Thursday, March 23, 2017

'Beauty and the Beast's Enchanted Objects Become a Cautionary Tale For Today's 'Smart' World

Enchanted objects are one of those fairy tale elements many people love. (We posted on the appeal some time ago HERE.) When Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast chose to have visible enchanted servants, instead of the traditional invisible ones, people were thoroughly, well, enchanted. Everywhere people wished their own household objects would come to life and help them with their own life conundrums. It really wasn't until the live action remake's "first looks" pics appeared on the internet, that people processed just how frightening a real enchanted object could be.

For the entire nostalgia crowd, most of whom adored the animated talking objects (and preferred their object form to human form, if they admitted it) seeing the direction the live update was heading in via pics released on the internet, was a wake-up call: one, that some things should not, perhaps, be transformed from animation to 'real', and two, that having (truly) sentient furniture and accessories (and homes) in real life could actually be a pretty creepy notion. It turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of the creative team: to produce believably real enchanted objects that still appealed to audiences, instead of horrifying them.

Even with a lot of effort and (eventually) enthusiastic responses from audiences to the trailers showing the results, one of the most consistent negative comments we've heard from enthusiasts and critics alike (including the exiting audience when we saw the film) is how sinister they felt the enchanted objects were throughout the movie. There was additional dialogue from the enchanted servants in the film, which added to this impression, but in the new movie, it was pretty clear the household were very personally motivated (ie. had their own agenda) to keep Belle in the castle, and prevented her from leaving multiple times, when a truly friendly object would have done the opposite. In fact, toward the end, there was quite a divide between the feelings the Beast had for Belle and the servants. It was only out of respect (and possibly love) for their Master, that the objects accepted the Beast releasing Belle to go see her father. Household objects preventing you from leaving  - something Belle managed to narrowly outwit at one point, thanks to taking advantage of an oversized 'doggie door' - is pretty chilling.

There is a whole line of questions and story issues behind this drift to the dark side but dubious motivations, and turns of cute Disney sidekicks to the sinister aside, there's another aspect to this storyline that's pertinent to our modern world. The idea that angry household objects could take revenge, and/ or protect their turf, from intruders or visitors, is frightening.

And suddenly our Smart Homes and devices come into sharp focus.

Doing a little research as we started writing this article, we came across one in WIRED, titled Beauty and the Beast, Still a Cautionary Tale About the Smart Home, which was clearly thinking many of the same things, and stated the 'smart object' concerns wonderfully, so we thought we'd share some excerpts:
That’s not to say that things are all bad. Honestly, these are some great smart devices. They anticipate the needs of human/Beastly occupants perfectly. Mrs. Potts offers tea; Lumière dims the lights just at the right moments, while somehow escaping the incessant firmware upgrades that plague our real-world smart lights. They offer sound advice: When the Beast asks Cogsworth how he would know if he’s in love with Belle, Cogsworth responds by saying “You’ll feel slightly nauseous.” Would an Amazon Echo give it to you straight like that? Doubtful. 
... perhaps most importantly, the smart devices exhibit actual forethought, tweaking Belle’s environment to make her comfortable despite the Beast’s humbuggery—which ultimately creates the conditions for romance. 
Twenty-six years ago, all this animated meddling was adorable. (When a teapot sounds like Angela Lansbury, it does what it wants.) With the advent of CGI, though, the Beast’s castle seems to have relocated to be closer to the Uncanny Valley. Mrs. Potts looks like something you could pick up at an antique shop; Lumiere’s candles seem really to ignite. And in a time when connected devices can bicker and develop relationships, the repartee among the staff starts to feel less like a workplace sitcom and more like a dystopian sci-fi novel. 
... the most problematic device in the castle by far: the Beast’s magic mirror, a voice-activated screen that allows the user to view anyone, anywhere. (What does it think it is, a microwave?) (FTNH Ed: Or the camera on your smartphone or tablet?) Some might argue that the magic mirror’s invasions of privacy can be used for good, as when Belle discovers that her townspeople have apprehended her elderly father. The information allows her to save her father, or at least end up stuck in a locked—but not autonomous!—carriage with him. Just because surveillance can be used to fight crime, though, doesn’t make it a one-solution-fits-all technology. The first time the Beast uses the magic mirror, after all, it’s to spy on Belle in her room. He’s checking her out, and while the moment isn’t the slightest bit tawdry, it could have been. And when the magic mirror falls into the wrong hands, the device’s true sinister potential becomes clear...
As science barrels toward creating true 'AI' (artificial intelligence) at the same time as smart devices become more and more integrated into our daily lives, work and homes, the sinister scenario of S.A.R.A.H. (Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat) becomes more and more possible.

