I love science fiction. Literature, film, imagery, etc. For me, sci-fi is an amazing playground where the concerns of today can be extrapolated and imagined into fantastical realities, technologies, and moralities. It excels at the parable. Lessons that could be divined from dissecting complicated webs of existing real-world circumstances can be neatly reduced and made entertaining through the creation of alternative realities. As Sophia Brueckner of MIT writes, “Reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors, and engineers and designers should be trying to think like science fiction authors when they approach their own work.” Instead of being bound by business models and the constraints of modern day science, sci-fi writers simply imagine: What’s missing? What would be really awesome and useful if it were to exist in this situation? And then, sci-fi designers take that idea and make it look like something. As a designer and entrepreneur, I am always fascinated to see how exactly creative teams decide to portray future technologies.

I plan to return to this subject somewhat regularly going forward, so I won’t try to cover the whole sci-fi continuum in one post (ha). Today I’d like to talk about one example: the CBS TV show Person of Interest, 2011-present, starring Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson.

The premise here is that after 9/11, the government commissioned a nerd genius to build “the machine“, a machine intelligence that watches and listens to the world from every camera, everywhere, 24/7. The government’s stated goal for the operation was to identify terrorist threats before they materialize, but the machine can’t just identify the terrorists; it surveils everyone, and then creates a list of “relevant” (terrorist) threats, and another list of “irrelevant” (everything else) threats. Based on phone calls, voice tones, behavior patterns, and a sprinkle of sci-fi magic, the machine spits out the social security number of the person or people who will somehow be involved in a violent crime. It’s very much along the lines of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report (2002) (TV adaptation coming in 2015!) except there are 90 episodes (and more to come), which allows for a pretty deep investigation of the ramifications of the existence of such a technology.

The main reason this representation of technology in this show is interesting to me is because, from wikipedia: “The series is from the point of view of The Machine, with flashbacks framed as The Machine reviews past tapes in real time. Over the course of the series, the internal workings of The Machine are shown, including the prediction models and probability trees it uses. In the Machine-generated perspective, individuals are marked by dashed boxes with different colors indicating, for example, what the person’s status is in relation to The Machine and whether they pose a threat.”

I am no surveillance expert nor do I have particularly radical views regarding the surveillance state. Part of me believes that it’s pretty much inevitable so why fight the tide, but that’s just negative Nancy blowing air in the back of the room. But instead of tackling all of the interesting commentary on the status and direction of surveillance in the USA today head on, I want to focus on how it looks in the TV show. What is the film editor / animator / creative team trying to tell us? What do the visual representations of this “Machine” communicate to the audience? How is design used to complement the drama on screen, and how does it contribute to the messages the show is trying to get across?

Let’s start off by giving you a taste of what we’re talking about. Here’s the show’s introduction explainer. Here’s a scene featuring Bear, an gorgeous trained Belgian Malinois that co-stars alongside the humans. And here are a bunch of screenshots of movietech from various episodes of Person of Interest:

Seeing through the eyes of the machine, everything becomes possible. All can be seen, all can be known. One character regularly refers to the machine as “God” and uses female pronouns as if it’s a live entity with thoughts and emotions: “The truth is, God is 11 years old, that she was born on New Year’s Day, 2002, in Manhattan”. This anthropomorphization may or may not be an accurate representation of how a real-life surveilling AI will behave, but this is TV; the goal here is not accuracy, but rather to thrill and entertain.

However, despite being told from the Machine’s POV, the show still very much abides by the classic Hollywood storyline structure. In the terms of Walter Ong, “CyberŽfilms are about electronic thinking but are couched in exclusively literary forms” in order to be close enough to the human “lifeworld” that we can understand and relate to it. Put another way, if an AI decided to make a TV show without considering its audience, I doubt it would cater to the slow and linear mind of the average human. But this is human-made TV; the goal here is not accuracy, but rather to thrill and entertain a human audience.

Let’s take one of those “zoomhance” scenes, where the protagonist takes a tiny bit of investigative data and manages to discern a deeper truth through techy gizmo magic. From a writer for popular TV show CSI on Reddit: “We write those scenes to be inaccurate and ridiculous on purpose. I’m a young writer in his mid-30’s, computer and game savvy. Lots of us are. I guess you could call it a competition of one-upping other shows to see who can get the best/worst “zoomhance” sequence on the air. Sometimes the exec producers and directors are in on it, and other times we just try to get bits and lines into scripts. 90% of our TV viewing audience will never know the difference.”

