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The Reunion: a new science-fiction story about surveillance in China

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612590/the-reunion-a-new-science-fiction-story-about-surveillance-in-china/

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Though only 23 minutes on the high-speed rail from Shenzhen North to West Kowloon, the journey from the mainland to Hong Kong seems to transport me back half a century. The concrete jungle of my childhood memories hasn’t changed one bit. Time seems trapped in the amber of this city of seven million, while the Shenzhen Bay area that I departed has already arrived at the future ahead of schedule.

My classmate from a decade earlier, Dr. Ng Lok Tin of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, waits for me at the station exit. As though to highlight the discombobulation of modern China, he greets me in Cantonese though he’s a native of Shanghai; I, Hong Kong born, on the other hand, speak to him in Modern Standard Mandarin.

“Leung Wah Kiu, what’s this really about?” he asks me.

“A few days ago, two plainclothes officers approached me to ask if Professor Lau had been in touch and for the contact info of his relatives and friends in Hong Kong.”

“I thought he had been placed in compulsory treatment some time ago?”

“Right, in a special care center in Shenzhen. But he broke out and escaped to Hong Kong, and they’ve lost his trail. We have to find him before the police do.”

“Why?” Ng Lok Tin examines my face carefully, as if evaluating my sanity. Then realization dawns. “You don’t believe he’s gone mad at all, do you?”

“I won’t know until I see him in person.” I can’t keep the uncertainty out of my voice. “Help me, please.”

Professor Lau Gim Wai, a leading expert in neurobehavioral imaging, had mentored us both in school. However, to me, he’s much more than just a teacher.

More than a decade ago, when I was breaking under the stress of my PhD thesis and despondent from estrangement with my family, Professor Lau sent me e-mails daily, quoting lines from his favorite movies in his signature. Although he never said so explicitly, I knew that those lines—warm, encouraging, and uplifting—were meant for me.

I’ve never even seen some of those movies, but I remember every single quote he sent.

“If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” —Fight Club (1999)

When I became a different person on that rainy night, he was the one who saved me.

I must find out what has gone wrong with Professor Lau and his DISCO algorithm.


Lau developed DISCO (“distributed inter-subject correlation observer”) on the basis of the inter-subject correlation (ISC) model from neurobehavioral imaging.

In traditional fMRI, the researcher must strictly limit the variables in order to study the correspondence between cognitive processes and brain regions. But results from such artificial lab settings are difficult to generalize to the complexities of real-life scenarios. Attending a concert, listening to a bedtime story, watching a movie … the brain is subjected to the influence of a host of uncontrolled factors such as the environment, mood fluctuations, and spontaneous social interactions.

The ISC method is based on the following conjecture: in the same natural setting, assuming everyone’s brain has the same biological processes, identical encephalic regions should activate when different individuals encounter the same stimulus. For instance, if two people watching the same horror film together show similar heightened amygdala activity, then we may conclude that the amygdala is involved in the experience of fear. If the reactions of numerous individuals in the same natural setting are measured simultaneously and compared, one can safely ignore interference from most uncontrollable factors.

Lau’s DISCO takes the ISC method to another level.

After the Spring City Railway Station attack more than a decade ago, similar random mass killing incidents proliferated, like a contagious disease with no apparent transmission route. Perfectly ordinary individuals, their lives unremarkable until that moment, would suddenly transform into vortices of violence, lashing into crowds with butcher knives, poisoned needles, even broken bottles, and deal as much damage as possible before the police could intervene.

As in the epidemic of suicides among migrant workers years earlier, there was at first no consensus about the underlying cause. Was it the pressure of technology-dominated, “ultra-unreal” life in modern China, where centuries of progress elsewhere had been compressed into a handful of decades? Was it the manifestation of a conflicted society that had lost its old, failed ideals with nothing new to take their place? Or was it something darker?

In the end, the authorities announced that the perpetrators in every single case were determined to have suffered from a form of mental illness unlike any other, leading to outbreaks of extreme violence. Though there was an official Latinate name for the diagnosis, most people called it “ATGism,” for “against the grain.” Pressure mounted among the public to preemptively confine individuals deemed to suffer from this condition.

However, traditional methods of psychiatric diagnosis left too much room for subjective interpretation, and the legal process for involuntary commitment was unwieldy and subject to abuse. The government became embroiled in controversy after controversy.

As the attacks continued, many began to question whether the government’s involuntary commitment system was sufficient in preventing violence. At the same time, many patients who had been diagnosed using unreliable traditional methods—some of them showing no propensity to violence whatsoever—were deprived of personal liberty unjustly, resulting in much public anger. Yet the government couldn’t simply abolish the old involuntary commitment system with nothing new to take its place, because many mental patients would be sent back to their families. Lingering prejudice against mental illnesses meant that many families, terrified, would cast these patients out into the streets, leading to even more social mayhem.

