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The Aesthetics of Technology
"That design is a hundred years old, but instead of primitive atomic missiles and lasers, our scans show photon torpedoes and phased energy weapons. They also have real-time subspace communication, a matter transporter, ship-to-ship visual, uncensored swearwords, and a galley that doesn't serve coloured cubes as food."
Farce Contact, a Star Trek: Enterprise Parody Fic.

The Aesthetics of Technology is a Common Fan Fallacy which holds that if something looks more advanced, it is more advanced, according to the viewer's own personal standard.

The viewer's own standard will, in these cases, not actually map directly to the viewer's own life-experience, but will be surprisingly weighted toward Zeerust: high technology is expected to look high-technological, so a visually complex special effect implies more technology than a visually simple special effect. Robbie the Robot has lots of flashing lights and moving parts, so he looks more advanced than Commander Data, who just looks like a plain old human with a funny skin tone.

Obviously, there is a bit of strangeness here: a 1950s computer, with all its tubes, light bulbs and keyboards, looks vastly more technological and complicated than a plain, little, all white MacBook, even though the MacBook may have four processor cores literally millions of times more powerful than the old 1950s computer. This fallacy generally overlooks that one hallmark of advancing technology is the "comfort factor" we design in: something new and marvelous may well look all techno-, with exposed wires and flashing lights, but as technology advances even farther, this techno-miracle will be refined until it can be given a form factor that doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. After all, it takes much more technological innovation to create the minimalist wallet-sized cellphones of today than to build a World War II army field phone. This is rather like complaining that a modern analogue watch which can set itself via radio link to an atomic clock is less advanced than a 70s calculator watch, because the latter has more buttons and a segmented display (this principle is the reason futuristic computers tend to feature Extreme Graphical Representation).

It also overlooks the way design aesthetics change over time, totally independent of technology. In the 1950s, people thought that flares and tail fins looked futuristic. But we have just reached the impossibly far-off AD 2014, and very few things have tail fins, aside from actual fish, airplanes, and the Batmobile — and even the Batmobile recently got rid of 'em. In fact, things like flares and tail fins now, ironically, look decidedly retro — the new Ford Thunderbird has them to keep the '50s feel.

In general, as the "future" becomes the present for us folks in the real world, the miracles and advances tend to look not-quite so flashy as people in the past imagined them. Even if they change our lives enormously, they tend to do it in such a subtle way that you might not even notice by looking. The newest Boeing 747's look nearly identical to ones built in the 1970s but they're far more advanced inside. Some modern family cars are quicker than vintage sports cars, but they don't look as fast. A 2009 Dodge Challenger features all sorts of electronic pizazz such as cruise control, traction controls, computer-controlled engine, side airbags, GPS, voice recognition and whatnot, but outside it looks like a modernized 1970 Challenger. Your modern office building using modern building techniques might not need flying buttresses to hold it up, and it may indeed look a little different from the office buildings of a hundred years ago (it might even be a modern construction built behind a 19th century fašade!), but it's not an organic-looking chrome spire seven miles tall with pneumatic tubes instead of elevators. We could probably build them that way, but we don't, because that's neither practical nor what our design aesthetics call for (outside of Dubai, anyway).

For fans, this tends to come up with Long Runners or Series Franchise, where something built to look "futuristic" by a modern design aesthetic does not look "futuristic" by the previous one.

Note that this is completely inverted by Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology, where extremely advanced technology appears deceptively primitive in the form of stones, crysals, idols, monuments or ancient ruins.

For reasons that ought to be obvious, this fallacy is largely absent among fans of Steam Punk. See also Shiny-Looking Spaceships, Used Future, Excessive Steam Syndrome, Everything Is An I Pod In The Future and High-Tech Hexagons. See also Cosmetically Advanced Prequel.

Examples:

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    Fan Fiction 
  • In Aeon Entelechy Evangelion we have the New Earth Government Army which uses utilitarian designs for its mecha. And then we have the Loyalist Nazzadi with their sleek and smooth mecha, surpassed only by their elite with even sleeker and smoother mecha.

    Film 
  • Star Wars fans will no doubt recall that Episode I featured, among other things, chrome space ships. This is an interesting sort of possible Lampshade Hanging, as, while the ships of these halcyon days of the old Republic did look, in their ways, more advanced, we are reminded of the similar use of generous amounts of chrome on, say, '50s cars to make them look futuristic (George Lucas has always been a rabid car buff, so this may indeed be intentional). There is another reason for this: as the Galaxy enters the Clone Wars, the ships become more and more boxy and utilitarian in design, presumably because it would be better for the Clone Army to have something that was functional rather than something that was pretty.
    • It was also meant to reflect that as the galaxy falls under the grip of The Empire, the only thing still spiffy and clean are the machines the military uses to keep the populace in line, and those look better when they look mean than when they look pretty.
    • One notable bit is that the Republic Venator Class Star Destroyer is notably more advanced looking than it's sucessor, the Imperial Class (The iconic "Flying Triangle") Star Destroyer, with a more effective placement of fighter bays, engines, and bridge, and an overall "Sleeker" appearance, on the other hand, the Imperial is a triangular box with a box on the top and 3 engines.
    • The yellow speeder that Anakin and Obi-Wan use while chasing Zam Wesell was inspired by the yellow '32 Ford coupe from Lucas' American Graffiti. All it needed was flames painted on the side.
  • This has actually popped up in a lot of the fandom for the Iron Man movies, where Obidiah Stane's Iron Monger suit is less "advanced" than Tony's suit since Tony fought it and won while only at 17% of power. The suit uses conventional weapons and is bigger and "clunkier" than Tony's more streamlined suit.
    • This could also apply to the "briefcase suit" that Tony uses in the 2nd movie. It is more portable, and looks a little fancier than his normal suit, but it is apparently less powerful and protective, and it isn't established that it can even fly. This is because the suit is exactly what it's used as in the movie: An emergency measure. It's something Tony can slap on real quick to deal with smaller, sudden threats mostly to his own person.
  • In Oblivion2013 the people we are led to believe represent the remnants of humanity all use shiny white technology that also has a lot of moving parts. While the Scavs that are supposedly alien Planet Looters who blew up the moon have disheveled tech that appears cobbled together. This was probably intended as a big hint that it's actually the other way around. The Scavs are humans while the hero is a cloned astronaut being used by the alien entity that really blew up the moon and is sucking up the oceans.

