I love Pixar. Who doesn’t? The stories are magnificently crafted, the characters are rich, hilarious, and unique, and the images are lovingly rendered. Without fail, John Ratzenberger’s iconic voice makes a cameo in some boisterous character. Even if you haven’t seen every film they’ve made (I refuse to watch Cars or its preposterous sequel), there is a consistency and quality to Pixar’s productions that is hard to deny.
Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant and complex goodness is a hidden message.
Now, this is not your standard “Disney movies hide double-entendres and sex imagery in every film” hidden message. “So,” you ask, incredulous, “What could one of the most beloved and respected teams of filmmakers in our generation possibly be hiding from us?” Before you dismiss my claim, consider what is at stake. Hundreds of millions of people have watched Pixar films. Many of those watchers are children who are forming their understanding of the world. The way in which an entire generation sees life and reality is being shaped, in part, by Pixar.
What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind. I have uncovered the skeleton key deciphering the hidden message contained within the Pixar canon. Let’s unlock it. Read More
If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.
The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not ourworld, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.
In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes or abuse Clarke’s rule? Read More
Imagine you know everything on Wikipedia, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contents of every book in digital form. When someone asks you what you did twenty years ago, on demand you recall with perfect accuracy every sensation and thought from that moment. Sifting and parsing all of this information is effortless and unconscious. Any fact, instant of time, skill, technique, or data point that you’ve experienced or can access on the internet is in your mind.
Cybernetic brains might make that possible. As computing power and storage continue to plod along their 18-month doubling cycle, there is no reason to believe we won’t at least have cybernetic sub-brains within the coming century. We already offload a tremendous amount of information and communication to our computers and smartphones. Why not make the process more integrated? Of course, what I’m engaging in right now is rampant speculation. But a neuro-computer interface is a possibility. More than that: cyber-brains may be necessary. Read More
Update 5/24/11: The conversation continues in Part II here.
I recently gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America as part of a panel on the “Science of Cyborgs” sponsored by the Science Entertainment Exchange. It was a fun time, and our moderators, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from the HowStuffWorks podcast, emceed the evening with just the right measure of humor and cultural insight. In my twelve minutes, I shared a theory of how consciousness evolved. My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness, maybe this will help us envision new ways our consciousness might evolve further in the future. That could be fun in terms of dreaming up new stories. I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.
This idea is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve not yet been able to find it already in circulation.
At night in the rivers of the Amazon Basin there buzzes an entire electric civilization of fish that “see” and communicate by discharging weak electric fields. These odd characters, swimming batteries which go by the name of “weakly electric fish,” have been the focus of research in my lab and those of many others for quite a while now, because they are a model system for understanding how the brain works. (While their brains are a bit different, we can learn a great deal about ours from them, just as we’ve learned much of what we know about genetics from fruit flies.) There are now well over 3,000 scientific papers on how the brains of these fish work.
Recently, my collaborators and I built a robotic version of these animals, focusing on one in particular: the black ghost knifefish. (The name is apparently derived from a native South American belief that the souls of ancestors inhabit these fish. For the sake of my karmic health, I’m hoping that this is apocryphal.) My university, Northwestern, did a press release with a video about our “GhostBot” last week, and I’ve been astonished at its popularity (nearly 30,000 views as I write this, thanks to coverage by places like io9, Fast Company, PC World, and msnbc). Given this unexpected interest, I thought I’d post a bit of the story behind the ghost.
When you bundle up all the time that gamers everywhere pour into their favorite games, the statistics are simply staggering. World of Warcraft’s legion of devotees, for example, have now spent more than 50 billion hours—about 6 million years—roaming their mythical, digital universe. Halo 3 players banded together to reach a kill tally of 10 billion, and when they blew past it, kept on shooting in pursuit of 100 billion.
If 10,000 hours of practice represents a sort of genius threshold, then gamers around the world are crossing that threshold. “This means that we are well on our way to creating an entire generation of virtuoso gamers,” writes game designer Jane McGonigal.
You might recognize McGonigal from her talk at TED, “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” But now that speech has become a full-on how-to guide: her new book Reality Is Broken, which came out yesterday. It details how games can fix what’s wrong with the real world (and not just escape from it).
When commentators bandy about those eye-popping numbers about how much time gamers invest in games, it’s usually done to bemoan the youth of America wasting their time on trivial pursuits. But to McGonigal, the allure of games can be used for good. Where our workaday lives can be filled with tedium and busy work, games challenge us with what she calls “hard fun”—hard work that’s satisfying. Games can improve our social connections, and they can provide a huge arena for collaboration.