Just when the Ministry of Mental Health was at its wits’ end, DISCO arrived on the scene like a deus ex machina.

Drawing on the enormous and comprehensive data bank of surveillance camera footage from mainland China and patient data from Huilongguan Mental Hospital, the largest psychiatric institution in Asia, Lau was able to train and iterate the DISCO algorithm hundreds of billions of times. Unlike traditional neuroimaging methods like MRI, PET, and DTI, which depend on specialized hardware, DISCO can diagnose, surveil, and warn of imminent violent outbursts from ATGism solely though voiceprints, nonverbal expressions, and changes in behavioral patterns.

Lau only intended for DISCO to become a reliable tool for diagnosis, so that the ill could be helped and the well could live in security. But the government had bigger ideas in mind.

DISCO turned out to be easily adaptable for the T2000 Deep Gaze smart surveillance cameras, running as a distributed computing network. The algorithm was trained to recognize the new illness, but what other forms of deviance could catch its gaze?

I don’t know whether the complexity of a human being can be reduced to a set of numbers, numbers that would then infallibly predict the propensity for violence. I do know that Professor Lau was identified by his own algorithm as a dangerous individual, and committed to compulsory treatment.

Do I think he’s mad? I must find him first.


We begin with the most rudimentary form of investigation: talking to Professor Lau’s family and friends one by one. As a fugitive, Professor Lau wouldn’t dare expose his biometric data to the system, so there’s no point in searching hotel guest lists.

We wander through public housing tenements as densely packed as ant nests; underground eateries redolent of mold; long, dark, twisting corridors. We are scrutinized by suspicious eyes peering from behind rusty gates. Economic decline and stagnation are even more visible than when I left, the consequence of Hong Kong’s loss of status as a special tariff territory in the West during the trade wars.

We find nothing.

“What should we do now?” Ng Lok Tin asks as we sit down in Café de Coral.

“Let me think,” I muse. “He took great risks to come to Hong Kong after escaping from the treatment center. Why? What’s he hoping to accomplish here?”

He shrugs. Then his eyes brighten. “Oh, I invited him to come to our film festival a few months ago—I guess he must already have been committed by then—but all I got was an automated e-mail response.”

“What film festival?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I’m the neuroscience advisor for the Mind Wanderer Film Festival.” Ng Lok Tin points out the window at an electronic billboard over the streets of East Tsim Sha Tsui, which is flashing through various film posters. “Tomorrow is our last day.”

“Why would a film festival need a neuroscience advisor? I don’t remember you being much of a film buff, either.”

“Hey, that was years ago,” he says sheepishly. “Anyway, now we use ISC technology in filmmaking too. I thought Professor Lau would enjoy seeing this alternate application of the technology.”

“Is that why he came back?” I mutter to myself. “Films …”

As a young man, Professor Lau once dreamed of becoming a director, but his parents pressured him into medical school instead. Whenever he got a break in his busy schedule, he rushed to the cinema to catch a new showing. In our lab, he often conducted ISC studies using films as the stimuli. I suppose that was the best way he found of combining work and hobby.

“Do you really think Professor Lau escaped from the hospital and the police just to see movies in Hong Kong?” Ng Lok Tin’s eyes widened with incredulity.

“Nothing so absurd.” My mind churns, pondering this new angle. “But if you’re telling me ISC is used in films, it’s possible he wants to use his favorite research material to prove something. Like … his sanity. Do you still have that automated e-mail reply from him?”

Ng Lok Tin pulls up Professor Lau’s e-mail on his phone. My eyes are drawn to the quote in the signature:

“The mental defective league, in formation.” —One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

I focus on the date of the e-mail: the very day he was involuntarily committed.

As he realized that his algorithm had begun to turn on him, did Professor Lau try to send a message through his e-mail signature in the same way he once tried to comfort me?


We narrow the possibilities down to nine showings, the only ones using ISC projection. Six of them are scheduled between tonight and tomorrow morning, and the last three will take place simultaneously tomorrow afternoon.

From dusk to dawn—from Yuen Long in the northeast to Sai Kung in the far west—we rush to attend six ISC showings in six different theaters like a pair of fanatic cinephiles.

Along the way, Ng Lok Tin explains to me how the neuroimaging technique that led to DISCO found application in interactive entertainment.

In short, in ISC projection, miniaturized fMRI equipment is used to measure the neuroactivity of each audience member during key scenes. An ISC profile representative of the audience’s overall neural response is then generated. But if any individual’s measured response is two or more standard deviations from the average profile—essentially, if that person’s neurological response to the key scene is sufficiently different from that of most people—the individual will be shown a specially designed hidden subplot. ISC-enhanced films have become very popular in Hong Kong because everyone wants to see if their brain is so unique, so above the vulgar crowd like an elegant crane towering above a flock of chickens, as to be given the prize of the special hidden subplot.

Maybe Professor Lau wants to use an ISC-enhanced film, powered by the same technology as the surveillance cameras, to prove that his neurological response does not deviate from the average profile.