    Literature 
  • The Revelation Space universe created by Alastair Reynolds hand waves this problem with the Melding Plague which attacks nanotechnology, forcing society to revert to more primitive forms of computer interface.
  • In The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, originally published in 1898, the narrator and main protagonist is one of the first at the scene of the fallen 'meteor' which turns out to contain a space-going artificial cylinder. To open, the cylinder slowly unscrews, the height of imagined spaceship door technology at the time, and evidence of the aliens' technological sophistication (from a late 19th Century perspective at least).
  • In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are sent several million years into the past and end up aboard a space ship. To Arthur the control room looks like a space ship control room should look, to Ford it looks thoroughly antiquated.
  • In Johnny and the Bomb, Jonny refuses to believe a time machine disguised as a shopping trolley can be one because it doesn't have flashing lights. "Why would a time machine need flashing lights?" "To flash!"

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: Enterprise was widely criticized for how much "more advanced" the NX-01 looked compared to its Original Series counterpart. Which is to say that the Enterprise had computer displays, exposed wiring, and all-around better special effects. Of course, the interior design of the NX-01 was inspired in part by modern NASA designs. The NX-01 is meant to look, to an early 21st century audience, about 150 years in advance of current technology. The NCC-1701 was meant to look, to a 1960s audience, about 300 years in advance of current technology. Because of the shift in design aesthetics, "300 years more advanced than 1966" looks less advanced than "150 years more advanced than 2001". But, of course, no one knows how design aesthetics will continue to shift in the future. "In a Mirror Darkly" shows the NX-01 crew encountering an Original Series-era ship, and they clearly think it looks far more advanced. The standard explanation is that the Original Series era designs show a far greater level of "comfort" with the technology, form factors simplified and exposed wires hidden away behind walls. Put another way, the NCC-1701 was the product of a sort of "Art Deco" period of starship design.
    • A related problem was that communicators on the show were made smaller than those in the the first show, due to cell phones being much smaller. Again, it was a matter of finding some sort of balance between the "futuristic" and bulky technology of the 23rd Century and still making the modern series appear futuristic by modern standards.
    • The fact the NX-01 looks almost exactly like the Akira-class ships from the Deep Space Nine era (first seen in First Contact) was a big problem for some viewers. Different standards are one thing, but even in-universe it's a more advanced design (while Starfleet has been cannibalizing old designs for years, thus allowing the Akira to be retconned as a spin-off of the "old" NX-class design, the fact that viewers saw it first "in the future" was all that counted).
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation took this even further, with the sets specifically designed to downplay the functionalist, technological aspects in favor of a livable-looking design aesthetic (in order to demonstrate the superiority of 24th century technology and because the Federation had been in peacetime for so many years); as such, the bridge of the Enterprise-D incorporates leather chairs, carpets, gently-sloping ramps and even wooden surfaces with only minor instrumentation. This was downplayed by subsequent series (the bridge of the Voyager, for example, is composed almost entirely of control panels).
      • This is explained as Galaxy-class starships (like the Enterprise-D) specifically being designed not only as Starfleet's flagship class, but for long-term exploration, and as such for entire families to live onboard for years at a time. As such, they're designed to have less of a science-y feel and more of a 'home' feel. Intrepid-class ships, though, are for science (but not For Science!) & exploration, and only designed to be used by a small crew for a few weeks or months at a time, and as such less attention was paid to aesthetics. (Also note that the Enterprise-E, a Sovereign-class starship, has a more "futuristic" appearance than the Enterprise-D, and is more of a battleship than an exploration ship.)
      • Of course, the Enterprise-D was lampshaded on TNG itself as being a "Flying Hotel" compared to other less luxurious starships like those of the much more numerous Excelsior class.
    • And then finally we have the 2009 pre-boot. Its sets look quite modern, via Everything Is An I Pod In The Future, but not particularly futuristic. This if anything means it will probably fall to Zeerust even faster than did Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which even today looks dated mostly when Khan's 80s-hair-sporting entourage is onscreen.
    • Long before all of them, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the pastel aesthetics of the refit Enterprise's interior and the crew uniforms were criticised both at the time and for many years later. But now, with Everything Is an iPod in the Future, they seem ahead of their time. The uniform buckles even look a bit like iPhones or iPod Touches.
  • One of the myriad complaints against Team Knight Rider was that the cars "did not look nearly as advanced" as KITT of the original Knight Rider — that is, they were visually different from ordinary cars only by the addition of a single multi-function computer display. The original series had described KITT's interior, by contrast, as "Darth Vader's Bathroom", a possible indication that it looked a bit Zeerust even by the standards of the time.
    • Thing is, except for the instrument panel, the original KITT's interior was pure stock thirdgen F-Body.
  • Parodied in Red Dwarf: When Kryten believes Lister to be a Mechanoid, the fact he looks perfectly human is evidence he's a less advanced version — the human-looking Mechanoids creeped actual Humans out too much, so the range was discontinued.
  • Stargate SG-1:
    • The depiction of the race called the "Nox" is a subversion. Their entire culture's technology is completely salient and has been completely integrated into the surrounding environment in a manner which makes the the technology virtually indistinguishable from the natural terrain. Mind-bogglingly advanced technology (capable of resurrection), and you wouldn't have the first clue how they did it because they look and act like a hunting and gathering society; they are small tight-knit groups which exist largely in harmony with the local ecosystem.
    • This is subverted a lot. Goa'uld technology looks like stuff out of ancient times, ancient Egypt especially (Pyramid-ships, staff-weapons, sarcophagus, ugly crystal-technology). The Asgard do have the typical "advanced" look in their technology; but the Ancients, who are at least equal to the Asgard in technology, all have angular-shaped technology which overall looks, well, ancient.
      • The Ancients are particularly interesting, as their civilization lasted long enough to produce several substantially disparate sets of artifacts: Alteran ancients produced technology primarily in the form of high-technological devices apparently made of stone. Lantian ancients adopted an aesthetic more typical of contemporary "advanced alien" sensibilities, heavy on crystals and lucite, though on a grandiose scale. The builders of the Destiny, purportedly the earliest of the bunch, had a much more "industrial" aesthetic, including a Excessive Steam Syndrome. When Doctor Rush identifies Destiny's design as "clearly Ancient," we just have to take his word for it. Though we see comparatively little of the technology of the Ori, it seems similar in scope to Alteran technology, but with conscious minor aesthetic differences (their ring transporters, for example, are white marble with glowing inlays).
