Hollywood’s Anachronistic Vision of Our Digital Future

By Jamie

March 27, 2013 Tech Culture 1 Comment

Present is precedent when it comes to envisioning our digital future in big screen sci-fi and futuristic action films. Guided by an imperative that props must be believable to audiences in the context of today’s culture and technology, writers and prop designers are much too conservative in envisioning a future that will be radically different from today’s. Their conceptions are often times visually radically, and yet at the same time functionally anachronistic – a phone is something you hold to your head, we receive information through visors and displays that look like flashier versions of today’s screens, etc.

Familiarity is essential to some extent. It’s like a Broadway actor flamboyantly acting out emotions with exaggerated facial gestures and body language to convey what would be a subtle expression in real life. Similarly, the retro-future technologies featured in so many sci-fi films give the audience a necessary hook to accept a futuristic vision or identify the role of a prop without stumbling over it. The technique is successful as a narrative device, but it inhibits our ability to collectively imagine the wild possibilities before us – possibilities that will trend toward the magical while being increasingly invisible (thus not making for good film).

Twenty years ago the constraints were technical – how does one portray a futuristic device without the special effects to make it believable – and so Alien‘s computer readouts looked painfully similar to computers of the era (though perhaps with an even slower cursor speed). But with the quality of today’s computer generated graphics, the only constraints are self-imposed.  In particular, this afflicts the visions of future communications and human-computer interaction.

Some Recent Examples

Case in point – 2012’s Prometheus. The android David, ably played by Michael Fassbender, is shown using a virtual reality-type headset to communicate with a sleeping Peter Weyland and view Elizabeth Shaw’s dreams. The screenwriter is claiming that it is justifiable to convert the hypersleep chamber’s digital stream into visual and aural output, which enter David’s artificial eyes where they are reconverted to digital data. The visor provides us with understanding and a frame for the cross-cut dream sequences, but would not make sense in reality. The same is true of the boatswain’s call (whistle) used aboard the Engineer ship to activate certain devices. It conveys nautical and military imagery of a bygone era that is familiar to us, but was useful only in overcoming the cacophony of waves and weather competing with commanders’ voices aboard seagoing ships and is out of place on a computerized space ship.

Similarly, the phone-in-hand trick is as old as Inspector Gadget, but is somehow new again in the 2012 Total Recall remake. Viewers understanding someone talking into their hand as if an invisible (in this case sub-dermal) phone was there, but logically-speaking it seems less convenient than a small Bluetooth or head-integrated unit, especially for tactical scenarios. However, watching someone talk to thin air without some visual cue is too unfamiliar for convenient storytelling.

In many cases, technology has surpassed remote sci-fi visions that at the time seemed novel. 2002’s Minority Report earned great acclaim for its fascinating gesture-interface displays used by Tom Cruise. The movie was set in 2054, but today’s technologies have already surpassed that vision. Today we can use Kinect, Leap Motion Controllers, and eye-scroll to interact with devices without even putting a Power Glove on our hands as Cruise’s character did. The Minority Report display’s closest real-world relative would be a first-generation Wii, which can track multi-point motion by infrared sensing of a handheld device. The Wii came out only four years after the movie.

Sci-fi Literature’s Bolder Visions

Sci-fi authors are not as confined as Hollywood screenwriters. Firstly, there is a wider body of material that allows for more risks and creativity. But more importantly, writing can convey modes of communication and interface in ways that are difficult to capture on film.

I recently read the Lilith’s Brood trilogy by Octavia Butler. Butler imagines a wild future in which aliens have intervened to save humankind from near extinction after a nuclear war. These aliens are capable of speaking aloud (both their own language and human languages), but a defining characteristic is their ability to communicate with each other and humans through conveyed sensory experience. They physically join through special appendages and can silently “discuss” through shared or delivered experience with each other. They can tell narratives, share memories with perfect clarity, or even debate through this mode of communication. It would either make a painfully boring movie, or at least one rife with cross-cut dreamlike sequences of inner thoughts or voice overs.