Games, McGonigal writes, can fix what’s wrong with reality on small or large scales. A personal example: When she was struggling to recover from a concussion, she invented a game and enlisted friends and family as characters with tasks to fulfill, like coming over to cheer her up or keeping her off caffeine. A world-level example: EVOKE, a free online multiplayer games that challenges its players to solve major social ills like hunger and poverty.
We talked to her recently about her mission to save the world with games:
DISCOVER: What are you working on right now?
Jane McGonigal: There are a couple of big things. One of them is Gameful—we’re calling it a secret headquarters online for gamers and game developers who want to change the world. That was based on how many emails and Facebook messages I get from people who saw my TED talk or heard about these games and want to make one or play one, or learn how to design games so that they can make one. It’s a cross between a social network and a collaboration space online. So far we have over 1,100 games developers signed up. That’s a pretty significant proportion of game developers in the U.S. They committed to not just entertaining with games, but making a positive impact.
I also have a new start-up company, called Social Chocolate. It’s a company with which we’re creating gameful experiences that are based on scientific research about power-positive emotions and positive relationships—basically, games that are designed from top to bottom to improve your real life and to strengthen your relationships.
In the book, you write about games’ ability to captivate and satisfy our minds on a “primal” level. Why are games so good at getting in touch with our primal nature?
That is such a cool question. We’ve been playing games since humanity had civilization—there is something primal about our desire and our ability to play games. It’s so deep-seated that it can bypass latter-day cultural norms and biases. If you give us a good game, we can overcome our society’s “make you feel stupid for dancing in front of other people” feeling, or trying to block all thoughts of death because it’s depressing and we’re not supposed to be depressed. The game is much older than any of these societal constraints. So that, I think, makes it a powerful platform for getting in touch with things we’ve lost touch with.
Dancing’s really interesting because if you look at the new games with Kinect and PS Move and the Wii, it’s opening up this different kind of gamer experience. When you watch people play these games, the word “joy” is what you’d use to describe it. It’s different from the kind of immersion that we think of with games where we’re really focused mentally. The physical engagement in combination with music and movement and other people makes it feel more like ritual than computer games have been.
Yet, you say, the mission to create joy in games is often hampered because of the “uncoolness” of happiness. So how do we get over ourselves?
I was curious when I started the Gameful project if game developers would really get behind this idea. Because, there’s definitely that sense among some game developers that it would ruin the fun to be serious about making people happy or improving real life. Is it corny? Does it take away from the fantasy of games? I think there will be a huge part of the game development world that continues to feel that way. But what I’m seeing every year at the gamers’ conferences in a higher percentage of the game industry waking up to the responsibility that comes with the power. I hate to say this, but it’s not so much about wanting to make the world a better place as it is saying, “Wow, we are wielding a tremendous amount of power over young people’s lives. This is great; we’ve invented this powerful medium that’s capable of engaging people like nothing else. But is that what we want to do with our lives, or do we want to do something that matters while we’re wielding that power?”
If you make it a game, gamers will play it no matter what your motivation is in making it. FoldIt is a good example. Clearly, a lot of gamers would rather cure cancer while they’re gaming than do nothing while they’re gaming. It didn’t make the game less exciting to be doing good; it made the game more exciting to be doing good. But it only works because they made a really good game.
Is the world ready for this idea that games can fix serious real-world problems?
In general, I think there are 2 groups of people who don’t push back at all. One are the hardcore gamers who know that they’re capable of doing amazing things and are happy to hear somebody actually talk about that possibility seriously. There’s been a lot of talk about gamers as if they’re wasting their lives, or they’re never going to amount to anything, or they’re not learning anything that really matters. People who play a lot of games love to hear this idea—the games that you love could become a part of your life, not a distraction from your life.
Parents of gamers also seem to get it right away. Parents know that their kids are capable of doing extraordinary things, and they want to believe the best in them—and to have somebody explain to them the science of why games could actually empower their kids rather than waste their lives. They see how much time their kids are playing games and they know that there’s nothing wrong with their kids. They just don’t understand what that passion is about.
People who don’t have gamer friends or family are the hardest to convince. There’s still a perception that games are like single-player experiences with guns more often than not. Usually I have to explain to people that 3 out of 4 gamers prefer cooperative to competitive, and that the majority of our game play is social.
Here’s the extended version of our interview with director Joe Kosinski from the December issue of DISCOVER, in which the first-time feature film director talks about reinventing the light cycle, building suits with on-board power, and how time passes in Tron compared to the real world.