    • In addition, we have Earth's gate-dialing system: Large computer consoles with seemingly random lights and buttons filling up entire rooms. The system is slow, has things constantly going wrong, and has massive power requirements. The Ancients, on the other hand, invented the DHDs, which are far smaller and streamlined and much more convenient.
    • While the control rooms of the Goa'uld ships look basically empty except for a throne and an altar-like console, the Earth ships are chock-full of screens, buttons, and glowing lights. The contrast between the two was intentional: the set designers wanted them to be more interesting than the existing Goa'uld ships. The look of the Earth ships' interiors are also based on actual battleships and aircraft carriers.
      • The Asgard ships are about in the middle: their exteriors are silver and streamlined, and the interiors are white and smooth, with a fair amount of screens, lights, and control interfaces. And rocks.
    • We could mention the stargates themselves; the second generation of stargates that the Ancients used in the Pegasus Galaxy look more advanced than the ones they used in the Milky Way Galaxy. Yet they also lost some functionality because they do not have a physical moving "rotary telephone" ring, which means they cannot be manually dialled - an interesting parallel to a lot of Real Life examples where a supposedly more advanced technology is less versatile or at least resilient than what it replaced.
  • Babylon 5:
    • While this is generally true with the Centauri, the Minbari, the Vorlons, several League and independent races, etc. However, Narn ships are a subversion, as background material says that the Narns deliberately try to invoke this trope with their fancy looking ships, but weapons tech captured from the Centauri aside, are not all that advanced (they don't even have gravity).
    • One of the League races, the Brakiri, does this too, their ships are made to look like organic technology even though they aren't that much more advanced than other League races. According to the supplementary material in the B5 Wars tabletop game, they are one of the more advanced League races, having artificial gravity, but their government is insufficiently united to form an effective military force, which is why they tend to be on the receiving end of any stellar butt-whupping.
    • Inverted and played straight among Earth ships. The Hyperion-class cruiser looks more advanced than the Omega-class destroyer, but the Omega is in fact the replacement of the Hyperion and has superior firepower and speed and simulates gravity with its rotating section. Then we have the Warlock-class destroyer, who looks more advanced than the Omega and is in fact its replacement, featuring improved armour, weapons and actual Artificial Gravity, eliminating the need for the rotating section.
  • Firefly mostly revels in the Space Western aesthetic, and for the majority of the series we're only seeing what looks like run-down ships and scattered, low-tech societies and villages, with the occasional episode in a high-tech locale like "Ariel" or "Trash." What this doesn't show is the presence of background technology far, far more advanced than what is otherwise shown; e.g. large-scale terraforming technology, gravity manipulation technology, and starship engines that put out enormous amounts of power. Even the battered and old starship Serenity puts out enough energy in its drive to make the Tsar Bomba jealous.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Exalted, it is mentioned that the Solars built Artifacts to be both functional and beautiful. When the Dragon-Blooded took over, they couldn't do both, so they decided to just go with the functional. Turns out, they couldn't do that quite as well either...
  • This has been invoked with the old-school-looking Warhammer 40,000 technology and warships, which look like ancient Gothic and baroque steam-powered machines. The big, clunky and primitive-looking Leman Russ or Land Raider battle tanks have insane weapons yields and are far more maneuverable than any modern tank could hope to be, and those box, boxy and inelegant bolters are actually rapid-fire armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
    • Many assume Tau technology is more advanced than the Imperium because it looks more futuristic. In actual fact, Imperial technology is remarkably reliable (save for a few weapons) and have things far ahead of the Tau (teleporters, for example).
      • From the setting's themes, this trope is played straight. Do you really have a technological society if you have neither understanding of the devices nor a scientific mindset that allows you to continue to expand your knowledge? The gothic, ugly Imperial tech is supposed to remind the reader/player that the Imperium is the Dark Ages caricatured in space. They don't know how to build most of the advanced devices anymore, they can't replace their losses, and so much knowledge has been lost that humanity has reduced science and technology into a blind religion. The Tau, with their ultra-sleek, futuristic weapons, are progressing very quickly, and what's more they actually have science, research, and an ever-expanding sphere of knowledge. (Aside: Much of their technology is more advanced, even if they don't have every gizmo the Imperium does.) The implied answer is that without knowledge, you're a cargo cult, burning out from stagnation. Note, however that this is one of 40k's many, many cases of Depending on the Writer. Much of the more optimistic fiction depicts the Adeptus Mechanicus, or at least its higher level members as relatively competent and generally knowing what they're doing. The more ritualistic aspects of the organization being partly a show put on for the plebs and partly a way to spread useful mnemonics for proper maintenance and operation procedures of their equipment.
    • Averted with weapons. For example, plasma weapons: in the Imperial they're rare but not uncommon (which is relative - thousands of plasma guns are made each year, while billions of lasguns are made), and hand held. Tau have hand held plasma weapons in the form of the Pulse Rifle. But are nowhere near as powerful, the closest can only be mounted on Mini Mechs or tanks and are still less powerful (but don't overheat).
      • While a Tau's pulse rifle is less powerful shot-for-shot than an Imperial Guard or (especially) Space Marine plasma gun, the plasma gun is an over-engineered death trap quite capable of blowing up the user on a misfire, it has a slow firing rate, AND the most effective designs are long-lost. Tau pulse rifles shoot much faster, don't have the same overheating issues, and (for the Tau) are as easy to mass-produce as Imperial lasguns. Really the only reason they haven't been drafted wholesale into the Imperial Guard and Space Marines is because they're heretical Xenos tech that any member of the Imperium is obliged to destroy. Also the Adeptus Mechanicus believes everything that has ever been invented already has and work to find Stranded Template Constructs. Making it less engineering and innovation a matter of archaeology instead.
    • Then there are Imperial weapons and equipment from the Great Crusade/ Horus Heresy era. Looking closer to Modern equipment and some relics of the armory are even more iPod like and futuristic. Mainly because they have access to stuff from the Dark Age of Technology.
      • On the other hand, Eldar stuff is inhumanly clean and elegant, and their tech is indeed more advanced than the humans'. The Necrons are the most advanced of all and are decidedly ancient and look it... basically, the rule in 40k is older=better.