Similarly, the 2011 hit Robopocalypse featured a character who as a result of modification by a malevolent AI could communicate with machines near and far by RF, and speak the machines’ language (so to speak). The book will no doubt be made into a movie given its popular appeal, but it is much more difficult to convey an alien, wordless style of communication through film than it is through writing.

A Stranger, But More Likely Future

Among future display and interaction technology, what’s more likely is a Matrix-style future in which information is input and output directly to and from our brains without an intermediate interface… but without the conceit of a visualized virtual reality so convenient for the Matrix films. Rather, we will enjoy a third eye of sorts which funnels information in addition to our traditional senses. I think less of Tom Cruise with a swipe screen than I do Lobot from Star Wars or Yale from Earth 2, both of whom have augmented, computer-connected cognitive capabilities. Unlike those instances, in our future these modifications will likely be externally invisible.

First generations of such technology already exist as visual, aural, and neural prostheses. Bone-anchored hearing aids and cochlear implants provide synthesized aural information that circumvent parts of the ear, and visual prosthetics help blind people see (to some degree) by directly stimulating the optical nerve and brain (Geordi La Forge-style). With respect to output, researchers at Duke, among other places, have had great success in allowing animals and paralyzed individuals to control robots through cognition alone, and in 2009 researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison composed a tweet through brain-power alone.

Bootstrapping Reality

As our present routinely surpasses our dreams of the distant future, it’s worth considering that our rapid advancement is due in part to such movies and books setting reach goals for immediate applied research which subsequently fulfills the prophecy itself.

Between engineers and writers it’s hard to say who was the first to consider the appeal of a hand-held remote communications device, but we do know that portable radio transceivers were around as early as 1923, and it’s not too much of a leap to imagine a handheld version – as Star Trek did in 1964. Although one of the creators of the mobile phone credits Star Trek with inspiring his vision of wireless communications, Roddenberry at best hastened technology along an inevitable path.  There are definitive instances in which sci-fi authors have made real and recognizable contributions to technological fields. For instance, Arthur C. Clarke first identified the practical uses of a geosynchronous orbit. More often than not, however, the rough outlines of possibility are posed by scientists, and science fiction writers explore the implications for culture and human existence.

There are still many popular sci-fi technologies that are clearly beyond our reach today: flying cars, true holographic volumetric displays, suspended animation, faster-than-light travel, etc. But even in these cases, the depiction of that future is not alien to us – flying cars just like cars, but they fly; holographic displays are just like real objects, but they’re not really there; suspended animation is like a long age-less sleep; and FTL travel is like any other travel, but faster, or maybe not even travel at all but you’re suddenly just somewhere else.

Other fictional technologies don’t yet exist because they don’t make practical sense: for instance, clear personal displays as seen in Minority ReportLooper, The Avengers, and Avatar. As a personal desktop display they’re terrible for privacy, and as a group display they’re little more than a novelty compared to today’s nascent smart boards. Presumably the mirror image would appear on the reverse side, and ambient background light would have to be restricted. In fact the greatest strength of a clear display in film is that it allows the director to get close-ups of the actors reacting to the information on screen. Clear displays are useful for personal heads-up displays to augment reality, but these already exist in fighter jets and Google Glass. Makers around the world are playing with garment-mounted interfaces, but they haven’t proven their worth. “Where’s my jetpack?” you ask? You can build one yourself, but I don’t see people rushing to do so.


Ultimately, there is a contradiction of sorts. On one hand, the future can be expected to be completely alien (far enough out), but at the same time there is an unending drive toward simplicity that will strip away the trappings and props of technology and leave only its effects made possible by increasingly invisible computerized actors. The future could be very wild – neural I/O and remote control, shared or collective consciousness, and indelible or artificial memory – but the tools of those technologies likely won’t make for exciting viewing.

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