“But how do you show a different plot to only some people in the same theater?” I ask, puzzled.

“You’ll see for yourself soon.” Ng Lok Tin grins mysteriously.

Ng Lok Tin’s special advisor status gains us entry even after the start of a showing. As we tiptoe through each dark theater, we try to identify the man we seek among the hundreds of faces half hidden under helmets and eyepieces. We dare not bring up Lau’s name, identity, or photograph to the staff or any audience member, lest we betray our intentions to special government agents after the same prey and perhaps lose our chance forever to find Professor Lau.

Everyone in the audience has their neck and shoulders secured in place by rubber gear over the seat back in order to ensure clear neuroimaging scans. The silver helmets they all wear are attached to cables and processors behind the seats.

These helmets aren’t for VR immersion; instead, the eyepieces are active shutter glasses synchronized with the projection screen’s stroboflash, and the transmittance level of the liquid crystal lens can be altered many times per second. By carefully modulating the shuttering of eyepieces on two helmets, it’s possible to show two viewers different frames from the same sequence. The refresh rate of the eyepieces must exceed 60Hz to prevent the brain from perceiving jitters. In order for the same screen to present two different dynamic pictures simultaneously during the ISC-enhanced segments—one for the main film, the other for the hidden subplot—the refresh rate of the screen must therefore exceed 120Hz.

A very clever design—it preserves the communal experience of watching a film in a theater while leaving room for the select few to experience hidden subplots.

Before key scenes, a green light flashes from the movie screen, indicating that the audience should hold still. When the light turns red, the scan begins, each lasting 6 to 15 seconds while the movie plays on. The real-time scanning data is transmitted to the processors behind the seats, corrected for linear drift and standardized. Then each person’s scan result is uploaded to calculate the group correlation coefficient on the same time series. Finally, each individual’s result is compared with other results to determine the version of the film that the person will see next.

As we canvass one theater after another, we experience the downfall of a newspaper tycoon, a beautiful dance in the rain, a monster hatching from its cocoon, a roaring tide of blood gushing from a gate. In the darkness, it’s easy to tell which eyepieces are out of sync with the others through a phone camera app—like the different glows of sea glass and seashell in moonlight.

We never find Professor Lau in the audience.

We slump down onto the bench in front of the last theater at dawn. Even the golden sun can’t cast away our clouds of frustration and weariness. The final three ISC showings are all in the afternoon, taking up the same time slot. Even if we split up and take one theater each, we’ll miss the third showing, which means a one-third chance that we’ll miss Professor Lau.

Besides, our whole plan is founded on the unproven assumption that the signature in that auto-reply was a meaningful hint, not our own wishful thinking.


“ISC projection is just a gimmick to get more people to come to the theaters, right?” I tilt my head toward Ng Lok Tin.
Instead of directly answering, he poses a question of his own. “Do you remember the argument we had right before graduation?”

“Sure. Professor Lau invited us both to join his development team. You not only declined the offer right away but were also, frankly, quite rude.”

“I was too immature back then …” He bows his head, smiling awkwardly.

I remember how Ng Lok Tin contradicted Professor Lau. There could never be an objective, unchanging definition of mental illness, he said; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual constantly evolved and was updated as science and ethics advanced. The use of neuroimaging technology in the diagnosis of mental illnesses had to be carefully considered. Society defined madness as the result of a combination of medicine and politics. Ultimately, a comprehensive and compassionate diagnosis required accounting for neuroimaging, behavioral data, social mores, and a multiplicity of other factors. To give undue weight to certain factors simply because they were easily measurable would lead to far greater problems.

Professor Lau looked exasperated, but instead of refuting Ng Lok Tin, he had coldly waved him away.

“Has your stance on this matter changed?” I ask.

Ng Lok Tin seems to avoid my question. “Even though ISC films are now all the rage in Hong Kong, did you know that the technology was invented first in Dongguan, the Chinese city striving to be the world’s entertainment technology leader? They beta-tested the technology in a few major theater chains, but the initial result was utter failure.”

“What happened? Because of censorship?” In mainland China, cultural creativity is far less acceptable than technological creativity.

“Because no one ever saw the hidden subplots during the beta tests!” Ng Lok Tin bursts into laughter. “Don’t you find that hilarious?”

I roll my eyes at this attempt at cynicism; he turns somber.

“You think letting a supposedly impartial algorithm define who’s mad or deviant will help people live with more dignity and security,” Ng Lok Tin says. “But I believe the only thing the algorithm is good for is entertainment.”

When Professor Lau invited his two favorite students to join his project, Ng Lok Tin and I made opposite choices. I followed my mentor up north to the mainland to develop his embryonic technology under government support. I saw no future for myself in Hong Kong, where nostalgia for a past that never was made people fearful of embracing the new. An algorithm that would pinpoint sources of violence couldn’t be perfected without evolution in the real world, with real data, with real patients, with real consequences.

