not realism or accuracy. Personally, I liked the way that the World War II trappings of Rogue One extended to communications and networking technologies.
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
Ten years on from Afonso Cuarón’s masterpiece.
Thursday, May 19th, 2016
The newest Kirby Ferguson video looks at remixing through the lens of the newest Star Wars film.
Thursday, April 7th, 2016
Mistakes on a plane
I’m in Seattle. An Event Apart just wrapped up here and it was excellent as always. The venue was great and the audience even greater so I was able to thoroughly enjoy myself when it was time for me to give my talk.
I’m going to hang out here for another few days before it’s time for the long flight back to the UK. The flight over was a four-film affair—that’s how I measure the duration of airplane journeys. I watched:
- Steve Jobs,
- The Big Short,
- Spectre, and
I was very glad that I watched Joy after three back-to-back Bechdel failures. Spectre in particular seems to have been written by a teenage boy, and I couldn’t get past the way that the The Big Short used women as narrative props.
I did enjoy Steve Jobs. No surprise there—I enjoy most of Danny Boyle’s films. But there was a moment that took me out of the narrative flow…
The middle portion of the film centres around the launch of the NeXT cube. In one scene, Michael Fassbender’s Jobs refers to another character as “Rain Man”. I immediately started to wonder if that was an anachronistic comment. “When was Rain Man released?” I thought to myself.
It turns out that Rain Man was released in 1988 and the NeXT introduction was also in 1988 but according to IMDB, Rain Man was released in December …and the NeXT introduction was in October.
The jig is up, Sorkin!
Thursday, February 4th, 2016
Monday, June 8th, 2015
100 words 078
I’ve noticed lately that my experience of films is lasting long after leaving the cinema. I end up reading opinion pieces and listening to podcasts about the film for days or even weeks afterwards.
Sometimes I find myself doing it with other media too. I finish a book, and then listen to reckons about it afterwards.
I guess this is the water cooler effect, but extended to the internet.
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
100 words 003
I measure transatlantic flights in movies watched. Yesterday’s journey from London to Seattle was four movies long.
- The Imitation Game: a necessarily fictionalised account of Turing’s life (one of the gotchas about top-secret work is that it’s, well, secret). But couldn’t Tommy Flowers have been given at least a walk-on part?
- Fury: Brad Pitt plays Lee Marvin in a war story told through the eyes of the naive rookie as seen in The Big Red One and Saving Private Ryan.
- Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part One: The Hungering.
- Paddington: just right for the end of a flight.
Friday, January 9th, 2015
Dropping our films down the memory hole. Welcome to the digital dark age.
Saturday, November 1st, 2014
Queen of science fiction.
Saturday, September 20th, 2014
I’m not quite sure why this is funny, but I am quite sure that it is.
Thursday, July 24th, 2014
Unfinished Business special: Rumpus On The Planet Of The Apes with Brendan Dawes and Jeremy Keith on Huffduffer
This was a lot of fun for us. It might even be fun to listen to.
If you haven’t seen Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, then listen ye not—this is a spoilerific podcast episode.
Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
The Aaron Swartz film is available on the Internet Archive under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial share-alike license.