  • You can decide for yourself in Genius The Transgression, the roleplaying game of Mad Science. Geniuses can make their Wonders look like pretty much anything they want, and 'Aesthetic' is a signature trait for most. It lists a number of sample Aesthetics, ranging from Steampunk (the currently most popular style) to Raygun Gothic to 'iPod' style.

    Video Games 
  • A lot of things in the Mass Effect series play this trope straight. Word of God states that they wanted to deliberately invoke a clean, futuristic look, especially in the most civilized areas.
    • On the other hand, it is averted in the seedier places (like Omega, which still has an enormously advanced level of technological development, despite being the epitome of a Wretched Hive) and by the really advanced people—consider the Collectors' ships, which look more like a chunk of rock with a spaceship engine than the sleek and cool-looking Normandy or Destiny Ascension. That said, the durability of the Collector ship leaves something to be desired considering it could be taken out by a single frigate with or without a weapon that gives it the relative firepower of a cruiser when Reaper ships require multiple dreadnoughts to reliably kill, possibly making it a converted rock that happens to have impressive technology loaded into it.
  • Played with in the Mega Man and Mega Man X series. While the hero character had a simpler-looking design than the bosses, said hero was the one who can copy bosses weapons for his own use, supporting a wide arsenal of powers. X is literally described as having unlimited potential, and throughout his series, developed abilities that were previously seen after he picked up armor parts or health upgrades; it's like the concept of Weapon Copy was taken to its logical conclusion and turned into an Ability Copy.
  • A good example of this can be found in the training mission of the videogame Deus Ex, where one of the rooms is a small "museum" showing the history of artificial enhancements. The old electro-mechanical enhancements make their users look like cyborgs; but if someone is equipped with the new enhancements based in Nanomachines, he will look like pretty much any other human.
    • In fact, a small part of the story revolves around two agents with UNATCO who have the old-style cybernetic enhancements. They are, understandably, extremely miffed about the fact that the "next generation" of augmented humans are not only superior to them in most respects, but they look human, so they don't have to deal with the stigma of looking like a science experiment Gone Horribly Wrong. There is also an ex-UNATCO bartender in New York who has some "pretty heavy augmentation" and while her customers don't seem to mind, she's a bit touchy when it's brought up.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution features the "old style" mechanical enhancements. They look far more advanced than the 'newer' ones in the original games, even when taking the improved graphics into account. Part of the justification for this comes in the stated mission by the designers to give the whole game something of a cultural 'Renaissance' feeling, which also reflects in the color scheme and clothing designs.
  • One fan of Cortex Command has complained that the technology isn't very advanced. The technology looks modern rather than futuristic, but considering that this is a game where humans are brains in jars that travel through space, cloning has been completely perfected, everyone has an unlimited supply of clones and robots that they can remote control, that jetpacks have been perfected, batteries can recharge themselves from thin air, that tools that can literally disintegrate dirt, but leave gold unharmed and that humans have spread themselves all across the galaxy the fan's complaints are ungrounded. In fact, the only sleeker technology at this point is the laser guns and the dummy robots. The dummy robots are cannon-fodder and the laser weapons are only effective against unarmored opponents.
  • In the Halo series, the Covenant have sleek, brightly colored weapons and armor and fire plasma instead of bullets. However, the human weapons are just as effective, if not more so, and the Brute weapons are incredibly powerful despite looking absolutely ancient in design.
    • Brute and UNSC weapons are effective but Covenant weapons are generally considered better. Plasma melts armor and ignites clothing, and on a larger scale boils through ships and reduces whole planets to cinder and glass within hours (and with not all that many ships). Though the Covenant's belief that tools of war should be beautiful probably reduces their effectiveness somewhat, if nothing else they take more time and labor to produce.
      • Despite being cool and futuristic, most of the Covenant's weapons are simply different rather than better. Their plasma rifles take down shields more reliably but don't have the firepower of human rifles, sniper-wise the similarity is even closer. Their ship-board plasma weapons are devastating, but the MAC guns on human ships can also destroy enemies in one shot. In the first game, one (AI-controlled) human ship takes on 12 similarly-sized CCS battlecruisers and destroys or disables half of them before being knocked out, though it is hinted that the Covenant were trying to board and capture the ship outright rather than obliterate it. In general, the Covenant don't use any weapon with any effect that humans can't replicate with apparently less advanced ballistics/explosives; though Gameplay and Story Segregation probably accounts for much of it, as Covenant weapons tend to be much more deadly in the Expanded Universe.
    • It should be noted that the Brutes seem quite happy to use looted human weapons such as the shotgun. It is also worth considering that plasma weapons are quite effective against the Covenant themselves; projectiles don't perform too well against shielded opponents, but against unshielded foes (such as humans or Flood) projectiles are every bit as useful and often more so.
    • The M12 Light Reconnaissance Vehicle, better known as the Warthog or the Puma, doesn't look like it should be used in 2552, but has seemingly unpoppable tires. In canon, the Warthog doesn't need gasoline. It actually runs on water.
    • Halo: First Strike clearly shows what humans can do if they get their hands on a piece of Covenant tech. Master Chief and Cortana capture a Covenant flagship, and Cortana almost immediately realizes the true potential of the ship's weapons and drives by changing the settings. When the on-board Covenant AI sees what she's doing, it screams "Blasphemy!" and tries to stop her. So not only are the Covenant unwilling to experiment, they also deliberately cripple their AIs with pointless restrictions. Until recently, they didn't even HAVE AIs, as they were banned due to the (true) story of Mendicant Bias.
      • This is because most of the Covenant's technology is scavenged and/or (poorly) reverse-engineered from lost-and-found Forerunner tech; they've barely figured it out enough to get to work at all.
      • In addition, it is also hinted that the Covenant do not even know how to reload the weapons they reverse-engineer, or at least do not know of an efficient way to do so; apparently, Covenant rules of engagement dictate that if your plasma weapon runs out of charge, simply discard it and take one from a fallen comrade.
  • In Sword of the Stars, aesthetics are not always indicative of how powerful a faction's ships are. The dish-dash, slapped-together Zuul craft can be as effective or moreso than the sleek Morrigi ships.
  • In the X-Universe games, aesthetics are not very reliable on how powerful the ships are. The Terran ships are by far the most advanced and powerful ships, but look essentially like sleek Space Shuttles, or in the case of their capital ships, flying white bricks - while their even more advanced AGI Task Force ships are very ornate and boxy. The Teladi, who buy or reverse-engineer all their equipment from the other races, have very cobbled-together appearance (often likened to "flying junkyards"), but they are very effective and much more versatile than Terran ships. The Boron have the most aesthetically refined and elegant ships in the game, of the kind that would make you think "unbeatable awesomeness" in other games, but here their fighter craft are little more than glorified Joke Characters, and while they have extremely powerful capital ships, they are sorely lacking in flak cannons. Played straight with the Pirate clans' ships, which are often cobbled together from half a dozen ships, and show it in their stats, which are usually flat-out inferior to a new ship bought from a shipyard, though Pirate ships have a great deal of cross-compatibility with different races' weapons, such as their Brigantine-class destroyer being able to mount Boron Ion Cannons, Teladi Gauss Cannons, and the Pirates' own Incendiary Bomb Launcher.
  • The original Homeworld plays with it. In terms of look, Turanic ships are the less advanced, Kushan ships look a bit more advanced, Taiidan ships looks a little more modern, and Kadeshi and Bentusi ships look much more advanced. In terms of performance, Kushan and Taiidan ships are identical to their respective counterpart (barring a better turret emplacement of some Taiidan ships and the better hangar protection of Kushan carriers and Mothership), Turanic attack ships are the worst but their capital ships are better armed and armored than the playable races, Kadeshi fighters and frigates can dish and take a lot of damage but sacrifice respectively fuel capacity and speed, and the Bentusi are implied to be powerful but tend to get into situations that are barely survivable even for them.
  • Borderlands 2 distinguishes each gun manufacturer with different attributes, appearances and names. For example, Maliwan favors a Space-Age-y look with blue/silver stocks and glowing orange lights. They also use battery-like powerpacks instead of conventional magazines. On the other hand, Bandit-made guns are an aggressive red (or at least what you can see underneath the coat of filth and duct tape), not to mention most guns made by Bandits have jury-rigged extra-large magazines onto their guns (this throws the accuracy right off, but what do they care? They just like spraying bullets everywhere.) The other companies can be read about on the Borderlands 2 page.
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth has three technological affinities (Supremacy, Harmony and Purity) that the player's faction can adopt later in the game. Supremacy units have a sleek Cyber Punk look and feel, the Harmony forces have a Organic Technology vibe while Purity units have a very retro-Diesel Punk look to them. This look is intentional on the part of the Purity engineers as they are trying to recreate and honor the past glories of Earth and it doesn't mean the Purity units are any less capable or technologically advanced.

