The future isn't what it used to be: Andromeda Strain Edition

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I caught The Andromeda Strain via Netflix the other night. It's a pretty by the numbers adaptation of the classic SF novel, but despite that I found myself ungripped. The best part about the book is how good a job Crichton does of convincing you that you're reading science history, not science fiction. This is partly a matter of the dry, matter of fact tone and partly a matter of the just-out-of-reach-but-maybe-tomorrow feel of the technology. Unfortunately, none of this comes through in the movie, which instead has the sort of antique SF feel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Partly it's the old clothing and hair styles, but I think more importantly it's that in retrospect technology has developed rather differently from that portrayed in the movie.

Exhibit A here is the "Electronic Body Analyzer", a computer that automatically scans you, diagnoses stuff, administers medication, etc. So far so good: we don't have these yet, but maybe we could make one with some effort (though presumably ours wouldn't distract you with trippy music and then give you an unannounced injection). On the other hand, if we were to build one, it would have a zippy high-res interface with alpha-blending, drop shadows, and motion blur. It would probably not look like this:

That's a foot, by the way.

You also probably wouldn't get transmissions from headquarters by teletype.

This blind spot is all over science fiction of this era, of course (see also Aliens). Remember that in 1969 if a computer had any kind of interactive interface, it was some crappy character-based thing, so SF writers can't really be blamed for not anticipating modern interfaces. For some reason it seems easier to imagine computers being smarter than they are than them having better interfaces. (See also If Isaac Asimov Designed Your Computer).

What's odd is that none of this bothered me when I recently reread the novel. Sure I knew that it was unrealistic, but somehow reading it instead of actually seeing it play out in all its clumsy ASCII art glory let me suspend disbelief a bit.

Something else that works in the book but not the movie is the pacing. Part of the conceit is that there is this super-elaborate procedure for disinfecting the scientists as they descend into the laboratory. It's not clear why you need this at all; presumably if your scientists are sick you would be better off not to let them into the sterile are at all. Anyway, it's all neat and high-tech and lets Crichton show off his creativity, but the filmmakers seem to feel the need to show you the whole thing and it just drags really badly; they don't start seriously investigating the organism till like 50+ minutes into the movie and at this point you've kind of forgotten that it killed a town full of people.

I wonder if the miniseries is any better.


Well, Crichton was pretty much extrapolating from then-current UI designs. At the time he was writing, any sort of interactive computers were pretty hot stuff. Remember, the US hadn't landed a man on the moon yet, and Xerox PARC hadn't even been founded; SRI had done some demos, but it wasn't clear (at the time) that (say) NLS was "the wave of the future". (Which, in retrospect, it wasn't.)

Also, it's my understanding that most of the medical technology was pretty straightforward extrapolations of what the Apollo Project was doing; a lot of that got abandoned along with Apollo.

It's a lot easier to figure out what the key technologies will be in retrospect. For example, there's a lot of stuff that came out of the MIT Media Lab that never really went anywhere, but I suspect that in 30 years, someone will be tracing a line of research that will highlight some project or another that started at the Media Lab. I just have no idea which one.

And no, the miniseries is not any better. It's much worse, with extraneous subplots involving journalists.

But that generally seems the way things work in sci-fi depictions of technology: it's either so far out that your children's children's children [1] couldn't possibly see it, or it's just a small increment, enough to make it futuristic at the time, but not enough to weather the advancing decades. It's really seldom that they come up with something that really does reflect some sort of 30-to-50-years-out reality (exception: the flip-phone communicators in the original Star Trek series).

And for this movie, that's probably right, isn't it? They were depicting a high-tech facility in the relatively near future, not some 22nd-century fantasy. If they had stuff that would still seem leading-edge sci-fi now, it would have been silly then, too far afield to fit into the plot.

What actually bothers me more is how they depict computers in "here and now" movies and TV, where they show user interfaces that no one would use because they're stupidly useless. Like the search UIs that flash all the failed matches on the screen as they go. Or when someone walks up to a computer she's never seen before and uses software she's never used before, and happens to know exactly what to type. I understand that it makes for better theatre, but it drives me nuts.[2]

[1] Sorry... Moody Blues reference. Dates me.
[2] Admittedly, a short drive.

What Mr. Leiba said, mostly: the book doesn't take place in the far future, it takes place in pretty much the present (of its 1969 publication date). Crichton had no need to predict future computer user interfaces. The fanciest technology in the book is the computerized medical system (with its voice recognition and expert-system modules) and that is passed off as a costly military-secret system. Looking back I think it is a fair conceit. The voice-recognizer is the most futuristic and seems to work about as well as a late-70's model. I like the way it can't understand Hall's pronunciation of "ragweed pollen." The expert-system could almost have been designed and trained with late-60's technology, given a large enough budget (remember, in that era IBM would rent core memory to you for $4 * 1KB * month, when $4 would pay for a nice dinner).

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