Ng Lok Tin, on the other hand, stayed behind in the ivory tower, intending to construct a delicate palace of theory woven from jargon and numbers and seek a perfect solution that would somehow account for all the factors.

Now, a decade later, the plots of both our lives seem to have taken unexpected turns.

Two years ago, on the verge of mass deployment of DISCO surveillance, Professor Lau transferred me out of the core research group with the official excuse that I would be “appointed with other tasks.” I was set up with a sinecure in a mental-health management agency in Shenzhen. Professor Lau never gave me a clear explanation of the abrupt change, but deep down, I knew that it was because of what happened that rainy night.

Had he already lost faith in his algorithm then? Did he send me away from the developing algorithm, hungry for all observation, to protect me? I’ll never know unless I find him.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, where residents took to the streets in protest and blocked the installation of DISCO-enhanced surveillance cameras, Ng Lok Tin ended up applying the same technique to peer into the deep recesses of every moviegoer’s consciousness, manipulating them to indulge in the fantasy that they were somehow special enough to see a different story.

Time makes us all traitors to the ideals of our youth. Humans are simply too complicated to be reduced to computable paths.

“Were we wrong to assume that we knew Professor Lau well enough to predict what he would do?” I let out a frustrated sigh.

Ng Lok Tin tries to comfort me. “As long as he’s not actually mad, he must still follow patterns of behavior that are reasonable.”

“But even if we’re right that he wants to come to the ISC showings, there’s no way the two of us can be at three different theaters at the same time.”

All three showings are of the same film: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Preoccupied, Ng Lok Tin stares at the qipao-clad woman on the poster. Lights blink around the poster, like robotic stars.

He yelps and jumps to his feet.

“I’m going to take you where you can see three movie showings at once.”


We arrive at the central control room at the Broadway Cinematheque in Yau Ma Tei. Here, we can see the real-time data from all three ISC showings visualized in arrays of lights. The other two showings are happening at the Grand Windsor Cinema at Causeway Bay and the Movie Town at Sha Tin New Town Plaza.

The staff checks and double-checks all the equipment. A countdown begins on the big command screen as though the place is about to launch a rocket instead of showing an old film about an extramarital affair. The director, known for his protectiveness, won’t allow theaters to modify frames from the original film by adding flashing ISC signals for key scenes. Therefore, the theater has erected electronic call-boards next to the screen to remind the viewers when they should be prepared for scanning.

This gives us a chance.

I’ve never liked this movie, not because of the story itself, but because the artistic shots—streets full of buildings imitating a past that never existed, Tong Lau tenements, and drenching storms that one never learns to expect—call forth memories that pour down on me like heavy rain, until I feel I’m drowning.

Ng Lok Tin notices my discomfort. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and reassures me that we’ll find Professor Lau no matter what.

He knows nothing of the tumult in my brain right now.

Finally, the movie arrives at that well-known scene in the Goldfinch Restaurant. The dim glow of the light, the green tablecloth, and the wallpaper enhance romantic tension. Maggie Cheung, in a qipao, stirs her coffee with a small spoon. Tony Leung, sitting across from her, frowns, a look of melancholy in his eyes. In the next scene, these neighbors will come to terms with the ugly truth: their spouses are having an affair with one another.

The ISC countdown begins, reminding the audience to sit still and prepare for scanning.

A line of text appears on the call-board.

Professor Lau, thank you for finding me. —Kiu

For most in the audience, this non sequitur, a little sappy, seems utterly incongruous with the tense, oppressive mood of the scene on the screen, a bit of random irrelevance to be ignored. It isn’t meant for them.

But for Professor Lau, if he is among the audience, his brain should automatically seize upon the stimulus, trigger the retrieval of a certain long-ago memory from the hippocampus, and prompt the amygdala to produce an intense emotional response.

A rainy night 10 years ago.

I remember nothing of the beginning of the episode. After it was all over, my classmates informed me that after suffering a sudden breakdown, I had run out of my room and disappeared into the unexpected storm, through the faux-antique streets, past the buildings blurred by rain. My friends looked for me everywhere without success.

As I regained consciousness, I realized that I was standing outside the library’s 24-hour study room with a jagged piece of broken glass in my hand. The students inside, their heads still buried in books, had no idea how close to death they had come. In fact, they were unaware of even my presence.

Professor Lau crouched before me, a wan smile on his face. Blood gushed from the deep wound in his palm, dribbled down his fingertips, pooled in a deep crimson patch at his feet.

“Everything is okay now, Ah-Kiu. I found you.”

He and I are the only ones to know what happened that night.

I could have been committed. I could have lost everything. But he had found me and kept my secret. Why did he trust that there would be no further episodes from me? Why did he believe I had stepped back from the brink of madness?

There are no answers for some questions. Human beings are too complicated.