    Real Life 
  • The streamline school of design during the Art Deco period in the 1930s was built on this. Many railway engineers disliked streamlining because it didn't do much for performance, unlike the mechanical improvement under the surface.
    • Ironically, "streamlined" design for indoor household goods did have a function. The Twenties in the West had been the first time in human history that goods were cheaper than labor, meaning that many upper-middle-class households who were accustomed to one or more maids had to do without, while many working-class families could afford good design. Simple, streamlined lamps, radios and small appliances are easier to dust than what came before.
    • Of course, with the train example, that was several decades before the mechanical improvements under the surface would make the trains go fast enough for the streamlining to become significant. Nowadays, we do have streamlined high speed trains, and even commuter cars can have their MPG noticeably impacted by surface design.
    • Compare the controls of the 1860s Jupiter with the 1941 Big Boy and 1961 Evening Star - the newer locomotives have more features to control, but the major components such as the throttle are easy to recognize.
  • The Boeing 787 will be the most advanced airliner ever designed and will be built using truly exotic construction techniques. It looks just like any other jetliner.
    • That's true for EVERY new airliner, for good reason. The basic shape of airliners is defined by aerodynamics and physics constraints (particularly the area rule). Engineers have known what the right shape for an airliner is since the 1950s or 1960s. Most of what's changed is underneath the shiny aluminium (or now, less-shiny composite) skin. (This may be changing, though; a $1.5 billion NASA program to design the airliner after the next saw every designer involved submitting a flying wing or blended-wing aircraft, rather than the venerable ME-262 profile.)
    • Another reason they look the same is that they need to be compatible with all the existing airport equipment.
    • One factor that most people miss is a blended wing aircraft's difficulty in meeting FAR regulations. In a traditional tube fuselage, emergency exits are evenly spread and accessible for everyone. In a blended wing body, you are left with people in an auditorium-like setting, with exits only at the front. (FAR regulations forbid any kind of exit that requires one to climb a ladder or stair to qualify as an emergency exit, so no exits to the roof.)
  • A new program intended to take over with the space shuttle being discontinued will be called Orion (not that Orion), which is... the 1960s Apollo "moon rocket" program with microcomputers. This makes the decision to destroy the Apollo production facilities look pretty stupid.
    • The problem here is returning to the capsule design, which does look more primitive than the kind of mini-shuttle concepts that were being mooted a few years ago.
    • A British company is having some success working on an SSTO spaceplane which might actually work this time. It plays this trope pretty straight.
    • In some respects, this is similar to the example of airliners above, at least for the actual spacecraft - a conical capsule is pretty much the most-proven shape for re-entry at translunar velocities. The Orion capsule, however, will be bigger, carry more people (4-6, as opposed to Apollo's 3), and be capable of 'loitering' unmanned in orbit, so all the astronauts get to go to the moon, which is a distinct improvement from Apollo.
      • It also mean you don't get any Challenger-like failures between parallel components, because there aren't any, (unless you're using booster rockets).
    • In the same vein as the F1 cars mentioned below, Soyuz capsules were first created for the Soviet Moon program in the late '60s. Now, some forty years after, they still look almost the same from the outside — while on the inside it's a completely different spacecraft.
      • But technologically advancing at a very slow pace. The Russians didn't put in an LCD "glass cockpit" until the TMA model, in 2002. This was approximately 20 years after the first such cockpits were installed in production aircraft.
    • The "step backwards" moving from the Space Shuttle to the Orion capsule is more of a purification. The Space Shuttle was, from its inception, an ungainly ship that was intended to do every possible orbital mission in one reusable package. Orion is designed to put astronauts where NASA needs astronauts, and leaves most of the complicating factors from the Space Shuttle mission (heavy lifting especially) to unmanned rockets. Also, unlike Apollo, Orion is supposed to be semi-reusable; thanks to its modern shielding, an Orion capsule can launch and return to Earth at least five times before having to be discarded.
    • Just to be clear: Pretty much all the designs for new human spaceflight vehicles are capsules. This includes:
      • The aforementioned Orion, as part of a pared-down Project Constellation called the Space Launch System.
      • The private SpaceX Dragon, a capsule with a capacity of seven currently intended to fulfill a NASA contract for shuttling astronauts (taking over part of the old role of the Shuttle and relieving pressure on Soyuz) and (in an automated configuration) supplies (relieving pressure on the automated Russian Progress, Japanese H-II, and European ATV) to the ISS . However, the CEO of the company has ambitious plans to send the thing to the Moon and Mars.
      • The Boeing-Bigelow Aerospace CST-100, essentially a private, Low Earth Orbit-focused version of Orion, fulfilling the same ferry/resupply role.
      • The Russian "Rus" project, which looks like a cross between Soyuz and Apollo.
      • The Europeans have a vague notion of converting the Automated Transfer Vehicle—an unmanned resupply craft—into a manned capsule. This would entail changing the shape of the thing from a cylinder to a cone. It's unclear where this plan is going, especially now that the ATV is to become the basis for Orion's service module.
      • The Japanese have the same plan as the Europeans, adapting the H-II Transfer Vehicle into a manned craft.
      • The Indians are developing an indigenous launch capability; the "Orbital Vehicle" is to be a three-astronaut vessel similar in shape to the Dragon, but only a bit larger than Gemini and significantly smaller than Apollo.
  • Most people would probably agree that most cars from the 1980s, especially early '80s Japanese imports, looked less futuristic than American cars from the preceding decades, especially the '50s.
