Archive for category TV

Bad (Computer) Science on TV & in the Movies

What is it with Hollywood and TV production companies when they show their heroes using computers? I’m not talking about science fiction films like Minority Report or Star Trek as they have an excuse, being science fiction and set in the future and all. No, what I’m talking about films and TV set in the present day where the protagonists have to use computers to further the plot – I’m talking CSI and Jurassic Park (“I know this it’s Unix!”), to name but two.

This is fertile ground for bloggers, just do a search for Hollywood OS or Hollywood Operating System and see what turns up, but I can’t see it hurting if someone else (me, for instance) goes over the same ground again. So what I’ll do is give a couple of examples of what I think are the worst mistakes TV makes and then  explain why I think this is so bad. I know that a lot of what happens on screen does so for dramatic reasons, but surely it can’t hurt to get your basic facts correct can it?

For instance, why do password crackers show the password being found one character at a time, either at random or in sequence? Firstly, this implies that the exact length of the password is known, and then that the guessing process is like a game of Mastermind where the target computer tells you that you’ve got 3 out of 8 characters correct. This doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that a lot of systems will lock you out if you make more than a certain number of incorrect guesses and will almost certainly do so if you make 100’s of guesses a second. Surely this can only make people think that it’s not worth setting secure passwords on their systems thus leaving them open to attack.

Another example comes from the (currently) popular CSI series of shows. How on earth can the techs at CSI: New York use a normal flat bed scanner to obtain a 3D scan? They’ve used this in a couple of recent episodes to reconstruct the case of a flash drive and a pacemaker. This is wrong in so many ways, not least by being able to scan the sides of the objects not touching the platen in the first place. They go on to manipulate the model using a multi-touch screen which is, I admit, possible – as long as you have the latest touch sensitive hardware and multi-touch operating system.

Google Earth is a very good application, it goes from “space to face” at the click of a mouse button, but you can’t zoom in further than the resolution of the photos it has.  But if it were shown on TV or in a movie you’d see the protagonist zooming in to read the phone number off the villain’s mobile phone.

What’s wrong with this you ask? Or not if there’s no one reading this.

Firstly it calls into question the veracity of the rest of the show or movie. While this might not be an issue for a piece of escapist fun (Swordfish anyone?) it can’t be beneficial for shows like CSI or Casualty (if we were to look at the medical science depicted in this type of show) where, at least in the first instance, part of the premise of the show is its “realism”. The dissonance forces you out of the world so carefully constructed and you can no longer “get lost” in the show.

Secondly it gives the general public a false impression of what computers can (and cannot do). While modern systems and programs are amazing (see Google Earth), there are still physical limitations to what these programs can do. The public will come to expect the police to be able to identify miscreants from low quality CCTV footage; truly delete that dodgy video they “accidentally” downloaded last night while drunk; recover that all important file they deleted 6 months ago; and so on.

Thirdly, it makes my job as software developer harder. People see computers doing all these wonderful things and then ask me for the same features in the software I’m developing. While perhaps I should be aspiring to make all my software as intuitive and easy to use as that depicted on the big screen, a lot it just isn’t possible with current technology.

However, I can’t help thinking that no amount of ranting (even if any scriptwriters are reading) is going to help. What we see on the screen is what’s necessary to drive the plot forwards. It’s no different to the times when the hero takes a high powered rifle bullet to the shoulder and gets up again or when the villain dies after being shot in the same place with a pistol.

© 2009, Chris. All rights reserved. If you republish this post can you please link back to the original post.

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