In the nerd-world, Tony Stark’s JARVIS in Marvel’s Iron Man movies is the ideal digital companion – perfect for helping to accomplish everyday tasks such as picking out your tuxedo, warming up the Lambourghini and defeating Asgardian warlords.
Recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even proclaimed that 2016 would be the year in which he finally creates his own personal Jarvis – and few people argued that that would be a suitable` activity for anyone wanting to reach the pinnacle of personal high-tech achievement.
Modeled after Tony Stark’s butler in the comic books (who was modeled after Bruce Wayne’s butler) JARVIS comes complete with a British accent and a sophisticated, slightly hoighty “at-your-service sir” attitude. In most of his scenes, he acts as the uptight straight-man off whom Robert Downey Jr. can bounce his devil-may-care one-liners and techno-expository lines. Jarvis is the weary grown-up caretaker to Tony Stark’s rambunctious child, making Tony’s daredevil antics as Iron Man all the more enjoyable. Their relationship is the never-fail theme of wild-eyed American inventiveness transgressing the stuffy constraints of British tradition. We’ve been lapping up that stuff since 1776.
Personally, I’ve really hated the influence that the JARVIS / Minority Report visual interface has had on popular expectations of what a forward-thinking UI should look like. The glowing, gesture-controlled holograms may be super-cool to look at, but they represent an aesthetic that’s all about exposing complexity and flattening the information hierarchy so that no particular piece of data stands out, not because it’s good UI design, but because to do otherwise would distract from the scene.
As a purely vocal interface, though, JARVIS fares a little better. The cheeky butler personality functions perfectly for a system designed to fulfill domestic duties and tend to personal needs. And frankly, Who doesn’t want a robot butler? Isn’t that one of the great promises of automation? That we can all live a life surrounded by doting servants without the guilt of exploiting a less fortunate person and contributing to an unjust, classist society?
As Downton Abbey fans are well-aware, the upstairs-downstairs domestic hierarchy has always been less about convenience and time-saving, and more about reinforcing the traditional power structure. With machines taking on the downstairs roles of personal valets, maids, cooks, each of us can be the master of the house. Colonial British class structure get maintained and nobody has to do the dishes.
So yes – the cheeky butler personality functions quite well for a system designed to fulfill that particular fantasy. I guess my only question would be, do we, being the enlightened citizens of the non-hierarchical 21st century, still derive gratification from subservience, human or otherwise? Or can we leave all that behind for a brighter, holographic tomorrow?