The arrays of glowing dots representing the ISC coefficients of the audiences at all three theaters light up simultaneously; like hundreds of twinkling blue stars, they brighten and dim in synchrony, as though breathing. Abruptly, one dot flashes orange instead of blue, but after a split second, it blends back into the anonymity of the arrays.

“Causeway Bay!” I dash for the door.


It only takes 13 minutes to get to Causeway Bay via the Cross Harbor Tunnel, as long as traffic doesn’t get in the way, but the car ride feels like an eternity. On the way, Ng Lok Tin and I make plans for every contingency. But the hardest factor of all to control is how Professor Lau will react upon seeing us.

“See? It’s impossible to predict individual behavior because even the smallest disturbance can lead to major deviations.” I have no idea how Ng Lok Tin can still be in the mood for a lecture. “Yet when we change the scale and examine humanity as a collective, we can easily discern predictable patterns.”

“I hope that Professor Lau and you can continue your debate from 10 years ago. You have new arguments, and no doubt he does too.”

Ng Lok Tin shrugs, as if to say that he will most definitely win.

By the time we enter the theater, the credits are already rolling. Slowly, Ng Lok Tin and I search through the darkness, squinting at the faces in each row. All of them, half-hidden beneath helmets and bathed in a silver light, look the same to me. I move as slowly and softly as possible; I don’t want to miss or startle the man.

Ng Lok Tin and I stop at the same row.

Professor Lau has already removed his helmet; the massive screen’s silver glow glistens on his bare face. He gives me a look and points at the screen.

I turn. A quote from Tête-Bêche, the novel on which In The Mood for Love is based, floats on the screen. In French, tête-bêche refers to a pair of adjoining stamps printed upside-down relative to each other.

“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty windowpane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct. If he could break through that dusty windowpane, he would return to those vanished years.”

My eyes dart back to the man, fearful that he’ll disappear into the crowd at any moment.

Instead, he walks up to us. Ng Lok Tin staggers over to join our reunion.

“Professor Lau, we found you,” I blurt out.

In the darkness, everyone is waiting for the end of the film.

Professor Lau Gim Wai smiles, as though to say, It’s not you who found me, but I who found you.

Some things, like that orange glow deviating from a sea of blue, can be measured and ascertained. But what cannot be measured is the meaning behind that glow, the rainy night, the broken glass, the faith that madness and sanity, deviance and conformity, cannot be so easily pinned down.

“I need your help,” he whispers. “DISCO is fatally flawed. Nuances of life neglected by the algorithm are critical in determining the fate of an individual—or rather, the fate of multitudes.”

Smiling, Ng Lok Tin and I look at each other. This is not the ending, but the beginning of a new subplot.

Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) is a science fiction writer living in Beijing; his novel Waste Tide will be published in English by Tor Books in 2019. Emily Jin and Ken Liu have translated many works of Chinese science fiction, and Liu’s own story “Byzantine Empathy” is inMIT Technology Review’s latest Twelve Tomorrows anthology.

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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked…

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How the Dumb Design of a WWII Plane Led to the Macintosh

The B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the drawing board and onto the runway in a mere 12 months, just in time to become the fearsome workhorse of the US Air Force during World War II. Its astounding toughness made pilots adore it: The B-17 could roar through angry squalls of shrapnel and bullets, emerging pockmarked but still airworthy. It was a symbol of American ingenuity, held aloft by four engines, bristling with a dozen machine guns.

Imagine being a pilot of that mighty plane. You know your primary enemy—the Germans and Japanese in your gunsights. But you have another enemy that you can’t see, and it strikes at the most baffling times. Say you’re easing in for another routine landing. You reach down to deploy your landing gear. Suddenly, you hear the scream of metal tearing into the tarmac. You’re rag-dolling around the cockpit while your plane skitters across the runway. A thought flickers across your mind about the gunners below and the other crew: “Whatever has happened to them now, it’s my fault.” When your plane finally lurches to a halt, you wonder to yourself: “How on earth did my plane just crash when everything was going fine? What have I done?”

For all the triumph of America’s new planes and tanks during World War II, a silent reaper stalked the battlefield: accidental deaths and mysterious crashes that no amount of training ever seemed to fix. And it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Air Force finally resolved to figure out what had happened.

To do that, the Air Force called upon a young psychologist at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Paul Fitts was a handsome man with a soft Tennessee drawl, analytically minded but with a shiny wave of Brylcreemed hair, Elvis-like, which projected a certain suave nonconformity. Decades later, he’d become known as one of the Air Force’s great minds, the person tasked with hardest, weirdest problems—such as figuring out why people saw UFOs.

For now though, he was still trying to make his name with a newly minted PhD in experimental psychology. Having an advanced degree in psychology was still a novelty; with that novelty came a certain authority. Fitts was supposed to know how people think. But his true talent is to realize that he doesn’t.

Adapted from User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Buy on Amazon.

