Back to the Forbidden Planet

Over the last few posts we’ve covered the Fermi Problem and hypotheses, which of the hypotheses sci-fi likes to write about, and which of the hypotheses it’s strategic to write about. This brings us back around to Forbidden Planet.


As a species, we’re faced with a number of big problems that need solving. Some feel more abstract than others, but it sure would suck if we were wrong about that. And while sci-fi can be pure escapism, when it does, hopefully it serves as a mild indulgence rather than something which lets us ignore problems in the real world. As I’ve said before, it is part of my mission with this blog to get readers to not just watch sci-fi but to use it; to understand its effects and limitations; to decide how believable its scenarios are; and to think about the lessons you can take back with you to the real world.

This is why Forbidden Planet is such a stellar movie for me.

It is a singular example (in the survey at least) of humans encountering an ancient, vastly advanced, dead civilization through the “ruins” of its technology. There was no tense tête–à–tête diplomacy, or sexily-foreign green aliens to seduce, or any of those other Terran imperialist thrills.

I'm not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I’m not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I don’t want to demean its historical importance. It came at a time in cinematic history after a few decades where Hollywood created little more sci-fi than space opera for kids, and it proved enough of a commercial and critical success that suddenly sci-fi was a serious consideration for big budget attention. That meant broader reach, and more people thinking about speculative futures. (Heck, it meant enough serious sci-fi that I could keep a blog about the genre. So, you know, thanks for that.)

But more than its historical importance is that it’s the best model of a likely future. Just this past May, Adam Frank (an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester) and Woodruff Sullivan published “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe.” In the paper they note that the 1,284 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler observatory scientists puts some lower-limit constraints on a few factors in the Drake equation.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

“Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations—if we ask the right question.”

Their work suggests that the odds are in favor of finding alien life—but finding evidence of it long dead. They suggest a shift in our attentions away from contacting a living civilization, towards cosmic archaeology. You know, like Forbidden Planet illustrates.

A graph from "A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe" showing the lower limit to the number of technological species in the universe as being 2.5x10^-24.

Number of Technological Species Ever in the Universe, from the paper.

Frankly it could stop there and be canonized for that purpose, but the film goes one better

We still don’t have great constraints for the other troubling component of Drake’s equation, and that’s how long technological civilizations tend to last. That question in turn raises the darker question of what tends to doom those civilizations. One possibility is that it is that technology itself is the thing, which is, again, what Forbidden Planet illustrates.

This is a blog about sci-fi interfaces, and I presume that readers are, like me, directly involved in shaping technology. So it is that this 60 year-old film has a one-two punch. It shows us both what the future will probably be like, and then turns our attention to something we can think about—and work to make right—now.

And that’s sci-fi we can use.


A Fermi strategy

In the first post I gave an overview of the Fermi question and its hypothetical answers. In the second, I reviewed which of the answers sci-fi is given to. In this post I compare the costs of acting on each answer.

Which should we be telling stories about?

Sci-fi likes to tell stories about the Prime Directive Fermi answer. But is it the most useful answer? Keep in mind that most of us are not working in space programs. For us, sci-fi is less direct inspiration to go build the most kick-ass rocketship we can, but rather inform how we think about and support the space program culturally and politically. With that in mind, let’s spend a little bit of time talking about the effects of confronting each hypothesis in our sci-fi. To be able to compare apples to apples, let’s apply the same thinking to each.

  1. What would be the call to action (if any) if this hypothesis is true?
  2. What if this is true, but we fail to act on it?
  3. What if it’s true, and we do act on it?

Warning: This will be long, but if we’re thinking strategy, risk aversion, and opportunity maximization (as we are) we have to be thorough.

Life is rare


All life is precious, Daryl.

These stories tell us to not get our hopes up about thrilling tales of space imperialism. We need to get our shit sorted, since, no, we won’t have peace treaties with Romulan Sith, but we will have our hands full dealing with our own worst natures and the weirdness of natural space problems like black holes and special relativity. While we go about this, we should take advantage of this freakish circumstance by protecting life for the precious thing it is. Continue reading

The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smorgasbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.


But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see. Continue reading

The Fermi Paradox

For its 60th anniversary I hosted a sci-if movie night at the Roxie cinema in San Francisco of the 1951 classic Forbidden Planet. It was delightful to see it on the big screen with the Roxie’s gorgeous projection system and hear that crazy soundtrack through their audio system.

