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Why ARE there so many people on that spaceship?

I’ve noticed two schools of thought when it comes to fantasy spaceship operations.

  1. Tons of people
  2. Tons of automation

On one hand… Who WERE all those people that Jean-Luc passed on the corridor? What were all those soldiers (meant to be) doing that got vented into space when a ship got destroyed on Battlestar Gallactica?

Ender and other members of his ship's junior IT staff. (From IMDB)
Ender and other members of his ship’s junior IT staff. (From IMDB)

On the other hand… the only reason why there were ANY people on the ship featured in Passengers was because they were going to colonize another planet. They were meant to sleep the entire way. For decades (or like in Mass Effect, for hundreds of years). In some writer’s imaginations, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence system and bots can handle the entire operation.

The automation route is interesting… I’ll talk about that more later. Today, however, I’m on the side of people.

I’d like to put forward the idea that all those people gathered on deck cheering Ender were *actually* from the IT Department.

Delivering enterprise experiences is amazingly complex and there are a LOT of people involved. The person that shows up to help you when your computer craps out, is just the tip of the spear. Behind her is an entire department of support staff that is responsible for helping out with laptop, desktop, software, login, and phone system problems for everyone in your company. Depending on how big your company is, there’s usually another group of people responsible for designing how those end user systems are configured. If your company has an internal website (that includes HR stuff, anything with a form on it, or other internal tools that connect to the inter or intranet), there are a couple of people working on that. If y’all actually produce web-based things for sale, there are a few TEAMS for thatOnce all those teams exist, of course you need centralized infrastructure management, networking, process, and security (and compliance) teams. Of course, then you need people to design interfaces for those systems and manage the complexity of the complexity. Even if you work at a smaller business with a small IT team, they probably pay other companies for these services and systems — so they exist somewhere. Yeah. The sheer number of roles involved in making your average business tick is nontrivial.

Can you imagine being 3 light years out from earth with a processor failure that impacts your AI? Sure, you can train one of your 3 astronauts to swap out a board after they wake up from cryo-sleep, but what happens when that failure triggers a write error which propagates to corrupt a backup database which then takes down your propulsion system, your lighting system, and makes your AI start omitting every third word when it speaks because for some reason they all reference the same corrupt data (…don’t ask, I just made that last part up but stranger things have happened)??

That’s right. In the future, all those people on those spaceships will work in IT. And, ironically, they’ll be working to automate all the things.


What makes a market?

Have you seen Jupiter Ascending? It’s based on an interesting premise (I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the movie itself is good or not). Namely, that there is a market for a substance that requires the farming of humans on Earth. But, that’s not the particular market I’m interested in today…

Welcome to the fanciest shuttle landing bay in the galaxy.
Who makes chandeliers for shuttle landing bays?

This post is about the market that enables the opulence that surrounds one character in the movie. Initially, I was struck by the fanciness of his shuttle and then I was taken aback by where that shuttle landed.

There were chandeliers. Statues. Gold-toned walls. All things that (in theory) had to stand up to potential vacuum. (After all, who would design components that were meant to go into an area that has a high chance of being exposed to vacuum that couldn’t withstand vacuum for a period of time?)

So, I stopped paying attention for a time to think about the possibility that this could exist. Not in terms of the science, but the financial viability. Of course, you say, it’s a rich man’s boat, he could pay anyone to build anything he wants… except it doesn’t always work like that. Imagine if said rich man saw a piece of work he admired, offered to hire the person that crafted that work to create chandeliers for his space yacht, and said craftsperson does the time / materials math and determines each chandelier would cost $8.5 Million (of today’s dollars) to make them worth his time. After all, Jupiter Ascending operates within a strongly capitalist society.

Chandeliers don’t give off much light. In this case, they are in a setting that requires light (i.e. where aerospace maneuvers happen). So, the bay needs approximately 100 of these fixtures. So that’s $85M in lighting inside of one landing bay. There’s still other lights, other rooms, and a spaceship frame, propulsion, life support, etc… lot’s of other things to pay for.

So, I think: No, this is not a viable product. But then, I see the humanoid androids at the wedding…


All of the people under Mila Kunis' feet are robots. Awesome.

Warner Bros

…and think, Why the hell not? Why can’t this dude have chandeliers in his shuttle bay? If I can get on Etsy and get handmade earrings for $20, what’s stopping me from (eventually) having a stylish, custom, technology experience?

