KETR

Syd Mead, Still Designing The Future After 50 Years

Sep 20, 2011
Originally published on September 21, 2011 9:38 am

Look around. There's a good chance you'll spot a tablet computer, if you don't have one yourself. Touch-screen phones are even more common. Biometric scanners scan your fingerprints at your bank, or your irises at the airport. They're devices that used to be the stuff of science fiction — the sort of thing you'd see in Star Trek or Blade Runner or Minority Report. Now they're here in the real world. And they're everywhere.

How did so many films and TV shows get so much right about what was coming down the technological pipeline?

Syd Mead, the Hollywood "visual futurist" who helped design some of those film worlds, has made a career of it. (He coined the term, in fact. "It's a bumper-sticker title I invented" so he could work in a regimented film-lot culture that didn't really have a label for what he did.)

He tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that as with most everything in the movies, it starts with the script — the "idea generator" that sets the boundaries for his work with the director and the production designer.

Of course these days, he says, "Google is a godsend."

"You download different research tracts on that specific subject and find out that we're implanting cameras in people's eyes now," Mead says. "They're working on artificial nanoscale retinas. And so you start with that technology leap, or possibility, and then you design around that. To me, science fiction is reality ahead of schedule."

Take Minority Report, in which eye scanners track citizens through a crowded public setting, serving up personalized advertising come-ons. That might have seemed a stretch in 2002, when the movie (based on a Philip K. Dick story from 1956) came out.

Not now. Iris scanners monitor traffic at sensitive locations from airports to Afghan checkpoints to Google data centers. Facial-recognition technology is deployed everywhere from Facebook to Apple's iPhoto software to your local DMV.

"If something is a good idea, then it will probably come true," Mead says, "either because of economic pressures, or just simply invention. Technology tends to climb on its own past accomplishments. If you've solved three or four problems, you can probably solve eight more."

'It Is Sort Of Frightening'

Defining "good idea" isn't always easy, though. The Minority Report technology that targets advertisements to its hero's specific desires also (and not incidentally) feeds information about location and identity to a central authority. In Tron, the 1982 cult classic about a man who gets uploaded into a computer network, the characters carry "identity discs" that capture "everything [they] do or learn."

The only thing out of date about that, some would argue, is that the corporations and government organizations tracking your behavior nowadays don't even need you to carry a disc.

"Your personal information is tracked 24 hours a day," Mead agrees. "Every time you go to the bank, every time you swipe your credit cards, that is remembered by some system or other. ... Cellphones: By triangulation, they know where you are all the time you're using your phones. So it is sort of frightening."

Indeed, when you think about it, a lot of science fiction puts some pretty dazzling technology into the hands of some pretty ruthless people: nefarious criminals, totalitarian governments. It's a distinctly dystopian approach to the connected life.

Mead isn't entirely a pessimist, though.

"The critical thing is that technology, when it becomes widespread, is not owned by a top-down agency," he points out. "What's driving the revolution of social response in a lot of the countries around the world is [that] more people have cellphones, they have Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts. They can access the information outside the closure that their political environments impose on them. And that's a very comforting thing."

There's an analogy Mead likes to use: "A knife is a very dangerous object if you use it as a weapon," he notes, "but you can bone a duck and create a delicious gourmet dish."

Cold comfort to the duck, of course. But then, "ducks don't have a political base," Mead jokes.

The larger point, he says, is that technology itself is amoral. "Technology is invented, and it goes into the broad universe, where it does neat things or horrible things."

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

Now let's talk about people who predict the future through fiction. Old movies about the future occasionally seem comical once the future has become our present day. But sometimes a look at an old movie reveals that the filmmakers had some insight into the world we live in now.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

I'm curious. If you're approaching a sci-fi film, obviously, there's a screenwriter, there's a director. What do you see your role as? How do you fit into that?

SYD MEAD: Well, I work one-to-one with the director and the production designer. You read the script, and that becomes your bible for the duration of creating the ideas, and the director's god on the film. And I keep up on a lot of technology wave fronts, because you have to. To me, science fiction is reality ahead of schedule.

INSKEEP: Ahead of schedule. Well, let's look at a few films that seem to have reality ahead of schedule. One of them is the Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," from a number of years back - uncanny representation of different kinds of technology, including iris-scan technology. There's - you have a character walking through a shopping mall, and there's scanners everywhere, constantly looking at his eyes, identifying who he is, and commercial messages are beamed at him. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MINORITY REPORT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The road you're on, John Anderton, is the one less (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Believe me, you can move the old fashion way. Century 21 (unintelligible).

MAN: John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now.

INSKEEP: You have this 2002 film that grabs a number of things that almost seem ordinary now. There are eye scanners in operation in the world, are there not?

MEAD: Yes, there are. And facial recognition is very accurate.

INSKEEP: And the thing about computerized advertising messages directed straight at you, which would have been less common in 2002, happens every time we go online now.

MEAD: Well, yes. It's data mining, combined with a keystroke, and the cookie is buried in your computer's memory.

INSKEEP: I want to play another clip, here. This is from the movie "Tron," on which you worked backed in 1982. And you have essentially the bad guy - if I can oversimplify - giving instructions to people about how information about them is now going to be stored and carried around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRON")

DAVID WARNER: (as Sark) You need to receive an identity disc. Everything you do or learn will be imprinted on this disc. If you lose your disc or fail to follow commands, you will be subject to immediate de-resolution.

INSKEEP: Okay. I feel like the only thing that's out of date about that is the thing about needing the disc.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: It doesn't seem like corporations need the disc anymore to have all my information.

MEAD: They don't, not at all. Every time you go to the bank, every time you swipe your credit cards, that is remembered by some system or others. Your activities, financial and where you are, cell phones, by triangulation, they know where you are all the time you're using your phone. So it is sort of frightening.

INSKEEP: Does it ever make you feel a little strange that you could walk around in the world today and see all kinds of devices that seem to remind us of devices and technologies used in nightmare scenarios for the future?

MEAD: Well, the critical thing, Steve, is that technology, when it becomes widespread, is not owned by a top-down agency. What's driving the revolution in China, what's driving the revolution of social response in a lot of the countries around the world is because more people have cell phones, Twitter accounts, they have Facebook accounts. They can access the information outside the closure that their particular political environments impose on them.

INSKEEP: Oh, you've hit on the great distinction, haven't you? Because in a lot of these nightmare scenario movies, a lot of these futuristic movies, technology is used to control people or to monitor people, or to hold them down. And the question is whether technology will be used that way by people, or whether it will be used to expand freedom.

MEAD: It can go both ways. My favorite analogy is: A knife is a very dangerous object if you use it as a weapon, but you can bone a duck and create a delicious gourmet dish. So if the?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The duck may have a different opinion of that analogy. But go on. Go on.

MEAD: Well, ducks don't have a political base.

INSKEEP: Well, that's true.

MEAD: So it points out the fact that the technology is invented, and then it goes into the broad universe. And that's where it either does neat things or does horrible things.

INSKEEP: Iris scanners don't hold down people. People hold down people.

MEAD: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Syd Mead, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

MEAD: Well, Steve, it's been a delight. And thank you very much, everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BLADE RUNNER (END TITLES)")

INSKEEP: Designer and futurist Syd Mead. And you can see some of his future designs from the past at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BLADE RUNNER (END TITLES)")

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.