The idea of object anthropomorphism is often behind how technology is created, though not usually consciously. While we don't really want our objects to be as smart as us (especially not with personalities that have opinions that differ from ours), making something 'user-friendly' is often about making the user feel comfortable and, well, friendly, toward the device/ program. By masking most of the technological workings and making them invisible - like magic! - and creating an interface (the way we use it) to require actions we use, both with other people (especially children, and others we're in charge of) and animals/pets, we become familiar (in the literal, and bordering on the folkloric, definition) with our machines. As a result it's not uncommon for people to get attached. (Try taking a phone away from someone who usually has it in their hands, or better still, don't...)

People inevitably, to an extent, get attached to machines they use regularly anyway (cars, boats etc). The drive for humans to connect, even to non-humans, is very strong, but there's an even deeper dynamic with smart devices - the devices which hold your information, passwords, preferences, memories, secrets and even hopes and dreams. Not only do people get attached, they become dependent, letting their guard down around their devices, making themselves vulnerable to losing regular skills (like navigating streets) but particularly to being taken advantage of by the invisible puppeteers behind the programs.

No, we're not in the age of AI devices (yet), but there is intelligence and motive, behind every one of the devices and apps we use - even if they're benign and/ or perceived as 'good' - and we would be less vulnerable if we remembered that. The responsibility is still ours. When we are taken advantage of it can't be blamed on the machine. It's 'user error'. Literally.

It may seem we've strayed far from the fairy tale and considerations about the 'love story' of Beauty and the Beast, but actually, it's quite 'on the nose'. Anna Vlasists, writer of the Wired article, puts it succinctly:
... while it’s tempting to blame the IoT (Internet of Teapots) for the bloodthirsty townspeople, or for the Beast’s fate soon thereafter, the true culprit isn’t the smart home... Only when the Beast falls in love with Belle does he breach his own best security practices, giving her the mirror that ultimately proves his downfall. A reminder to all who share their passcodes and devices: Love can make us hasty with our information. And that information—or misinformation—can do IRL harm.
Don't let the real invisible servants take advantage of you every day. Be smart with what you write, click and share. Protect your freedom. Be the user, not the used.

Note: We recently attended a special introduction to coding for kids, and it opened with a short video explanation of the importance of being able to use and/ or understand code, which boiled down to: "program or be programmed. "If you don't know what the software* you're using is for, you're not using it, but being used by it." The 2 minute introduction explains how to not be scared - or be taken advantage of - but how to be aware of how the internet and software on smart devices is used, so we can have a choice about it. You can view it HERE.


  1. Had me laughing, and is the new Beauty and the Beast a setting for more dystopian film later, more money, more young adults interested in such genre? And is this reviewer, perhaps a delightful holdover from excellent French Farce analysis? Hope this keeps up, perhaps my librarian friend will finally read this blog and wonder why she spent so much on the tickets for her two grand daughters, but then technological film or romantic delusions when Belle dances with what type of beast was he? thanks best work presented on look into Disney money makers. atk

  2. Bring on the creepy! Wish they hadn't tried for appealing... I shall see it eventually for professional purposes!

  3. I have been avoiding seeing this so far, but will definitely be looking out for this intriguing element when I do...