    • This is complicated because car design is far more driven by fashion than a lot of other technology. From the mid-'80s through the late-'90s, car design was driven by aerodynamics; the resulting vehicles were seen as futuristic. There was eventually a backlash against the "aero" designs, which tended to make everything look the same; this led to a rise in "retro" designs. Combine this with strict European pedestrian safety standards, the weight and bulk of modern passenger safety systems, and the rise of SUVs and the "Freightliner" aesthetic, and suddenly, flying bricks are back in vogue. Futurism can still sell, though: see the Toyota Prius and similar vehicles.
      • Not that a massive rectangle can't look futuristic. Look at the Chevy Avalanche. It's a pickup that looks like it was built to fight COBRA.
    • The Pontiac Trans Sport. First marketed in 1990, in its default all-white colour scheme it would not have looked out of place in a 1970's science-fiction program.
  • Try looking into the cockpit of an 'eighties Formula One car in a museum. From the outside, it doesn't look primitive; but inside, there's a plain fiberglass and steel honeycomb, analogue dials, a H-pattern gearshift — no headrests or safety padding, no computers or telemetry, no tiny on-board TV cameras, and much less aerodynamic detail in general. Then there's the dated tobacco branding...
  • Futuristic buses from the 1950s laid great emphasis on "aero" shapes, shiny aircraft-inspired outer panels, large panoramic windows. Modern buses are aerodynamically cleaner, with better interior space and larger glass areas, and look like a high-tech brick.
  • Aviation gives us a partial subversion: the Su-47 Berkut has badass forward-pointing wings, making it look more advanced, or at least more exotic and interesting, than fighter jets with standard wings (this very plane was the basis for Starscream's alt-mode). The wing design confers upon the plane increased maneuverability, the ability to take off and land on a shorter runway, and the ability to fly slower without stalling.
    • The "partial" part comes from the plane being a one-of-a-kind technology testbed for, among other things, seeing how well and how cheaply current advances in technology can handle the problems introduced by the design, which standard, less advanced(-looking) wings don't suffer from. The conclusion was "not very well" (and probably also not cheaply) — performance gains were smaller than expected, turbulence problems were larger, and so this particular path isn't going to be pursued.
    • As it turns out, the Grumman X-29 pre-dates the S-47 by about a decade.
  • Something of an actual subversion with the SR-71 Blackbird. It was made in 1964. It looks futuristic even by modern standards. It still holds the record as the fastest piloted air breathing jet-engine aircraft. The problem with this "subversion" is that the USAF never desired a faster aircraft, one not really being necessary, and since only the USAF has the budget to fund a faster aircraft, we don't know what aircraft engineers could produce using more modern techniques. We know that they thought it was better to bring it out of retirement in the 90s than to design something new, with its operating costs as approximately a hundred thousand dollars an hour.
    • For a bit of perspective, consider this: a titanium-skinned spaceplane that shrinks and expands up to three feet (one meter) in flight, has fuel so exotic it was also used as a coolant, read the stars to find out where it was (no GPS) and the engine and oil tanks had to be lined with gold because of the sheer amount of thermal-conductive cooling needed. Its engines were a mix of a standard turbojet and a ramjet, a mostly passive engine that requires you to be going half the speed of sound for it to even work. It could go from New York to London in just under two hours. Now consider that it was designed in the '60s, with nothing more computationally complex than a slide rule.
      • It also had one of the most advanced air-conditioners of its day to keep the pilot from cooking in the cockpit and special paint for better cooling.
  • The F-117 "Stealth Fighter" was actually a light bomber. Looks futuristic. Each one was built by hand with electronics from other more mundane aircraft (including the C-130). One was shot down over Serbia. When it was retired there was an outcry in the defense press. Why was such an advanced craft headed to storage? It was obsolete, the program that designed the faceted shape was decades old. Its hand built construction made repairs and upgrades difficult because each airplane is an Ace Custom.
    • In fact the design aesthetic of the F-117 was so bizarre that one Air Force official who first saw it in flight reportedly said that he thought it was changing shape as it flew.
  • The B-52 Stratofortress = Tube with wings (made in the 50s). The B-1 Lancer = Slender tube with swing wings (made in the 70s). B-2 Spirit = Flying Wing (made in the 80s). The B-1 and B-2 were supposed to replace the B-52, but the B-52 is planned to be used until 2045. (This has more to due with role. Simply put, the B-52 can haul more bombs than the other two. Sometimes stealth is needed, sometimes speed, sometimes you just need to flatten a couple of city blocks.)
    • Also, Tu-95. Same time, same class, same retro style — now with the propellers! Current airframes, though, are newer than American, being mostly built in 70-80's, while for B-52s there are still some original birds in commission.
    • The B-52 being pretty much Nigh Invulnerable may have something to do with it, as well. There are reports of B-52s returning to base with nearly half of the plane missing, or their entire tail assemblies shot off.
  • Speaking of subversions and slide rules: Calculators have become so ubiquitous and slide rules have become so outdated that no-one would confuse even the simplest calculator for being inferior to a slide rule (though some people prefer slide rules anyway).
  • The comedy actor and closet engineer Robbie Coltrane noted in a book on engines that public trust of propeller and jet planes has almost swapped since the 1950s. "People used to be scared of jet planes because they couldn't see the propeller going round. I was in a turbo-prop recently and this woman sitting beside me said 'Look at the propeller going round, it's really scary isn't it!' Obviously the once-alien jet engine has proven itself over time, and the prop has come to be viewed as old-fashioned and unreliable — even if it's a modern propeller design.
