Interfaces to Complexity

A variety of interfaces from Star Wars Rogue One

Recently I have become fascinated by the computer interfaces in science fiction films. They are full of overwhelming intricacy: thousands of numbers flashing in quick succession, DNA sequences connecting to photographs connecting to maps, seven layers of data perfectly interlinked.

From Assassin’s Creed

What makes them so fantastic is that they reveal, rather than hide, the complexity of the systems they interface with. Since it is impossible to visualize the computer’s thought process, designers instead show the raw material that thoughts are based on…dumping on the screen all the data that the computer is keeping track of in its working memory at at time… all at a single glance. Then, as time carries on, you can see the data moving, revealing the underlying relationships.

All data sources at once: from Iron Man 3
Sherlock uses a wall as an interface

But what makes them even more fascinating is just how different they are to the interfaces we actually have in real life. Since the late 1920s designers have worked as hard as possible to hide every detail of complexity from user interfaces. As an onlooker wrote in World Radio magazine in 1926, “It is a curious fact that the more complicated wireless sets become the simpler they are.”

The result is a world where our interfaces strive not to give us an accurate picture of the way the world works…but to build for us a fake version of reality, heavily simplified, that helps us accomplish our goals as quickly as possible.

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