After the show, I broke with my usual tradition of discussing any of the interfaces (after all, I’d already reviewed all of them on the blog years ago, and recently discussed the film in depth with the guys at Decipher Sci-fi) and instead discussed an idea that’s present in the film. In this handful of posts, I’m going to represent that content, but also add some additional content that there just wasn’t time for before we had to leave the cinema to make way for the next show.

Necessary Spoilers: In Forbidden Planet, a platoon travels to Altair IV to figure out why a 19-year old colony of scientists has gone silent. They meet Morbius, the only survivor of the original colony, and his daughter Altaira. They learn that Morbius has discovered the complete knowledge and technological remains of a long-dead, highly advanced civilization called the Krell. Through the Krell’s still-working machines Morbius has greatly enhanced his intelligence, but unwittingly unleashed an invisible “monster from the id” that has violently destroyed everyone but him and his family. Morbius refuses to return to Earth with Captain Adams, and so Adams grounds the mission while his crew uses parts of the ship to construct a communication device to ask for orders. During the downtime, with some truly wince-worthy 1950s slut-shaming courtship, Captain Adams somehow wins the heart of Altaira, who falls for it and defies her father and becomes engaged to the captain. Crushed by the betrayal, Morbius’ control of the monster wanes, and it attacks and defeats him. His world asunder, Morbius decides in his dying moments to scuttle the entire planet, including all traces of the Krell. From a safe observing distance in space, Adams, Altaira, and the surviving crew watch the explosion before heading back to Earth.

The movie presents one answer to a long-standing astronomical question,

“With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and billions of years of time since the start of the universe, even if only a very small fraction of stars produced advanced civilizations, where the hell is everybody? Why does space seem so devoid of life?

This question is commonly known as the Fermi Paradox. It’s not really a paradox in the logical sense, so it works better in discussions to call it the Fermi question. Continue reading

8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

  1. You build necessary skepticism. Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

Continue reading

Back on

Apologies for the long absence from the blog. I’m working on a book, a white paper, some freelance work, a workshop, some presentations, working on that award idea, being a Dad, trying to edit more blog posts that guest writers have submitted, and having careful conversations with smart people about Next Things.

But, as mentioned previously, this blog is not forgotten. And, per some recent conversations (as well as getting excited about Civil War), I did have some content I wanted to get up to restart the content engine here.

Yes, I still intend to finish The Star Wars Holiday Special. Yes, I need to finish The Avengers. In the meantime, let me post these next super-meta thoughts about Why Study Sci-Fi Interfaces? Then I’ll try and get back to the regular stuff.


A little radio silence

Apologies for the brief radio silence, readers. I’ve moved on from my prior day-job employer, and between talking to folks about a next opportunity, working on a seekrit sci-fi interfaces project in the works, and preparing for some upcoming presentations, I’ve been very strapped for time. Wrapping up SWHS as soon as I’m able, and excited about some upcoming posts from two additional contributors. Stay tuned.

Gestural Spheres

While working on some other material this weekend, I just noticed two unusual, but similar gestures from different movies in 2015, which are gestures on the outside of spheres.

First, the Something control sphere from Tomorrowland.


And, the core memories in Inside Out.


The gestures are subtly different (Tomorrowland is full palm, Inside Out is two fingers) and their meanings are different (Tomorrowland is to shift direction of travel of the time camera, Inside Out is to scrub the time itself) but they are a nice gestural rhyme of each other.

The Inside Out image reminds me that I really, really need to do a full retrospective of interfaces in Pixar movies, because they are quite extraordinary in the aggregate.

The Faithful Wookie


Release Date: 17 NOV 1978 (USA)

Despite what you may think, I know how far down the Sarlacc pit this is going. I’m in the middle of The Avengers, which I interrupted for the Star Wars Holiday Special, and now we’re looking at the interfaces inside a ten-minute cartoon that Lumpy watches complacently while stormtroopers trash his home and rough up his family in the background. We’re at Inception level Hoth.

I even know I have proclaimed that I must shy away from reviewing interfaces in hand-drawn animation on principle. I know all this. But if you have yet to brave gazing into the dark heart of The Special, know that this is its highlight. The animation is gorgeous and trippy (like something out of Heavy Metal magazine circa 1980) almost making the frame story of The Special worth it. Even if the plot is a little wan.


