Dear Alice


Short animated video depicting a Solarpunk-esque future on a farm. Hilariously, it’s actually a Chobani ad. Via Devon Zuegel

What I like about the future this ad depicts

  • It centers on people, physically together, enjoying each other and the sensuous pleasures of a beautiful summer day in the country.
  • Technology recedes. Displays are minimal and subdued. Robots make humans’ lives easier (delivering milk, picking fruit) but don’t overtly intrude.
  • This ad appreciates frank beauty. Not glamour; not polish. It recognizes and celebrates materials with rich physical and tactile character: wood, brick, copper, stone, textiles, soil, leaves, flesh. I love the color, the texture, the play of light.
  • The ad suggests that technology and nature can co-exist without degrowth or Ludditism: solar panels and floating wind turbines are woven into the scenery; Alice summons a raincloud for her eggplants.
  • There’s still a city—i.e. population can continue to grow; not everyone must live in the countryside. It looks dense, and the greenery makes it attractive.
  • More importantly, the city’s distance doesn’t matter because there are flying cars.
  • The dog at 0:44 has a prosthetic leg!!!

My gripes about the future this ad depicts

My central issue is that it’s not nearly ambitious enough.

  • Flying cars. Flying robots. Yes! More of that. But the depiction of energy doesn’t work: this civilization requires not just greening our current energy sources, but 100x the energy output.
    • A tiny stream turning a paddle is meaningless even today, much less with flying vehicles.
    • If you want to power just today’s civilization with solar panels (no flying cars!), you must tile roughly double the area of North America. This video depicts panels taking up maybe 5% of the farm’s land. That’s not our future—unless we commit to degrowth.
    • Jose Luis Ricon Fernandez de la Puente suggests that maybe we only need a tiny fraction of this area—like the size of Nevada. I’d be glad to be wrong in this way! Though flying cars will still need massive increases in power density…
    • Casey Handmer suggests ~5% of global land mass must be tiled with solar panels for the global population to reach US energy usage.
    • The floating wind turbines are aesthetically delightful but their energy capacity seems dubious.
    • The flying cars are by far the most transformative part of this depiction. Their impact should be played up much more (see e.g. Terra Ignota - Ada Palmer). For instance, maybe some of the dinner attendees live on the other side of the planet?
  • Why are workers picking fruit (00:18)? Why is she wiping her brow? I don’t think our future farms will take a dozen hands to run.
    • They’ll most likely be vertical, rather than spread out over all that precious land.
    • Making a raincloud gets Terrapunk points, but it’s a silly way to distribute water: we’ll be aquaponic, or we’ll have self-growing underground water lines, or whatever.
    • Open green space, yes: we can have endless rolling hills and nature—more than we have today if we reclaim land from agricultural production.
  • That fridge! Come on! If we have flying cars, we won’t store beautiful produce that way: we’ll order it fresh-picked when we want it.
    • Also, shouldn’t the fridge / weird levitating stove be doing more of the cooking / prep work here?
  • Old farmhands at 00:40 are visibly infirm and have skin damage. No!
  • The robot at 00:55 fails to catch a frisbee. I like that it’s making the point that the robot is subordinate to the kids, but our future robots are going to do our surgeries and rescue people from natural disasters.
  • Improved final shot: we keep pulling back, see that the whole scene is on a man-made island in the tropics, or a flying city, or a Ringworld, or Titan. Or there’s a space elevator / pier in the background.
    • I am very sympathetic to the Terrapunk insistence that our future involves making more Terra.
  • That city in the distance worries me a little. Can we imagine a scene this idyllic set within that city?
    • Wouldn’t the view from a bucolic park on the 250th floor look astounding?
    • If we find none of these visions compelling, perhaps we should replace our vision of the city with ultra-high-and-narrow arcologies, leaving the rest of the land open to nature, as Hall suggests in Where’s My Flying Car—so that everyone can spend most of their time together in scenes like this, flying in moments from their home arcologies to a gathering place in the world park.
  • Most of the objects in the environment look hand-made. That’s fine, insofar as it’s fun to form pottery. But I’d like to see a depiction of less exciting items made on the spot in a nano-fab. They can be made to look rough-hewn if you want!
  • How does information work in this world? The holograms are very low bandwidth. We can do better. What’s a humanistic vision of BCIs, AR, etc?
  • I’m uncomfortable with the parochialism of our strong preference for the old-world materials in the video: wood, stone, copper, brick, leaf. Can they truly not be improved? Even with a century of materials science and nano-fabs? I simply don’t believe it. Riffing:
    • stone which turns into a window on command
    • wood which can be made malleable like clay on command and then rigid again after being reshaped
    • “wood” which can support the weight of massive skyscrapers
    • leaves which glow on request in the evening
    • flowers which change shape and color every few minutes
    • brick walls which can rearrange their floor plan as needed

Detailed shot list

  1. Water flows across a paddle set in a lush stream. Holograms depict energy readings.
  2. A flexible pipe snakes through a forested brust next to a worm. A hologram depicts some quantity (flow?)
  3. A cow lies in a field of solar panels, partially overgrown with vines, looking out on a countryside. Holograms depict charge levels.
  4. In a traditional interior (brick, tons of plants, copper pans, wood furniture, greenhouse windows), Alice pours water from a kettle into a mug. She sets it back on the stove, where it hovers (why?).
  5. Alice on her porch, covered in hanging plants, flowers, wind chimes, art, bees.
  6. She looks out on her farm: a bicycle, a barn, flying wind turbines, clouds, solar panels, fields of grain, lush grass.
  7. Alice wipes her brow in the field, where workers pick fruit next to a machine (unclear what it’s doing). A child hugs her. She gives the child a drink.
  8. Overhead shot. A flying bus takes off (presumably with the child) and flies towards a large city full of steel and glass skyscrapers, but also green, growing up the buildings.
  9. Alice activates a device in a field, raising four poles which form a cloud which begins raining.
  10. Close up on eggplants getting wet. Holograms on the rain machine show its energy level. We see a flying robot carrying milk over the farm.
  11. Quick overhead shot of the fields, broken by a stream, as workers gather under a large tree.
  12. A dozen people of wide-ranging age and ethnicity gather around a table overflowing with fruit, soup, salad, sauces, etc. Alice is there, too. The flying robot delivers the milk. Technology is in the background—a few holograms on what I think is a pizza oven. A large humanoid robot puts a hat on Alice’s head.
  13. Robot arms pick peaches from a tree into a bin. Alice records notes on a tablet and sees stats on a hologram floating in front of her.
  14. We zoom out and see a few others lounging on the cart, eating fruit while the robot labors.
  15. Alice pours milk into her coffee.
  16. Kids are playing frisbee. The large humanoid robot tries to play too. A kid puts a hat on it.
  17. The school bus returns.
  18. The child runs inside, into the room depicted in 4. A few subdued holograms flit about, depicting unknown information. The fridge is open; it looks ordinary.
  19. We see the inside of the fridge as the door closes. A letter from Alice’s grandma: “So this place is yours now. It’s a handful, but nothing worth doing is easy. The land is more than just dirt. If you look after it, it will feed you forever. You are a smart one, I know you will be okay come rain or shine. And remember, a business is only as good as its people, so treat them well. Our job is to plant seeds, so our grandkids get to enjoy the fruit. So eat well Alice, and keep planting those seeds. Because how we eat today feeds tomorrow.”
  20. She takes a lingering look at the photo of her grandmother.
  21. A final wide shot shows Alice tossing berries into her kid’s mouth as we look at the wind turbines, the skyscrapers.