How will you do your job when you’re outpaced by a computer? Or when the company you’re working for is taken over by algorithms? These are some of the questions explored in a stimulating new short film by designer and architect Keiichi Matsuda.
Merger is a 360-degree film set in the augmented reality workspace of an unnamed consultant. While trying to manage her work and life responsibilities, she explains to an interviewer why she’s ready to take the next step: to leave her human body behind and merge with the network. “I know that once I’m on the other side I’ll be able to be everywhere, see everything,” she says. “I can give my clients a chance to fight back.”
It’s an unsettling message, subtly delivered. We live in a world that worships productivity, and that equates our ability to work with our value to society. But what happens when this meaning is taken away from us? What might we sacrifice in order to keep feeling useful?
“We don’t feel like we have agency over the outside world.”
Speaking to The Verge, Matsuda says he was inspired by a number of converging trends, including the rise of algorithms, the automation of work, and, particularly, the cult of productivity. “We don’t feel like we have agency over the outside world, but we do feel we have agency over ourselves,” he says. “So we optimize, prioritize, and do anything we can to try and get that little bit of an edge over the competition.”
Like Matsuda’s last short film HYPER-REALITY, which explored a hellscape of augmented reality pop-ups, Merger tells much of its story through the design of its technology. This makes sense considering Matsuda’s background. He recently finished a stint as VP of design at Leap Motion, makers of hand-tracking hardware sensors, and you might recognize his work from his tweets about the company’s experimental “virtual wearables.”
In Merger, the protagonist’s augmented reality desktop feels claustrophobic, cocooning her in information like a hamster ball made from data. Pause the video and you can see a mix of to-do lists, news articles (“Why Alexa Must Be First AI President”), chat messages, and even a cartoon mascot that looks suspiciously like Microsoft’s Clippy. In the interface, as in reality, there’s little separation between work and social life.
Matsuda says the design was partly inspired by a common trope in action and sci-fi films: that of the “operator” — the character who sits behind a desk, the world at their fingertips. The gesture-based interface used by Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report is often a template for this. “I’m asked to build that sort of interface all the time,” laughs Matsuda.
But as the film progresses, the interface becomes more intimate. Soft colors replace chirpy blues and whites, and the surrounding landscape (inspired by the famous Bliss image used as wallpaper in Windows XP) is replaced by a night sky, populated by constellations of algorithms, their nodes blinking down peacefully at the protagonist.
“eventually the boundary between human and machine softens.”
“She wants to get closer to the information; closer to the data and the networks,” says Matsuda. “But eventually the boundary between human and machine softens. The interface is a sphere that surrounds her, but the final step in the film is to transcend that.”
To some viewers, this augmented reality desktop probably looks more dreamy than dangerous (it certainly did to me). But that’s proof of how deep-rooted our desire to be productive is. Many of us want to do more in our lives, but we often forget to ask why or to what end we’re actually working. Matsuda hopes that, like his work in interface design, Merger will be a useful artifact for people. But, instead of helping them work more, it should prod them to think about why they’re working at all.
“I hoped that it could be like a tool,” Matsuda says of the film. “To allow people to have access to an idea [and] then to think for themselves what type of future they could have.”