Luke, the droids, and Leia are aboard the cruiser R.S. Revenge,  anxiously awaiting word from Han and Chewie, who are racing to find a mystical talisman before the Empire does. The Millennium Falcon comes out of lightspeed barreling toward the cruiser and out of radio contact. After it zooms past, Luke takes the droids and chases the Falcon to an intensely pink moon. Luke crashes into the soupy surface, and while looking for them with binoculars, he is saved from a pink sauropod attack by Boba Fett. (Yes, that Boba Fett. This is where he is introduced in the Star Wars universe.) Fett then leads them to the Falcon.

There Luke sees Chewie eject the talisman from the ship, before falling into the same coma-like sleep as Han. Turns out the talisman is infected with a virus that only affects humans. To survive, Luke is hung upside down next to Han until they can be cured. Something something blood to the brain something. Fett offers to get a remedy in the nearby city.

After he gets the serum, Fett contacts Darth Vader (insert gasp) on a public video phone (insert gasp). Back at the ship, the Droids intercept the message, hearing that the talisman is a red herring—Fett and Vader are really trying to earn their trust to learn the location of the new Rebel base. When Fett returns to the Falcon, they inject the serum to wake Han and Luke, but the droids out Fett as the bad guy he is. Fett escapes with his jet pack, promising that they’ll meet again.


Lumpy’s Brilliant Cartoon Player

I am pleased to report that with this post, we are over 50% of the way through this wretched, wretched Holiday Special.



After Lumpy tries to stop stormtroopers from going upstairs, an Imperial Officer commands Malla to keep him quiet. To do so, she does what any self-respecting mother of a pre-teen in the age of technology does, and sits him down to watch cartoons. The player is a small, yellow device that sits flat on an angled tabletop, like a writing desk.

Two small silver buttons stack vertically on the left, and an upside down plug hole strainer on the right. A video screen sits above these controls. Since no one in the rest of his family wants to hear the cartoon introduction of Boba Fett, he dons a pair of headphones, which are actually kind of stylish in that the earpieces are square and perforated, but not beveled. There are some pointless animations that start up, but then the cartoon starts and Lumpy is, in fact, quiet for the duration. So, OK, point one Malla.


Why no budding DJ has glommed onto this for an album cover is beyond me.


We only see Lumpy press down onto the surface of the device from the far side, so it’s mostly conjecture about how the interface works. The same goes for the media. But we do know the basic needs of video: Start, stop, and volume. And a single click-stop dial could handle all that, even if kind of poorly.

We also don’t know whether the device has media inserts—like a Blu-Ray player—or is more like a television with fixed streams of ongoing content to pick from, or like a Netflix requiring a search of a practically infinite on-demand catalogue. But that sink drain thing looks like it’s meant to be a channel selector, and this was 1978, so let’s presume it was a television model with a few-year prescient Walkman personal-media bent. In fact, there’s a handle visible in the shot posted below, so let’s give this thing some credit for presaging miniaturization to the point of mobility. It must have blown some kids minds back then.

And, sure, this interface could manage the task at hand, even if it’s missing some feedback for exactly which channel is being watched, and what the current volume is or what that second click-stop dial does, or why it has an affordance for turning when Lumpy clearly pushes it.



What I’m most interested in though is the crappy, crappy production quality of the thing. While it’s easy and admittedly fun to decry this as rushed through the prop department in about 30 minutes, I’m going to use my old friend apologetics to wonder if maybe Lumpy himself put this together. Not like a science fair project, but as an off-the shelf product. Wouldn’t it be awesome to give a kid a blank box with a video screen, let him take any object he found on top of it to use as a control device? A thimble could become the on-off switch. A jack could become the channel selector. A Matchbox car could become the volume control. This would diegetically explain the dopey sink strainer, and give Lumpy an awesome opportunity to think about the affordances of the things around him and the relationships-of-parts he could use to control abstract variables like volume, power, playback speed, etc. Maybe he could even assign objects to favorite videos. This stone in that crayon circle means that video. It would be a dream to foster interaction design thinking.

Sure, you might be thinking, but this would take cameras of an eye-like quality, and perfect image recognition attached to a near general artificial intelligence. Too bad they don’t have anything like that in Star Wars, yeah?


Of course one imagines such a device might be prohibitively expensive for a smuggler’s Life Day budget, and moreover this is giving the Star Wars Holiday Special waaaaay too much credit, but these are the truffles I actually do hope to find in rooting around all this muck for you.

Also to drop this. Contact me with demos.