    • It has something to do with the current noise restrictions. Propellers can easily be more effective than jet engines, but they're oh so much LOUDER — while it's relatively easy to silence a sheathed turbine, one can hardly do anything to the vortices dropping from the blade tips. On the other hand, modern turbofan engines are essentially turboprops — those huge barrel-shaped attachments in front of them are just outer shells for what is basically a ducted propeller.
      • Yeah, but I can't imagine bird-strikes doing as much harm to turboprop as to a jet, unless the bird managed to get right in the duct.
  • Sailing ships are universally considered primitive and old-fashioned. But the latest concept in cargo ship design is to use a giant sail for auxiliary power, to have oil tankers go windsurfing. (10-35% less fuel used, at that!)
  • The A-10 Thunderbolt II can reasonably be called the best close-air-support aircraft in the modern world. It is highly maneuverable, always has enough firepower for the job and is extremely durable. It is considered one of the pinnacles of modern combat aircraft design. It looks like the bizarre lovechild of a P-51 and a 747.
    • It's not called the Warthog for nothing.
      • Interestingly enough, the Air Force has been trying to retire the plane for YEARS, because it's not a multi-million dollar superjet like the F-22 or F-35. Never mind the fact that it does it's job better than anything else could ever hope to do, never mind that the money they're spending on the new, futuristic looking and highly advanced planes could probably refit the entire fleet of aging and falling apart A-10's, and never mind the fact that it's so tough that even when riddled with bullet holes, hit with anti-air fire and has bits of the wings and the engines falling off it's still able to take out its targets and return to base safely, and if any other jet tried to fly as low as the A-10 does on a regular basis, it would become a multi-million dollar piece of flaming wreckage. No, because it's "old" and looks "ugly" it is therefore "obsolete" by newer aircraft.
      • That has more to do with attitude of the Congress/USAF than the actual technology fielded. The F-22 and F-35 are marvels of technology in their own right, but the Warthog is the king of close air support. Simply put, no true replacement design has ever been created for the Warthog - the F-22 can replace the F-15, and the F-35 can replace the F-16, Harrier and older F-18 variants, but neither of them (and no other plane, for that matter) can fit the low, slow, heavily-armored, heavily-armed gunship role that the A-10 so perfectly fulfills. Hence, the ol' Hogs have received some upgrades, and are planned to fly at least up 'til 2025, if not beyond. Like the aforementioned B-52, the 'Hog is a blunt hammer of an instrument, a workhorse, while the stealth jets are precision scalpels, different tools for different jobs.
    • This is a rather common thing among ground attack planes. The Su-25 looks just like a cross between the Sea Harrier and a cropduster, and that's a plane that is able to fly missions with a half of it blown cleanly off.
  • On the topic of aviation, though, it has been a trend for military aircraft to look sleeker and more advanced as technology progresses, which is perhaps part of the reason why people expect more advanced technology to look 'advanced'. Start with the flimsy biplanes of WW1, and continue through the propeller-powered fighters and bombers of WW2, the early Korean War-era jets, the first supersonic jets, the Vietnam era fighters, the '4th-generation' fighters, and the relatively recent arrival of stealth designs. It does indeed look at least partially as if there has been a general trend towards sleeker, more advanced looking designs over time.
    • This is in no small part due to the peculiarities of aerodynamics. It might be a cliche, but "If it looks good, it flies good" is a very real phenomenon for fighter aircraft. The single wing on a WWII monoplane provides more lift than the two wings on a WWI biplane due to a pair of wings interfering with each others' lift. The swept wing was developed in Germany precisely due to the better performance it allows at high speed. Current fighters (from the F-16 all the way to the F-22) tend to use a variant of the delta wing, which itself is designed for higher speeds yet than the standard swept wings. So looking faster and sleeker in this case really is faster and sleeker. There is some certain design practicality here, too. The A-10, despite being powered by turbofans, has straight wings that allows it to maneuver far better than contemporary delta- or swept-wing fighters. The huge transports follow the general civilian aviation rule of swept wings for jets, straight wings for props. Interestingly, aside from the A-10, what's one of the best close-support aircraft in US inventory? The AC-130, a C-130 Hercules turboprop tactical transport plane modified to carry two 20mm Vulcan cannons, a 40mm Bofors gun, and a 105mm artillery gun. No special computers to guide missiles or bombs onto targets, just the equipment to aim a bunch of big guns at whoever's marked as a bad guy (or something that's marked as harboring bad guys) and shoot.
  • Another real-life example is ENIAC, the first well-known (room-sized) computer. When photographers and TV crews arrived to film the super-exciting, brand-new machine in 1946, they complained that there wasn't anything happening. So the designers rigged up a bunch of flashing lights to give them something to look at. This is arguably where the entire idea of "flashing lights = computers" came from in the first place.
  • Terry Pratchett has said that in his days doing news stories at nuclear power plants the news crews would rig up smoke machines and green lights because there really isn't much to see except a lot of plumbing. Considering that this is a nuclear powerplant, one would think it'd be best to hope that you wouldn't see anything exotic happening at all. Then again, this was pre-Chernobyl. This is pretty common in all kinds of science-y settings- at least one chem lab keeps food coloring on hand for journalists/promotional photos.
  • If you're wondering what's the aesthetic in vogue at the time of this edit, look no further than the iPod range, and the current crop of video game consoles. It's all about plain black and white, rounded edges, unobtrusive buttons, touch screens and folding, sliding or flipping. Of course, as we speak there's people following it and deliberately avoiding it—that's how aesthetics change. At the very least, iPods are available in a rainbow of colors, and for all we know, Steam Punk is the next big thing.