Yes, this is a movie; but, the things we have accessible to us today, including the sub-$300 laptop I’m typing this post on, were things thought to be unimaginable just 10 years ago. Unfathomable in terms of price point, access, and functionality.

Keep on pushing. Build your business cases and figure out how to make your product special and price it what it’s worth. You may not find a market large enough right away, but keep searching, pivoting, and refining.


Rethinking CSCW

Forgive me for not staying up on the (social) science behind Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), but I remember it being very interesting in 2000. It was hot! Everywhere you turned in my beloved field of Human Factors (or in this case, my much loved cousin Human-Computer Interaction) researchers were examining how to augment human performance with things like shared collaboration spaces and live chat. But, at the time, it seemed that the imaginative future state wasn’t much better than the most popular online bulletin boards and IM clients of that time.

Hunger Games scene showing control room
Computer Supported Cooperative Work in all it’s sci-fi glory!

Now, we are in a new age of possibility. Just look at the fantastic CSCW shown in The Hunger Games. The “game” management control room use case is a great example of integration and visualization — taking the many huge data streams that make up an environment, meshing them with the protocols created by your team members, and allowing the entire interaction to be supervised and directed by the Gamemaker.  This is an illustration of seamless collaboration and unobtrusive augmentation of human performance. Beautiful.

Of course, I want this technology for selfish reasons. I dream of a day that I can visualize my research’s progress to completion (much like when the technician was building the “wolf mutts”) and make minor corrections with a few keystrokes or gestures.

Hunger Games technician tweaking a data stream
Simple adjustments to complex processes

Once I turn my attention from that, I can see how my research is working in concert with the rest of my team — other user researchers, market researchers, analytics, customer support and sales — to build our organization’s decision simulation ecosystem. Crazy? I hope not.


The art of science fiction

Why science fiction, you ask? Because it’s beautiful. Because, even in it’s insanity and implausibility, it’s a place that’s lovely to look at and astonishingly easy to use.  I’m focusing on the beauty in this post because I just re-watched one of my favorite movies… Event Horizon.

Event Horizon is the name of one of the best sci-horror movies in recent memory. If you haven’t seen it, check out the description on IMDB.

Event Horizon is also the name of the evil ship that the movie is based on.The Event Horizon

Oddly enough, my 19-year-old self didn’t see the beauty of the movie in 1997. I just thought it was a creepy spaceship movie. However, my 34-year-old self sees inspirational beauty in the rescue ship (the Lewis and Clark), the stranded Event Horizon, and its doomsday portal generator thingy (“The Core”).

The design of the machines in this movie would have to have been done by engineers that cared about design AND designers that cared about engineering. What does that mean? For engineering: quality, ingenuity, and a pride in workmanship that drives them to create monuments. For design: practicality, ingenuity, and a detail-focused pride in workmanship that drives them to create lasting art.

All members of the team involved in creating the final product, must care about both practicality and craftsmanship. Engineering needs to have some design ethos and design needs to live by some engineering principles. We see this bearing out in the market today with emphasis being placed on “everyone being a marketer,” customer experience being a business’s “only sustainable competitive advantage,” and product development initiatives such as Lean UX, where the entire team goes out to collect feedback from users.

The Core / Door to HellThe Event Horizon is a great example of what could happen in some unknown future when all of these business mantras converge to actually produce something. Even the Door to Hell (or The Core, whatever) is a stunning display of engineering and design with its smoothly rotating circles, lights, and egregiously intimidating spikes.

For this to happen, we all need to step up our games a bit. Stop with the silos and turf wars. Just think, if you don’t have to stand around policing engineering to be sure they maintain the tight tolerances you specified, you could be spending more time creating and discovering beauty. If engineers didn’t spend so much time either fighting impossible designs, or creating flawed implementations of impossible designs, they could be inventing some really cool shit.

The thing is, I want to work to make this future of hyper-talented product development happen… And not just because it’s also a future where we have a moon colony by 2015 and commercial Martian mining by 2032.


About this blog…

I Like Space Ships is a blog dedicated to letting my imagination run wild.

My name is Danielle. I work in technology. I have a background in psychological research and practice — decision-making, industrial / organizational, human factors, usability, and market research.

Perhaps the most relevant thing about me pertaining to this blog, I absolutely love science fiction.

Since there’s very little chance that the physical science behind what I describe is correct, I urge you to concentrate on the intent. I’m not trying to educate. I’m just trying to inspire based on the (social) science that I know and love!