Adam Rothstein’s The Cities Science Fiction Built

Adam Rothstein, “The Cities Science Fiction Built,” Motherboard (April 20, 2015).


Rothstein states that a future city, in the science fiction movies, is often revealed through smog. Zizek (2006) believes that when the geographical space is not clear even when you look closely, it creates fantasy. The futuristic city can be seen as a space in our dreams, and we escape from our reality into this mysterious and unclear space of fantasy. It could be a utopia, but often a space of terror in the science fiction movies.

However, in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2014), this future city is clean, warm and peaceful. Jonze explained that he does not think about what the future is going to be, but just creates what he wants our future to feel like for this story. This film not only shows us a scenario that when a human falls in love with AI, but even goes further: the Artificial Intelligence, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), “loves back”. Does the AI have emotion or consciousness? Wolfram, a CalTech computer scientist, concluded that “there is no bright line distinction between what is intelligent and what is merely computational.” (WSJ, 2014)

Technology may be the core of this film, but in its soul, it is still discussing the struggle that people experience in communicating with each other. Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) works as a ghost writer for an Internet company; ironically, he is also part of an operating system in his own way. Since we are social creatures, Theodore keeps his phone in a front pocket, and lets the camera lens face forward to share the physical space he lives in with Samantha.

Rothstein’s article does not discuss how and when these technologies could be realized and “serve” our lives. However, Wolfram thinks that an operating system like Samantha actually is not that far off. “The mechanics of getting the AI to work—I don’t think that’s the most challenging part,” he said in an interview with Speakeasy. “The challenging part is, in a sense: Define the meaningful product.” (WSJ, 2014)

Rothstein’s article also touches on the idea of utopia. The human’s desire to imagine or create a perfect society, dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In the 15th through 18th centuries, however, there was a dramatic increase in expressions of the utopian impulse, for many reasons. One factor was the Italian Renaissance, in which the rebirth of ancient ideas included a focus on the planning of ideal cities and societies. After Columbus came to America, this new continent seemed to offer the potential to be the utopia for the Europeans. And look at this New World now (Sterling Memorial Library, 2009).

Rothstein spills much ink describing architectures in the city. It is important because a symbolic architecture that coexists in both the fictional and the real world would create dimensional transfer (Rothstein, 2015). Rothstein mentions in the 1968 film The Planet of the Apes, the Statue of liberty acts as a bridge between past and future, also between reality and fantasy. It is also the clue that the fictional world is not an alien planet, but our own world thousands of years later.  

However, Rothstein says little about people who live in the city and how different social groups would be affected by these future technologies. Also, I believe government surveillance is another topic needs to be mentioned, especially in utopia/dystopia movies.



Kawakami, R. (2014) Wall Street Journal. How Real is Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’? Artificial Intelligence Experts Weigh In.

Leitão, C and Keller, E. (2016) “Drive,” Volume 49: Learning Network.

Rothstein, A. (2015) “The Cities Science Fiction Built,” Motherboard.

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. 8 June – 7 September, 2009

Žižek, S, (2006). The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.