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Simulations of City and Race

by Evan Pondel

Many of the ideas that surface in Julian Bleecker’s article, “Getting the Reality You Deserve,” are portrayed in Robert Longo’s film, “Johnny Mnemonic.”  Bleecker’s observations about the interplay between videogames and the city take shape in the film as Johnny Mnemonic, a videogame player of sorts, seeks out truth (and relief for his overloaded head) in a rather dystopian urban setting.

In this particular clip, Johnny uses a simulator to sift through fax charges at the Hotel Beijing.  Even though Johnny’s simulator is quite different than Bleecker’s description of SimCity2000, both have a similar utility in that players are seeking truth in virtual realities.

Bleecker’s description of the tension surrounding questions of race and ethnicity in SimCity is also portrayed throughout the film.  The underdogs, whose leader is black, ends up helping Johnny save himself, as well as the world from corporate greed.  At the same time, the film portrays Asians as assassins.  Similar to SimCity, there are never any overt racial slurs.  However, the film does “yield to implications of the racial and ethnic predicament of urban space,” as Bleecker notes in SimCity.

Bleecker says “that few twentieth century artifacts are able to cloak turmoil around race as well as technology.”  Indeed, technology has a way of camouflaging racial stereotypes, particularly in this film.  But if we do not engage racial tensions overtly in videogames or film, is it possible to, in Bleecker’s words, “fruitfully determine the ideological stakes”?  Ultimately, I suppose it depends on the reality the player or film watcher is seeking.  

Cinematic Interface Design

by slc68

In mainstream feature films such as Johnny Mnemonic and more recently Minority Report, depictions of gestural interfaces have been used to emphasize their science fictional universes and inject a dose of “coolness” to representations of technology. In Johnny Mnemonic for example, the protagonist accessing of critical locative information in a three-dimensional virtual global network involves physically moving hands to unlock a pyramid like virtual lock structure. Similarly, in Minority Report, Cruise performs intricate and elaborate movements to manipulate and discover narratively important information.

On the surface level, these dramatic depictions serve the film's interests by evoking a sense of wonder and magic in their fictional technological worlds. However, these examples also indicates how gestural interfaces are more easily translated into such highly aesthetic cinematic forms because of their emphasis on physical and embodied action in real space. This property of these post-WIMP interfaces fits the filmic conventions of depicting a protagonist performing and having agency in their fictional worlds. Filming someone simply moving a mouse cursor and typing on a keyboard does not create the same level of narrative action because of their more disembodied and more mentally based activities.

Because film requires observers and something to be observed, the often collaborative and external nature of gestural and post-WIMP interfaces also makes it more conducive to filming. When watching the film, we the audience are essentially the non-participating observers who are actively engaged in the process of understanding the context and meaning behind the user's actions. The use of larger wall-sized displays and more externally visible user actions and visual feedback in designs for multiple simultaneous interactions allows the filmmaker to place the camera as a surrogate for a user who can still understand what is going even without being able to directly play with the system. This is also related to an emerging idea in interface design termed “external legibility”. External legibility is “a property of user interfaces that affects the ability of non-participating observers to understand the context of a user's actions” (Zigelbaum). In this case the user is Cruise's character using a system like G-Speak. Because of the collaborative, physical and therefore more visible/visual aspects of these interfaces, their level of external legibility is higher than that of traditional systems. I believe this high external legibility of space makes the job easier for filmmakers to ultimately present them in a more cinematic and dramatic light.

2008, Jamie B Zigelbaum. Mending Fractured Spaces: External Legibility and Seamlessness in Interface Design. Diss. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008. Dspace@mit. Web. 3 Dec. 2010. .

MCI's Anthem (1997) - Freedom from the Marked Body

by Jason Lipshin

Although there are many cinematic and televisual representations which depict the virtual dematerialization of the body as an ecstatic event (see Tron and Johnny Mnemonic for prime examples), perhaps none is as insidious as this 1997 commercial from MCI. Conflating empowerment in public space with the erasure of any vestiges of marked physical difference, it adds a sense of ethical urgency to N. Katherine Hayles’ contention that we not forget the body in our lust for posthuman virtual freedom.


The convoluted politics of this idea of erasure as empowerment are summed up by the commercial’s repeated refrain concerning the status of democracy on the Internet: “There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities.” Although such discourse might lead one to initially label this commercial as espousing the typical post-civil rights discourse of color and gender-blindness, as Wendy Chun notes in her book Control and Freedom, the commercial, in its own roundabout way, actually acknowledges that social inequity still exists. By presenting this refrain as speech spoken by a series of interchangeable, yet smiling others, the commercial acknowledges social inequities in the “real world” while positing the Internet as a space that somehow operates under a more democratic logic. (Although, of course, the pretensions toward self-representation in this commercial involve a curious act of ventriloquism in which “pseudo-subalterns speak corporate truths” (130).) Such an acknowledgement allows MCI to position itself and its supposedly color and gender-blind technology as the blanket solution to that injustice.  Thus, the message of the commercial becomes not just “do not discrimate,” but “get online if you don’t want to be discriminated against” (129). Such a Cartesian logic valorizes virtual disembodiment as a kind of passing and displaces blame onto the othered subject, “positing discrimination as a problem that the discriminated must solve” (129). 

Works Cited

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Print. 

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Johnny Mnemonic and Virtual Reality

Imaginary product placement for future technologies including data glove and a gestural interface for making long distance phone calls

from Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Creator: Robert Longo
Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Posted by Critical Commons Manager