In Person of Interest, almost every scene involving a screen – computer, phone, surveillance footage – have one thing in common: one big, bold, flashing red-and-white announcement of what is happening in the script. *VIRUS UPLOADED* *HACKING BANK NETWORK* *CREDIT CARD INFORMATION ATTAINED* *VIOLENCE IMMINENT* *FORCE PAIR COMPLETE* etc. With utter disregard to the user experience of actually using the software in question, movietech designs for the big screen, which is hilarious but generally necessary. Rarely do we see interfaces that are familiar to the average tech user. Instead of the classic white-and-colorful Google landing page, we get greytoned terminals and scary looking level monitors like these found in Hydra technology from the Marvel Universe. As if to say, kids, don’t try this at home, because you couldn’t if you tried.

The point I’m trying to make is simply that technology in films, even when the “narrator” is a machine, serves primarily to reinforce and decorate whatever drama is happening on screen. The animations don’t need to be accurate representations of how an artificial intelligence would “think”, they just need to evoke awe and technological omnipotence. The shock and alarm the viewer feels when the machine effortlessly invades every home, every bluetooth coffeemaker, and every smartphone to listen in on your late night pillow talk — it’s all part of the show’s hook, and it’s reinforced by the graphics that all scream “I AM EVERYWHERE”.

Basically, all the editing and scrambled voice recordings and silly typewriter fonts used throughout the show are meant to never let the viewer forget exactly how ubiquitous the Machine — and today’s technology — is. It’s reinforcing an alarmist message about big data, who owns it, and how they will use it. In a world where Google knows more than the NSA and we’re OK with that, Person of Interest asks, What if small, private organizations take this power into their own hands? What if it’s not a non-interventionist AI machine that is watching our every move, but rather a small group of fallible humans?

The goal of the production design here is just to shove it all in our face, over and over again. It’s relentless and thrilling and looks cool and complicated. I’d love to hear the production designer break down how they achieve each effect. How much is proprietary? How much is the real deal, and how much is post-production CGI? They do such a good job that frankly it’s hard to tell.

Someday I’ll write about Mr. Robot and Black Mirror, both of which are fantastic shows that push the sci-fi envelope in many directions.

Until then, I, for one, may or may not welcome our machine overlords

The Most Important Screen

The time delay screen is the core of Sealed. It needs to be an exciting, delightful experience to scroll into the future. How exactly should it look?

In contemplating the design for this screen, I’ve kept an eye out for apps that use a prominent circle to perform an action or to display data. Here’s a smattering of what I’ve come across:

At this point, I’m happy with the notion of dragging an item around in a circle to increase the time delay. The action itself should be just about universally understood: things rotate clockwise, whether it be an analog clock, a planetary system, or an iPod scrolling through music. I’m confident that people will see this screen and know what to do.

The decisions to be made here are basically cosmetic. How thick is the line? How much data should I show the user (hours, days, months, years?) To gradient or not to gradient? To introduce a new color or to keep with the theme? How can this experience sparkle?

I feel like I’m missing an animation, but I have a hard time thinking in motion. Maybe the button swells when you tap + drag it? Maybe it changes color with each revolution?


I’m hesitant to gradientify the whole app, but it is a common trend and does tend to cause people to call the design “beautiful”. Is it clear? Will it feel special? Is there a happy medium?

Also, I’ve recently begun to take to Tumblr to post my screenshots, which I collect aggressively whenever I come across a piece of design that is interesting to me. Ads, apps, marketing done well and poorly, tech, future-tech (my favorite)… if the Internet has taught me anything, more social media is always better than less!!!!!


Fundraising – first impressions

I’ve just finished a marketing/fundraising/event-planning job at Jeff’s Place, a children’s bereavement center in Framingham MA. Fundraising at Jeff’s Place was mostly outbound media that culminated in events or regularly solicited donations. Invaluable experience, but it often felt a bit hands-off, like why don’t we just go out and ask people if they’ll donate? What would happen if you did that?