Courtesy of MCD

When the thousands of reports about plane crashes landed on Fitts’s desk, he could have easily looked at them and concluded that they were all the pilot’s fault—that these fools should have never been flying at all. That conclusion would have been in keeping with the times. The original incident reports themselves would typically say “pilot error,” and for decades no more explanation was needed. This was, in fact, the cutting edge of psychology at the time. Because so many new draftees were flooding into the armed forces, psychologists had begun to devise aptitude tests that would find the perfect job for every soldier. If a plane crashed, the prevailing assumption was: That person should not have been flying the plane. Or perhaps they should have simply been better trained. It was their fault.

But as Fitts pored over the Air Force’s crash data, he realized that if “accident prone” pilots really were the cause, there would be randomness in what went wrong in the cockpit. These kinds of people would get hung on anything they operated. It was in their nature to take risks, to let their minds wander while landing a plane. But Fitts didn’t see noise; he saw a pattern. And when he went to talk to the people involved about what actually happened, they told of how confused and terrified they’d been, how little they understood in the seconds when death seemed certain.

The examples slid back and forth on a scale of tragedy to tragicomic: pilots who slammed their planes into the ground after misreading a dial; pilots who fell from the sky never knowing which direction was up; the pilots of B-17s who came in for smooth landings and yet somehow never deployed their landing gear. And others still, who got trapped in a maze of absurdity, like the one who, having jumped into a brand-new plane during a bombing raid by the Japanese, found the instruments completely rearranged. Sweaty with stress, unable to think of anything else to do, he simply ran the plane up and down the runway until the attack ended.

Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes. Faced with the prospect of soldiers losing their lives to poorly designed machinery, they invented a new paradigm for viewing human behavior. That paradigm lies behind the user-friendly world that we live in every day. They realized that it was absurd to train people to operate a machine and assume they would act perfectly under perfect conditions.

Instead, designing better machines meant figuring how people acted without thinking, in the fog of everyday life, which might never be perfect. You couldn’t assume humans to be perfectly rational sponges for training. You had to take them as they were: distracted, confused, irrational under duress. Only by imagining them at their most limited could you design machines that wouldn’t fail them.

This new paradigm took root slowly at first. But by 1984—four decades after Chapanis and Fitts conducted their first studies—Apple was touting a computer for the rest of us in one of its first print ads for the Macintosh: “On a particularly bright day in Cupertino, California, some particularly bright engineers had a particularly bright idea: Since computers are so smart, wouldn’t it make sense to teach computers about people, instead of teaching people about computers? So it was that those very engineers worked long days and nights and a few legal holidays, teaching silicon chips all about people. How they make mistakes and change their minds. How they refer to file folders and save old phone numbers. How they labor for their livelihoods, and doodle in their spare time.” (Emphasis mine.) And that easy-to-digest language molded the smartphones and seamless technology we live with today.

Along the long and winding path to a user-friendly world, Fitts and Chapanis laid the most important brick. They realized that as much as humans might learn, they would always be prone to err—and they inevitably brought presuppositions about how things should work to everything they used. This wasn’t something you could teach of existence. In some sense, our limitations and preconceptions are what it means to be human—and only by understanding those presumptions could you design a better world.

Today, this paradigm shift has produced trillions in economic value. We now presume that apps that reorder the entire economy should require no instruction manual at all; some of the most advanced computers ever made now come with only cursory instructions that say little more than “turn it on.” This is one of the great achievements of the last century of technological progress, with a place right alongside GPS, Arpanet, and the personal computer itself.

It’s also an achievement that remains unappreciated because we assume this is the way things should be. But with the assumption that even new technologies need absolutely no explaining comes a dark side: When new gadgets make assumptions about how we behave, they force unseen choices upon us. They don’t merely defer to our desires. They shape them.


User friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts; it relies on our patterns. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior. And today, our behavior is being shaped and molded in ways both magical and mystifying, precisely because it happens so seamlessly.

I got a taste of this seductive, user-friendly magic recently, when I went to Miami to tour a full-scale replica of Carnival Cruise’s so-called Ocean Medallion experience. I began my tour in a fake living room, with two of the best-looking project staffers pretending to be husband and wife, showing me how the whole thing was supposed to go.

Using the app, you could reserve all your activities way before you boarded the ship. And once on board, all you needed was to carry was a disk the size of a quarter; using that, any one of the 4,000 touchscreens on the ship could beam you personalized information, such which way you needed to go for your next reservation. The experience recalled not just scenes from Her and Minority Report, but computer-science manifestos from the late 1980s that imagined a suite of gadgets that would adapt to who you are, morphing to your needs in the moment.

Behind the curtains, in the makeshift workspace, a giant whiteboard wall was covered with a sprawling map of all the inputs that flow into some 100 different algorithms that crunch every bit of a passenger’s preference behavior to create something called the “Personal Genome.” If Jessica from Dayton wanted sunscreen and a mai tai, she could order them on her phone, and a steward would deliver them in person, anywhere across the sprawling ship.

