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Why Can't Hollywood Do Hacking Right?

Edit: It has been noted in the midst of other goings on that this article is not entirely original.


Please, authors - quiet little subblog or not - give credit where credit is due.

We’ve all seen it. A cop show or spy thriller or even some regular drama. A character working on a computer and suddenly pulling off a batshit insane thing that everyone treats as totally normal.

Illustration for article titled Why Cant Hollywood Do Hacking Right?

I’m not talking about stuff like dismantaling a nuke mid-flight or something, but the simpler stuff. It can be something like NCIS where two people working a laptop at the same time actually makes the programming go faster. Or it can be CSI: NY where a character says “I can create a GUI interface using visual basics” to track a killer’s IP address which is the equaivalent of building a car from scratch to find out its license plate number. Or Numbers when someone actually refers to IRC as “a pretty primitive chat platform.” Or someone putting an IP address and then running DOS. It happens constantly but it’s really gotten worse this year with the rise of Scorpion and CSI: Cyber, who actually use the term “deep web” to make it sound mysterious.

It’s not like this is new in Hollywood, of course. Ever since the computer age started, we’ve seen representations of it be wild. WarGames was doing Internet-level stuff long before the web existed. But this is getting out of hand as time and again, shows that are supposed to be showing high-level, tech-savvy geniuses pull out computer hacking lingo that make actual computer-savvy people smack their heads at home. So why does this happen?


1. Ageism

It’s no coincidence the majority of these shows are on CBS. The network tends to skewer older and while it’s a bit much to say only people over 50 watch their stuff (I do, obviously), it’s pretty clear they go for that demographic. And, sad as it may be to say, to a lot of folks over that age, computers are still something they’re not used to. More than once my own mom has called me with some wild computer question because she assumes since I use it all the time, I’m automatically up on every facet of programming. For viewers already older when the Internet age started, it’s easy to understand how they can see it as something so exotic and such and thus easier to accept that what they see these shows doing is for real. Which leads to...


2. Technology is magic.

Again, an old thing in Hollywood but it remains as so often, technology is treated like something taught at Hogwarts: It’s wild, it’s fantastic and only the “right” kind of person can use it. With computers, that just gets bigger. Again, see how in the ‘80’s/early ‘90’s (oh, hell, even today), a ten-year old knows more about the ins and outs of computer stuff than a well-educated and highly-trained adult. Throw in the long-standing idea that computer geeks are automatically socially retarded losers and loners and it just gets worse. Sure, good news for actors who may not be movie-star quality who can get these roles but hardly that real.


Which leads to a sad but true fact for so many of us: Very, very, very few hacking-genius females actually look like Angelina Jolie or Emily Bett Rickards. Yes, we’d love it if it were so but no, they look as normal as any other woman, not so much the multi-colored hair or wild outfits.

3. It has to be visual.

This isn’t so much a complaint but a look at the realism of the situation: Hollywood is a visual medium and real hacking is, let’s be brutally frank, damn boring. It’s long hours before the monitor doing regular typing and multiple attempts to get past firewalls and such But in movies or TV, that won’t do. Nope, we need to see fingers flying over keyboards as if typing faster really does make the Web work speedier. We need the video-game style graphics to show how things are going and the assumption evil hackers really do put skulls and mocking messages about their work. Throw in a flashing countdown with warning signals just to jazz up the excitement more. It’s something we can accept and understand. But geez, they can at least try to make the jargon sound better. However...


4. The writers have no idea how computers work.

There are websites that warn you how “life-saving” techniques you see on medical shows can actually kill someone. Cops and lawyers regularly rant on blogs about the inaccuracies of police and legal dramas. There’s the “CSI Effect” with how juries believe that if a case can’t be proven by the smallest forensic evidence, then a guy can’t be guilty. And yes, we computer geeks rant on how the writers of these shows have little to no understanding how computers really work and that’s because so much of the time, they don’t. So often, they base their assumptions on what’s come before or “research” that leads them to deep tech-heavy crap when a ten-second Google search offers far more realistic data. They’re too consumed with how “this will look AWESOME on screen!” then whether or not it’s even logical in any way. That’s not to mention how so often their “technical supervisors” are as full of crap as anyone. Scorpion makes a big deal based off the life of Walter O’Brien who claims to have hacked NASA at 13 and created the program that caught the Boston Marathon bombers, ignoring the tiny facts that much of his claims have come under serious scrutiny. Let’s face it, if some TV show is offering you a nice paycheck for a day or two of computer talk, are you really going to give them the serious truth or just some lip service and pocket the money?


It really is an Ouroboros: Writers read about bad hacking, think it’s what it’s really like and so give us even more bad hacking and as with so much in Hollywood, it’s a formula unlikely to stop soon.

It’s not like everything you see them do on TV is wrong. You really can steal a car via an iPhone or hack traffic lights or an ATM and at least these shows point out the human stupidity of making all your passwords your birthday or even your real name. I get that you need to make computers more visual and exciting for an audience and that real hacking isn’t a glamorous thing. But it’d be nice if Hollywood could at least try and make it a bit more real now and then because we have more than enough issues with people misunderstanding computers and such, we hardly need to add more to the fire.

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