Why return to Tron, and why now?
The original Tron was conceptually so far ahead of its time with this notion of a digital version of yourself in cyberspace. I think people had a hard time relating to in the early 1980s. We’ve caught up to that idea—today it’s kind of second nature.
Visually, Tron it was like nothing else I’d ever seen before: Completely unique. Nothing else looked like it before, and nothing else has looked like it since—you know, hopefully until our movie comes out.
How did you think about representing digital space as a physical place?
Where the first movie tried to use real-world materials to look at digital as possible, my approach has been the opposite: to create a world that felt real and visceral. The world of Tron has evolved [since it's been] sitting isolated, disconnected from the Internet for the last 28 years. And in that time, it had evolved into a world where the simulation has become so realistic that it feels like we took motion picture cameras into this world and shot the thing for real. It has the style and the look of Tron, but it’s executed in a way that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s virtual. I built as many sets as I could. We built physically illuminated suits. The thing I’m most proud of is actually creating a fully digital character, who’s one of the main characters in our movie.
What did you keep from Tron, and what evolved?
A few days ago two assassination attempts on Iranian nuclear scientists were made. One succeeded while the other was a near miss. This is just a short while after programmable logic controllers running Iran’s centrifuges came under cyber attack. Attempts to stop Iran from having the bomb have transitioned from breaking the hardware to killing the brains behind the hardware.
The idea of attacking scientists to stem technological development is an old one. Perhaps the most dramatic example from recent times is Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In his case the targeted killings were embedded in an anti-technology philosophy fully developed in his Manifesto. In the recent assassination attempts in Iran, we see the workings of geopolitical pragmatism in its most raw form.
Regardless of what we may think of Iran having the bomb, the strategy of killing scientists and engineers of a country’s technological infrastructure is one that should give us pause. Few steps separate this ploy to making them the domestic enemy as well, a tradition with an even deadlier history that includes the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s purge of academics.
Four Loko is in the news! For a caffeinated malt liquor drink that comes in an assortment of barely palatable flavors, it sure is generating a lot of controversy. The FDA is banning it! People are taking sides and making bathtub home-brew! Politicians are binge drinking it for SCIENCE! Some folks think the ban might be classist or infringe our freedom of speech! Why is everyone so upset over this disgusting fusion of energy drink and booze? The official answer:
The FDA says it examined the published peer-reviewed literature on the co-consumption of caffeine and alcohol, consulted with experts in the fields of toxicology, neuropharmacology, emergency medicine and epidemiology as well as reviewed information provided by product manufacturers. FDA says it also performed its own independent laboratory analysis of these products and listened to experts who have raised concerns that caffeine can mask some of the sensory cues individuals might normally rely on to determine their level of intoxication.
Allow me to translate: the caffeine, guarana and taurine make it so that you’re less aware you’re drunk, so you get more drunk. Caffeine and alcohol, what a novel combination! Apparently the FDA has never heard of Red Bull and vodka, Irish coffee, or even a whisky and Coke. More importantly (or more hilariously) the FDA seems to think that people who purchase drinks like Four Loko and Joose make a point to pay attention to “sensory cues” to “determine their level of intoxication.” My absolutely unscientific and unverifiable opinion is that it is very hard to rely on “sensory cues” when one is “blackout, fall-down drunk.”
But that’s not the real point, is it? If it was, we’d ban every possible combo of caffeine and alcohol. What’s at stake here is our society’s fear of cognitive enhancement.
My teachers in grade school always said knowledge was power, but who knew they were being literal, if perhaps imprecise. Knowledge, it turns out, is energy, and it converts at a rate of 28 percent, according to Shoichi Toyabe, of Chuo University, and Masaki Sano, of the University of Tokyo.
Their experiment has its origins back in 1871, when James Maxwell proposed a thought experiment: A demon controls the only door in a wall separating two sealed chambers filled with gas molecules. The demon allows only fast moving particles to enter one room, and only slow moving particles to enter the other room. After a while, one room has only fast moving particles, and the other has only slow moving particles. The system has lost entropy, but without expending any energy, creating a seeming violation of the second law of thermodynamics.
Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, offered a key insight into Maxwell’s paradox in 1929: The demon had to expend energy measuring the speed of the molecules, thus the overall system of demon plus gas actually required work and the expenditure of energy. The demon used energy to take a measurement, creating information, preserving the second law, and establishing the idea that information could be converted to energy, and vice versa.
Proving that idea in the lab took another eight decades.