WARN: There Is Another System

“…Technology in science fiction film does appear to be limited, by-and-large, to trends in real-world technology. Early films depict computers as monolithic, mainframe-like entities. Over time, depictions of the computer become more ubiquitous and more commingled with everyday human life. 2001 and THX 1138, for example, each feature what could be considered mainframe computers. Furthermore, computer monitors in such early films are generally monochrome CRTs, and input devices are primarily push-buttons. Later depictions of computers, as in Minority Report, feature computers that blend into the environment and whose interfaces are sometimes hard to discern. This trend is more or less similar to the real trend in computer technologies.

“However, while depictions of technology in the films largely follow trends in real-world technology, there were a number of notable exceptions to the rule. Such cases are informative both in illustrating misconceptions filmmakers had about the future in terms of technology, as well as in illuminating areas in which technology has not advanced as far as expected. Take, for example, the notion of future computing being characterized by room-sized computers. Depictions like these illustrate a future view of computer technology that software and microprocessors have helped redefine, of course, but it remains telling that early filmmakers did not anticipate at least a move to smaller computers. The same could be said for depictions of the Internet — developments like the Internet are sometimes retrospectively viewed as a natural, almost predictable evolution in technology, yet this natural evolution was not anticipated by early filmmakers. Both examples illustrate the dramatic, difficult
to anticipate changes that characterized computing in the latter half of the 20th century. On the other end of the spectrum—technology that has not advanced as far as expected—we find computers with extremely high functioning artificial intelligence (e.g., 2001) and humanoid robots (e.g., THX 1138 and AI). In fact, these are common elements in science fiction film dating back to at least Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. Such depictions of technology are interesting counterbalances to other technologies presented in the same films that are low-tech in comparison (e.g., monochrome monitors or push-button interfaces). This observation has implications for the real world. Technology, it seems, advances in unpredictable ways. In 20 years, there will likely be new technologies that completely redefine the way we interact with one another, and yet we will just as likely continue to struggle with any number of technology issues whose resolution seem within reach today.

“Lastly, and perhaps related to the previous point, it is telling that depictions of computer technologies in science fiction film typically have more polish and function far more seamlessly than computer technologies in real life. Norman notes that one large difference between computer technologies today and how they were presented in 2001 is how flawlessly the depicted technology works. In film, software is not burdened with usability issues and computers rarely crash. Indeed, this observation extends to nearly all the science fiction films examined in this study; rarely did people have trouble using a computer or computer technology, even in films presenting a dystopian future. This may be yet another way in which computer technology has advanced (or stagnated) in unpredictable ways.”

Text: Jerrod Larson, “Limited imagination: Depictions of computers in science fiction film”, Futures 40, (2008) 293–299.

Image: Colossus: The Forbin Project, 1970.


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