    • So far the general direction of technological aesthetics has been towards increasingly invisible designs that can be used with as little direct interaction as possible. One guess for a logical conclusion of this trend would be a world where you can't see technology almost anywhere, since it's all been integrated into mundane objects, clothing and even inside people's bodies, and programmed to answer to subconscious cues or simple thought.
  • This expectation led to a Not Always Right entry.
    • That entry is doubly humorous considering that Macs started out as all-in-one machines and have actually returned to that basic design concept.
    • That entry strikes me as an inversion of the usual "computer illiterate person doesn't know what a computer is" scenario; folks usually assume the computer is in the monitor. After all, that's where all the icons are, right?
    • "This is amazing, young man!"
  • Consumer electronics were subjected to a variation of this trope around 2005: miniaturization. As electronic engineers started devising new ways of cramming more transistors in less space, product designers started going way overboard over how little they could build their devices, and as a result, the mid-2000s saw stuff like watches with a PDA and a cell phone, and cameras almost the size of a medium USB drive. These days are long since gone now that consumer electronics have mostly settled down to a more practical size.
    • In this same vein, we also have portable computers. The Macintosh Portable, one of the first portable computers in history, was almost 18 inches in size. Modern laptops might be able to go all the way to 10 inches (in fact, a modern netbook will be as small as ten inches, weigh less than 1 kilogram, have integrated WLAN, bluetooth and camera and still run for up to 7 hours while you are using it), but desktop replacements of 17-19" of size have recently been getting quite popular—and are still lighter than the first portables.
    • It not unknown though for ergonomic to fall to aesthetics when economics is in its flavour. Most modern VCRs use fiddly 'futuristic' menus over traditional push button interface to do the same job. why? Buttons cost more money.
    • The trend towards miniturized gadgets is starting to turn around, with phones getting bigger and bigger (leading to "Phablets" such as the Samsung Galaxy Note line). Then again, smartwatches are beginning to come into vogue, designed as wrist-top phone interfaces.
  • A lot of people on the internet mocked the Chinese when their Space program finally put a man space, wondering about "what took them so long" and scoffing at how their space capsules looked little more advanced than the Russian Soyuz. Their plans to launch a space station in 2011 have also been met with similar snorts of "welcome to the 1970s." This is forgetting the fact that the electronics suites and equipment used in these vessels have benefited from the tech advances in the last three decades and are just as capable in terms of computing power and functionality as anything in most of the modules of the ISS. In fact, most of the modules of the International Space Station itself look pretty much similar to other space station modules launched decades earlier. Even the high-tech looking Crew Return Vehicle (think miniature space shuttle, except sleeker) was canceled for budgetary and design concerns and the ISS now depends on the old and dependable but ugly and "obsolete" looking Soyuz capsules.
  • Speaking of Soyuz, its launch vehicle is a direct and only-modified-by-necessity descendant of the R-7 launch vehicle that put Yuri Gagarin in space. If it's rocket science, don't fix it.
  • Played straight with virtually anything that Apple has made in the last 10 years, starting with the iPod itself. Their aesthetics have since taken ruthless advantage of this principle.
  • Pretty much the reason why people generally scoff at anything that NASA shows to the public at large about their computers and it doesn't really look like anything you'd see in more recent popular scifi at all. For example no fancy monitor interface, just a simple commandline interface because removing the need for any sort of fancy interface interaction and graphics beyond text frees up a lot of precious computing power. (More likely, CLI is just better than GUI wherever discoverability isn't one of top priorities.)
There is also a critical reliability issue with spaceflight computing - hardware has to be as reliable as possible, even if that means using very old equipment. If a brand-new processor that's currently on its way to Pluto turns out to be flawed, the replacement options are limited. Similarly, software used in space needs to be reliable, robust, and as simple as possible. Ask an astronaut if he wants to see a desktop-computer-style driver conflict error on his navigation computer.
  • Irritatingly for some, this seems to have been averted with the advent of car windows that close electronically, to the degree that some people can't remember the old crank-operated windows at all. Time was, only the front two windows had electric operation, and the back two were purely mechanical (in some cars, the driver could control all four windows from his seat and each window had its own mechanical crank. Why is this considered a bad thing in some quarters? Because wind-down windows worked whether or not the engine was on, whether or not the battery was full, and whether or not the car had leaked. Unlike the flashier but less useful electric windows.
    • Maintenance is also an issue. Power window motors can be much more expensive to repair or replace when they break. And if the rubber seal around the window wears down enough to let moisture inside the door, an electric motor can burn out while a hand-crank mechanism will keep working.
  • Personal Computer enthusiasts, especially hardcore gamers, sometimes have fun with this trope with regards to Case Mods. Just look at some of the things they can do with their rigs.
    • On the other hand, some gamers remove the sides of their rigs, revealing the electronics within, since this improves air flow and keeps the computers cooler.
    • ...and lets in dust; some use mineral oil cooling, some use LIQUID NITROGEN cooling.

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