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The Expanse season 6 makes me worry about the future of touchscreens

I hope the future can do better

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As we hurtle towards The Expanse’s sixth and final episode of its sixth and final season — airing this Friday, January 14th — I can’t stop thinking about one thing: how many of this season’s pivotal moments revolved around pressing the wrong button on a touchscreen.

“If it comes across that the touchscreen is the hero of the show, then we will have truly failed,” says showrunner Naren Shankar, telling me he objects to my entire line of questioning.

I wouldn’t say they failed! I enjoyed the whole season, even if it felt a little... cramped. I’m excited for the game, too. But it’s been 15 years since Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, and I’m kind of hoping touchscreens don’t still trip us up in another 300 years or so. Sadly, like much of the excellent series, it’s all too plausible.

I spoke to Shankar and authors / writers / showrunners Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham about those user interfaces last month. Also, I badgered them about whether and how The Expanse might return.

But first, you probably want to know what the heck I’m talking about re: touchscreens. And that requires spoilers.

Spoiler warning: this story contains huge spoilers for The Expanse season 6, episodes 1-5. If you’re caught up, you’re good; I won’t mention episode 6 at all.

1) Those buttons are right next to each other

At the end of The Expanse season 5, Camina Drummer and her Belter crew are on the run, having defected from Marco Inaros and his Free Navy. He effectively forced them to join or die, but they decided not to become his guns.

They are tired. Frazzled. So fatigued that in the midst of a carefully planned ambush necessary to escape the Free Navy’s clutches, Michio stabs the wrong touchscreen button. Not just any wrong button, either: instead of blowing the enemy to scrap, it sends out a signal that reveals their exact position. “What did you do?” Drummer screams.

Maybe don’t put buttons right next to each other when one of them will kill you? Then again, Belters jury-rig everything, so I suppose it’s not too surprising they carelessly bound this macro.
Maybe don’t put buttons right next to each other when one of them will kill you? Then again, Belters jury-rig everything, so I suppose it’s not too surprising they carelessly bound this macro.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This single action sets up the entire chain of events for Drummer’s crew right through episode 5. Critically low on supplies (they had to blow up two salvageable ships to save themselves, using physical buttons, I might add) and after deciding they need to offload the mentally weary Michio after the touchscreen debacle, they find themselves making an uneasy alliance with another Belter captain. He leads them to exactly what Drummer needs to undermine Marco Inaros’ credibility.

I’m totally fine with this plot-wise, even though I am the kind of person who would never, ever trust myself to stab a touchscreen in a moving vehicle. (Volume dials, please!)

2) Touchscreen drone controls

We now know the mysterious new world Laconia, accessible from our solar system via the Ring Gate, is home to intelligent lifeforms with the power to repair things... and perhaps even people. By the beginning of episode 5, the “Dogs” appear to have helped precocious little girl Cara bring her brother back from the dead — one of the biggest revelations about what humanity might be capable of in The Expanse.

What gave her the idea to drag her brother’s corpse into the wilderness? Way back in episode 2, she was flying a drone with touchscreen controls (already a bad idea if you ask me!), pushes the joystick the wrong direction without looking at the drone’s surroundings, and it hits a tree branch and crashes into the ground. But when she returns in episode 3, she finds the Dogs have fixed her drone (as well as an alien chick she’d befriended and accidentally killed).

Come on, The Expanse: we already had self-flying drones that could have dodged that branch in 2019, much less 2350.

3) The dud torpedo

Holden’s a pro with the wrist computer.
Holden’s a pro with the wrist computer.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

This one’s 100 percent intentional. At the end of episode 3, The Rocinante has miraculously slipped out of Marco Inaros’ clutches (thanks to a combination of superior firepower, piloting, and luck) and is ready to deliver a killing blow... but after they fire a nuclear torpedo, Holden swiftly and secretly disables the nuke part from his touchscreen wrist computer to avoid killing Naomi’s son. The torpedo doesn’t explode, temporarily convincing everyone that it was a dud — except both the ship’s computer and the eventually recovered torpedo keep a record of Holden’s authorization in their logs.

You can argue whether Holden made the right choice or not, and in general, I love how The Expanse’s interfaces automatically surface the controls their owners might use next, like quickly opening, locking, and unlocking doors aboard a ship. But once again, it’s a pivotal moment where pressing one button on a touchscreen instead of another has lasting repercussions.

Bonus: Holden’s hammer

I’m not sure if it’s technically a pry bar or a nail puller he’s holding, but either way it’s tiny and probably not the real reason the engine stops? Probably.
I’m not sure if it’s technically a pry bar or a nail puller he’s holding, but either way it’s tiny and probably not the real reason the engine stops? Probably.
GIF by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Twenty-five minutes into episode 1, shortly after Michio’s touchscreen button fail, Holden is standing on an asteroid that’s been outfitted with its own engine so the Free Navy can fire it at Earth. Suddenly, that engine starts to fire up... and with no time to react, Holden just smashes the damn thing with a pry bar till it stops.

What The Expanse’s writers had to say

So I asked the authors and showrunners: how, exactly, did user interfaces hurt you?

“I did almost 10 years of frontline tech support; user interfaces and I are going to die with our teeth in each other’s necks,” replies Daniel Abraham.

“And I’m going to take issue with the question,” says Naren Shankar (as I’ve already mentioned). “Yes, all of them involve buttons,” he admits, “but the scene is about the emotional decision to push a button.”

“What we should have done was go back and have a bunch of those switches,” Abraham jokes. “The old toggle switches and everything,” agrees Ty Franck. “I wish we had a lot more of those buttons in the show.”

“But to be more serious for a second, all of those moments that you cite are quite emotionally motivated, extremely in two of the cases [...] That’s how they fly the ship. Sometimes they do some things by talking to it, that doesn’t mean it’s always a voice-to-text parser,” adds Shankar.

“Except in the Solomon Epstein one we did, that was totally the fault of the voice parser,” says Franck, I think, though I’ve started to lose track as they’re talking over each other. He’s referencing how season 2, episode 6 flashes back to how an engineer accidentally invented long-range space travel and dies because he can’t turn the engine off; he disabled his crappy voice parser before launch, and the g-forces are too strong for him to reach the other controls.

What do touchscreens mean to you?

“It’s kind of the same question as ‘why do we use guns instead of laser blasters or something like that?’” says Abraham. “There’s kind of a technological endpoint you can reach where something works well, and then you kind of stick with it. We have cartridge guns in The Expanse because they work really well; they’re kind of the sharks of personal weaponry.”

“What we’re positing here is that these touchscreens and these kinds of interfaces are robust and work well in these kinds of conditions, where jacking into your brain, maybe not so much? Speech, yelling commands to the ship is cool, but it’s kind of a shitty interface in practice,” he adds.

“Humans interact with the world with their fingertips. There’s millions of years of evolution behind that — our fingers are connected to our brains differently than any other part of us,” Franck chimes in. “When we want to accomplish a thing, our first instinct is to reach out and touch something and manipulate it with their fingers ... so when I see something where people are no longer using their hands to do work, it feels false to me, it’s ignoring the realities of what humans do as biological entities.”

“we’ve reached for a Wikipedia level of plausibility”

All that said, The Expanse’s authors and showrunners caution that they’re not trying to predict the future. “Science fiction is about the age in which it’s written. We’ve been trying to keep what we’ve done plausible, but I don’t know if we’re really aiming to say how a fusion drive will really work, how stealth technology will really work. I’ve always said we’ve reached for a Wikipedia level of plausibility,” says Abraham.