So I’m trying that out: door-to-door canvassing for DDS in support of local public broadcasting – WBGH, NHPTV, NPR etc. I’m literally knocking on doors in target neighborhoods around New England within a ~60min radius of Boston. “I’m here with New Hampshire Public broadcasting, and today we’re going door to door to raise public support for… 

I love the cause and people are crazy. Both on the canvassing team and also out in the world. I love the randomness of it, there’s a real thrill in clicking with someone and glimpsing the way they live. So many dogs. A few friendly cats. Most ran away, one was exceedingly fat and fluffy. 5/10 doors open, 9/10 people say no, and 7/10 are nice about it. 1/10 are spectacular jerks.

I’ve only just had my second day on the job, but it’s a lot of walking and my feet hurt. I knocked on 87 doors today, plus about a dozen that I either revisited to see if someone arrived home or followed up with from an earlier interaction. There’s a lot of independence as we canvas alone. It’s nice to be outside, the world is a pretty place. I raised enough to make quota both today and yesterday so I’m officially on the team, hoorah!

On another note, I have received and am internally testing the first build of the Sealed iOS app. It doesn’t quite look or work right yet but progress is in motion. New website coming soon as well. Hoorah again!


My grief comes in waves. Recently I’ve been in a trough, although there are thousand little peaks and lows between every crest. Every hour is not gloomy, but I can recognize the trough from the sheer quantity of lows. It’s been a lot.

The other night I watched a 1984 documentary, Streetwise, about the lives of street kids in Seattle at the time. It’s an amazing piece of art, intensely honest and tragic and beautiful. The kids were all running from something even more grim than life on the streets. It’s grim all the same. Boys peddle, thieve, and pull tricks to scrape by. Girls sell the only product that they can. Everyone finds escape somehow, usually chemical.


Rat, photo by Mary Ellen Mark 1983

My dad reminded me strongly of one of the main children the documentary followed, Rat. They grew up similarly; no dad, absent mom, combative, savvy, and proud. He pulled tricks and sold things and I grew up hearing the glory stories as if it were a fairy tale. We all know how he ended up.

There are between 100 and 150 million children living in the streets around the world RIGHT NOW. 250,000 die EVERY WEEK from diseases and malnutrition. 2 million children are objects of sexual abuse. Child pornography and demand for child prostitutes continues to increase globally.

And the ripples caused by each tragedy are felt for generations.

Lots of Little Things

I get asked all the time how Sealed is going and what I’m doing to make it happen, and one phrase always bubbles to the surface as the most accurate response: “lots of little things”.

By little things, I don’t mean that the task in front of me is ‘little’, nor that it will be easy or happen overnight. What I do mean to communicate is that my day-to-day is not as straightforward as entering an office at 9am and working on an excel spreadsheet for 8 hours until quitting time. There may be days that I spend eight hours on a single task, but frankly those days are few and far between. What I usually end up doing is a lot of little things.

These are the big things: Design the UI and continuously investigate UX. Keep in touch with the dev team and make sure things are happening. Build a team. Find experienced mentors and advisors. Figure out the business plan. Continuously create and update all pitching materials. Figure out marketing and make a promo video. Find the right investors and prove to them that Sealed will make them money.

But I could never say to someone, “yeah, I built a team today, and tomorrow I’ll raise a 500K seed round”. These are not “tasks” so much as they are goals that guide what I do from day to day. My job is to take each of these tasks and break them into their most achievable components, and then achieve micro-tasks until the larger task itself becomes achievable.

So on any day, I might work on a few UI screens, email a few potential advisors, marketing gurus, or potential teammates, read about the Boston VC / Angel landscape and identify potential funding avenues, or refine or execute a section of the video ad script.

What I don’t hear people talking about enough is timing. In my experience, timing is everything. It’s like cooking a multi-course meal. The meat has to be defrosted for hours before cooking time, and then marinated long before the asparagus goes on the grill. It wouldn’t make sense to make the balsamic vinaigrette dressing at 8am when it wouldn’t be needed until dinnertime, just as it doesn’t make sense to email everyone-and-their-mom months before the app is anywhere close to being ready.

So I do lots of little things every day, with the top of my task list being revealed to me daily from a panoptic assessment of where I’m at and where I should probably go next. Key word ‘probably’, as I’ve definitely already defrosted the meat too early and overcooked the asparagus, but luckily Whole Foods is right around the corner and has a special on their coconut chicken.

One little thing: Sealed was on Betalist yesterday. Sign up and share, people!

'I put the steaks on.' 'Are you crazy? The potatoes aren't even close to done. The steaks will be coal by the time they're ready.' 'No they won't, we're almost out of propane.'