Image: the Dixon Naval Radio Transmitter Facility, a former U.S. Navy Radio Transmitter facility in Dixon, California. More info and source here; https://www.flickr.com/photos/135665552@N04/27290340351/in/photostream/
First off: Happy St. Patricks Day! At time of publishing, I’ll be counting down the hours until I’m let out of work and immediately beeline to the closest Irish pub. I don’t care about a lot of holidays, but I don’t play about this one. It’s a duty.
Anyway, to the article;
You ever think about tech interfaces in science fiction? Like, buttons and switches? Or costume design? Cause I do, all the time. I love paying attention to set design or ancillary detail and so I think about this kind of stuff all the time. I have strong opinions on it. So today, I’m going to talk about my least favorite forms of set and costume design: Holograms, and tactical stuff.
Ok, so, holograms. We’ve been seeing them forever. I hate them. I hate them for very specific ideological and artistic reasons. Let me get into that: So, artistic reason first: They spring up, fully formed, as if they’re magic. It’s all frictionless. There’s no tactility to it.
What do I mean by that? Well, there are no physical buttons. It’s just all empty gestures. Look at Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie in the image above. He’s the best there ever has been at acting with this sci-fi concept, and even still, there’s just no real physicality to it. He’s not typing on a keyboard, reacting to a real object, but just swiping in the air. I think it’s aesthetically displeasing and I don’t think it makes for good acting. It’s a deep personal preference, but I just prefer actual buttons and switches. I think they’re purer showings of artstyle, personality, and acting, and I think they make for better sci-fi. There. One paragraph. I could rant about this for hours.
So what’s the ideological reason? Well, most sci-fi holograms pop up, fully formed, out of nothing. There’s no source, no device (or if there is, the prop is a basic circle or square, usually with a slick design, or a light table) that creates them. They exist as pure creations of information. I strongly dislike the ideological implications of that. Since I can remember, technology has been moving towards being more arcade and complex, and more removed from us as users, and I hate that sci-fi casts the ultimate iteration of that – a screen with no projector – as some kind of advancement.
Ok, I’ll go back for a second. Arcane and complex? Removed from us as users? What do I mean? I’ll give an explanation. So let’s take playing music, for example. Way back, you needed to own instruments and know how to play them in order to hear music. Or go to a local bar or club or hang out at your neighbor’s house. Later comes the phonograph and the photography cylinder, and the advent of recorded music in general. Now, one could simply buy a cylinder of recorded music versus having to acquire the skill or go somewhere physically for it. After that comes radio broadcasting, which isolated playback equipment from the listener entirely, replacing it with (at first, bulky and expensive) radios. Radios started to miniaturize, and recorded music became smaller and more efficient – from the cylinder to the vinyl record, then cassettes and 8-track tapes, and then to CDs.
The result is the further separation of people from the music itself, which kicked into high gear with personal computers, where now one didn’t even need special equipment like a record player, or proximity to a radio broadcast station and their idiosyncratic DJs. Finally, we hit our current level of technology, with smartphones and streaming, where the music data itself isn’t even physically on our devices – it’s beamed to us through Spotify or Youtube or whatever. (OK before someone responds pointing out I’m technically wrong, yeah it’s downloaded to your device for a short period of time so you can play it. That isn’t technically “beaming” but it basically is imho).
This same process is just our lives now. We don’t have physical, printed pictures – it’s all on a smartphone, which really is probably in the “the cloud”, which is really some warehouse in northern Virginia or Salt Lake City. Our conversations with friends? The same. Our stores are all Amazon warehouses in San Bernardino. Our tech is too complicated to fix ourselves, as opposed to those record players and radios that one could pretty easily fix with a few hours of time and a bit of skill. We’ve been completely isolated from technology, and it kinda sucks. It has real, noticable effects on our collective attention spans, memories, and language skills. Not to sound like an old “smartphone bad” meme, because I don’t agree with them either, but this is something that really sucks about our current tech moment. And it’s all preventable! We could create social media that doesn’t destroy our attention spans and memory, but we simply don’t!
The general narrative for why we must pay attention to science fiction is that it predicts the future, and I do not like that the future it’s predicting is a future where we don’t even have smartphones, but screens beamed to us from some other remote location. It’s everything I hate about technology and tech history, rolled into one. I am part of the anti-hologram resistance.
So let me cap this off on a positive note by gushing about science fiction works that don’t fall into this trap.
Ergo Proxy should fail my test, because it does have holograms – a lot of them, in fact. But I love it because it has one of my favorite uses of holograms in sci-fi – holographic books. It solves my aesthetic and ideological issues – they’re now physical objects, and they’re tactile. It’s great. They’re animated with this shimmery kinda sheen that’s really fun to watch, and as I continue watching this series I hope they keep showing up.
Also on the anime side, shoutout to Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, where in our far off future (the 2030’s) we still have newspapers, but printed with barcode type writing that’s only legible to cyborgs. That’s fun and creative as all hell, and a great little storytelling ploy about how common cyborgs are in the far off future (the 2030’s). Let’s see holograms communicate that much about the world.
Moving out of anime, I have to shout out the computers in Severance. They match the retro-modernist aesthetic the show has going, and they’re really distinctive. I want those keyboards. It’s funny, because the world of Severance is very much not the future, and I feel like the prop design is a kind of allegory for how technologically stuck our society is, and it fits the culty, kinda fascist, trad vibes of the evil company they all work for. A+ prop design. I need a second season already.
Finally, I’m going to give a big shout out to a design that is stuck in my brain to this day: The controls and phones from the robot-boxing movie Real Steel. They have these fake Nokia phones in it that are totally clear, and I’ve wanted one since I saw that movie. They would be awful to have but I am just obsessed. It’s the perfect way to sell the setting too, this vaguely futuristic society where, uh, we watch robots box. Genuinely fun movie, but kinda lost the ball because it turns out we all watch MMA in our dystopian future instead.
Beyond these being just aesthetically and ideologically pleasing to me, I think they’re just well executed sci-fi. These have stories to tell and form an intelligent bit of set design with real thought put into it. I feel like holograms have become ubiquitous because there is no real thought required. You can just slot them into anything, and they’re immediately seen as futuristic. It’s lazy and its a perfect reflection of a lot of the lazy popular sci-fi and technologists we have today. I want to be excited by the future, not bored with it. Maybe that’s a big ask.
Well, that’s it! Bit of a short and sweet one this month, I’m doing a lot of research and working on learning Japanese. Less time for sci-fi. See you next month!