The server would greet Jessica by name, and maybe ask if she was excited about her kitesurfing lesson. Over dinner, if Jessica wanted to plan an excursion with friends, she could pull up her phone and get recommendations based on the overlapping tastes of the people she was sitting with. If only some people like fitness and others love history, then maybe they’ll all like a walking tour of the market at the next port.

Jessica’s Personal Genome would be recalculated three times a second by 100 different algorithms using millions of data points that encompassed nearly anything she did on the ship: How long she lingered on a recommendation for a sightseeing tour; the options that she didn’t linger on at all; how long she’d actually spent in various parts of the ship; and what’s nearby at that very moment or happening soon. If, while in her room, she had watched one of Carnival’s slickly produced travel shows and seen something about a market tour at one her ports of call, she’d later get a recommendation for that exact same tour when the time was right. “Social engagement is one of the things being calculated, and so is the nuance of the context,” one of the executives giving me the tour said.

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It was like having a right-click for the real world. Standing on the mocked-up sundeck, knowing that whatever I wanted would find me, and that whatever I might want would find its way either onto the app or the screens that lit up around the cruise ship as I walked around, it wasn’t hard to see how many other businesses might try to do the same thing. In the era following World War II, the idea that designers could make the world easier to understand was a breakthrough.

But today, “I understand what I should do” has become “I don’t need to think at all.” For businesses, intuitiveness has now become mandatory, because there are fortunes to be made by making things just a tad more frictionless. “One way to view this is creating this kind of frictionless experience is an option. Another way to look at it is that there’s no choice,” said John Padgett, the Carnival executive who had shepherded the Ocean Medallion to life. “For millennials, value is important. But hassle is more important, because the era they’ve grow up in. It’s table stakes. You have to be hassle-free to get them to participate.”

By that logic, the real world was getting to be disappointing when compared with the frictionless ease of this increasingly virtual world. Taken as a whole, Carnival’s vision for seamless customer service that can anticipate your every whim was like an Uber for everything, powered by Netflix recommendations for meatspace. And these are in fact the experiences that many more designers will soon be striving for: invisible, everywhere, perfectly tailored, with no edges between one place and the next. Padgett described this as a “market of one,” in which everything you saw would be only the thing you want.

The Market of One suggests to me a break point in the very idea of user friendliness. When Chapanis and Fitts were laying the seeds of the user-friendly world, they had to find the principles that underlie how we expect the world to behave. They had to preach the idea that products built on our assumptions about how things should work would eventually make even the most complex things easy to understand.

Steve Jobs’ dream of a “bicycle for the mind”—a universal tool that might expand the reach of anyone—has arrived. High technology has made our lives easier; made us better at our jobs, and created jobs that never existed before; it has made the people we care about closer to us. But friction also has value: It’s friction that makes us question whether we do in fact need the thing we want. Friction is the path to introspection. Infinite ease quickly becomes the path of least resistance; it saps our free will, making us submit to someone else’s guess about who we are. We can’t let that pass. We have to become cannier, more critical consumers of the user-friendly world. Otherwise, we risk blundering into more crashes that we’ll only understand after the worst has already happened.


Excerpted from USER FRIENDLY: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux November 19th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. All rights reserved.

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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!Today’s NewsMeet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truckTesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest…

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A Tesla Cybertruck Mishap, a Massive Data Leak, and More News

Hackers are stealing and Elon is squealing, but first: a cartoon about subscription dreams.

Here’s the news you need to know, in two minutes or less.

Want to receive this two-minute roundup as an email every weekday? Sign up here!

Today’s News

Meet the Tesla Cybertruck, Elon Musk’s Ford-fighting pickup truck

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last night unveiled his newest baby, an all-electric pickup called the Tesla Cybertruck. He demonstrated that it can take a sledgehammer to the door with nary a scratch, and he also accidentally demonstrated that it can’t take a ball to the window. But behind the showmanship and Elon’s audible disbelief at the onstage mishap is a truck with a 500-mile range and the torque that comes from an electric motor. It represents an important new market expansion for Tesla. Now it just has to actually put the darn thing into production.

1.2 billion records found exposed online in a single server

Hackers have long used stolen personal data to break into accounts and wreak havoc. And a dark web researcher found one data trove sitting exposed on an unsecured server. The 1.2 billion records don’t include passwords, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers, but they do contain cell phone numbers, social media profiles, and email addresses—a great start for someone trying to steal your identity.

Fast Fact: 2025

That’s the year NASA expects to launch the first dedicated mission to Europa, where water vapor was recently discovered. The mission to Jupiter’s moon will involve peering beneath Europa’s icy shell for evidence of life.

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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of…

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How Wily Teens Outwit Bathroom Vape Detectors

Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles southwest of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years. Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with ecigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of Hinsdale even passed an ordinance that would make it easier for officers to ticket minors caught with the devices. To no avail. And the detectors? Students simply ripped them off the walls.

Ecigarettes, which are easy to conceal and, until recently, came in a dazzling array of sweet, fruity, and dessert flavors, are hugely popular among teenagers. A recent study found that 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers frequently vape. So schools across the country are spending thousands of dollars to outfit their campuses with vaping detectors, only to find that the devices can’t stand up to wily teens and that policing student behavior isn’t the same as permanently changing it.

Like smoke detectors, vape detectors are relatively unintrusive. They don’t even record video or audio—they just register the chemical signature of vaping aerosol, then send an email or text alert to school officials.

Some schools say they’re a useful deterrent. A district in Sparta, New Jersey, started off with two detectors and is planning to install more. Freeman School District in Washington installed detectors a few weeks ago. “They’ve been very effective, and we’re glad we have them,” says superintendent Randy Russell, who noted that the detectors already helped catch one young vaper in the act.

But at Hinsdale, even before the teens subjected them to blunt force trauma, the devices hadn’t lived up to expectations. “By the time we get there the kids are gone,” says Kimm Dever, an administrator at Hinsdale Central. Dever says the devices also went off randomly, and administrators couldn’t tell which kids were vaping and which just happened to be in the bathroom when the devices alerted.

Revere Schools in Bath, Ohio, reported similar problems. Revere spent around $15,000 to install 16 detectors in its middle and high schools at the beginning of the school year. Parents were thrilled, but administrators rarely made it to the bathroom in time to catch the vapers mid-puff. “It was like chasing ghosts,” says Jennifer Reece, a spokesperson for the school district. In theory, school officials could consult footage from hallway cameras to triangulate which students were in the bathroom when the detectors went off. “That also takes up time, and we don’t always have that type of time” Reece says.

Revere bought detectors with grant money from the state Attorney General’s Office. Now, Reece often gets questions from other school districts about the devices. “If they don’t have grant money I don’t know if it’s worth [the cost],” she says.

If vaping has become the cool thing to do among students, then buying vape detectors is the big trend for school districts. Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, which makes the Flysense detector that Revere installed, says the company is fielding about 700 orders a month. “We have more schools coming to us than we know what to do with,” he says. IPVideo, which makes a number of cameras and other gadgets for schools, sells a Halo detector that also claims to distinguish between THC and nicotine vapor. The detectors can integrate with school camera systems so it’s easier for administrators to figure out which students are in the bathroom, and both companies’ detectors cost roughly $1,000 a piece. Flysense charges an additional annual fee.

The sensors are chemical detectors that go off when the levels of certain chemicals in the room change. Most schools say they do sense the vapor and that they’ve caught students because of them. But kids are clever. Some exhale into their backpacks or sleeves, where the aerosol dissipates before wafting up to the detector. Other kids resort to AP physics–level subterfuge. They exhale into the toilet and flush, creating a vacuum that sucks the aerosol into the pipes. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” says Peterson. “There’s no sensing that could ever change the laws of physics.”

The problem is that detectors alone can’t change students’ behavior. It’s important for schools to analyze their goals, says Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a developmental psychologist at Stanford who studies teen vaping. Vape detectors might help catch offending kids so they can be punished, she says, but “if the goal is to prevent and stop, vape detectors are not the way to go.”

Peterson agrees and is already getting in on the education angle, offering a #NoVaping package that includes brochures, posters, and suggestions for class presentations.

Between 2017 and 2019, the California Department of Justice distributed more than $12 million to California school districts trying to deter vaping through a number of measures including installing detectors, hiring school resource officers, and running educational programs.

One of those districts was Las Virgenes Unified, which serves around 11,500 students northwest of Los Angeles. In October 2018, Las Virgenes spent half of its grant, some $50,000, to install Flysense detectors at its two high schools and three middle schools. “The technology is good. They work,” says superintendent Dan Stepenosky. But he combines the detectors with other measures. When students are caught vaping, they’re sent to a 90-minute meeting with their parents and an addiction counselor. The school dispatched administrators to nearby gas stations, grocery stores, and convenience stores to remind people not to sell ecigarettes to kids under 21. The school even partners with law enforcement to run sting operations on businesses in the community that sell ecigarettes to minors. So far they’ve conducted over 250 operations complete with undercover officers and marked bills.

But the most important element hasn’t been the sting operations, the crackdowns on local retailers, or the detectors. “The most impactful has been the education piece,” says Stepenosky. The district holds seminars for parents and teachers, and it hired extra deans to focus on student wellness and included information about ecigarettes in school curricula.

These strategies are comprehensive, and they demand a lot of resources. One school in South Dakota raised money from the local community to buy its sensors. Other school districts are suing Juul, blaming the company’s marketing for creating a new generation of nicotine-addicted kids. Those districts hope to get payouts that will alleviate the huge financial burden of running addiction counseling and education programs. Stepenosky received over a million dollars from the California Department of Justice, and he’s already applying for more funding for next year.


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