Think Tank: Computers and Technology in Movies

Why is hacking as depicted in movies so ridiculous?

Matt Belinkie: A couple of weeks ago we saw the release of The Circle, where Hermione goes to work for a Facebook/Apple type behemoth and discovers all is not what it seems. This certainly seems like a timely premise, way more relevant than The Internship which was basically an advertisement for Google. But it seems like making a movie about technology is always risky, because in five years it seems laughably dated. Even just showing off a computer interface is problematic; one of the most eye-rolling parts of Jurassic Park is when the raptor is trying to open the door while the girl navigates a Byzantine menu system.

Matt Wrather: I work in technology (if it’s a UNIX system, I actually do know this), and it strikes me that there’s a fundamental problem with how “movies about technology” (as opposed to, say, movies with technology) use the technology in storytelling.

The tl;dr version is that actual technology is about scarcity, and movie technology is about magical powers.

Take that clip in Jurassic Park: The stakes are provided by the clock — we have to regain control of the system before the raptors come in: There’s limited time before lunchtime. (Time is illusion; lunchtime doubly so. —Douglas Adams)

The challenge—will she find the file in time?—is artificial and actually thematically kind of unmoored with the movie, and overcoming it—navigating the bad interface (anyone who “knows” Unix would have used “find” from the command line and the very real possibility of a typo on your first couple tries would have life or death consequences)—is meaningless. It’s mumbo jumbo meant to elongate the period of tension. It’s a combination of a No Place Like Home moment (the power was in her all along!) and a magical resurrection (bring the park back to life).

Actual technology is not like that. It’s not about self actualization and magical powers. What it is about, what almost everyone in tech does all day, is optimize the use of scarce resources. CPU, power, memory, storage, space, time (especially time)—the point is to find the most efficient way to do anything. The point is always to make the best of a bad situation in a way that’s repeatable.

Everyone’s favorite bit of movie tech — the “Enhance” button for surveillance footage — is a metaphor for invisibility, which is a magical power: The enhance button makes it as clear as if you were there.

When the technology is malevolent, as in Eagle Eye or the Will Smith one or when a terrorist threatens to do something with computers, you’re in Evil Wizard territory: The technology is a magical amplification of the bad will of the antagonist.

Richard Rosenbaum: Speaking to that point: in Silicon Valley, the engine of the whole story is a technology that’s precisely a tool for (figuratively) “magical resource management.” Not in the videogame sense of managing magical resources, but magically being able to encrypt ridiculous quantities of data in a tiny digital space. That makes sense.

Ben Adams: Though I think Silicon Valley approaches technology from a wholly different (and arguably wholly unique) direction. There, the core “discoveries” (the initial compression algorithm, then the middle out technique) aren’t really presented as magical.

Even though the tech is magical in an actual sense (i.e. probably impossible), it’s the opposite of magical from an aesthetic and storytelling sense of the word.

The discovery itself is presented as just the first in a long and fraught sequence of completely mundane concerns: on top of actually getting the technology to work (a not insignificant task), they have to do marketing, come up with VC funding, create a business plan, hire employees, etc.

And (spoilers for last season of Silicon Valley), in the end, no one even “gets” the product and it ultimately fizzles.

Normally, tech is presented as being all about the discovery – that is, once you have the idea or magic formula, everything else just works itself out.

The ultimate example of this is the movie Outbreak, where catching the animal that hosts the disease results in an immediate and seemingly 100% safe and effective cure. The discovery->usable product phase lasts literally hours.

John Perich: You know the “tech / hackers” movie that I think has held up the best? Sneakers.

I’m cheating because Sneakers isn’t really a movie about tech; it’s a movie about information theory. That helps make it ageless. But even if some of the technical aspects are outdated – James Strathairn cracking the air traffic control grid on an ASCII display – the tension holds up throughout.

Compare the “It’s a Unix system” scene in Jurassic Park (1993) to the phone call to the NSA in Sneakers (1992). We get some techno-jumbo about the phone call being bounced off 9 different relays + 2 satellites and a jury-rigged lie detector. But what the scene is really about is trust. Can our heroes trust a government bureaucrat they’ve never met to protect them if they can bring in the McGuffin?

As savvy audience members, we know that this impenetrable web of security (9 different relays!) is going to get breached, or nearly so. But the tension comes from wanting to trust James Earl Jones’ voice on speakerphone and not knowing if we can.

Matt Belinkie: My favorite movie about technology is one of my favorite movies of all-time, WarGames. Yeah, this veers into Evil Wizard territory with our hero trying to stop a malevolent A.I. And all the actual computation bits are now 1980s museum pieces. But what it gets gloriously right is that the only way to defeat the computer is to understand how it was programmed. The thrilling final scene at NORAD where Matthew Broderick is trying to stop the machine from starting WWIII is a great hacking scene because Broderick doesn’t just type really fast until “ACCESS GRANTED” pops up on the big screen. He thinks about what he knows about the system. He thinks about what it’s capable of and what its limitations are. And he does something simple and counterintuitive that only a real programmer would have thought of. The actual computer science may be nonsense, but the LOGIC is solid and that’s what’s important. (No, I will not reveal spoilers for the end of WarGames. I love that ending way too much.)

Jordan Stokes: I dunno, I love WarGames as much as the next guy, but I don’t think that what’s going on there is particularly techy. It is legitimately an example of a character solving a problem by being clever (rather than banging on a keyboard), but the cleverness that’s on display feels like something out of a fairy tale. It’s like Puss in Boots convincing the giant to turn himself into a mouse, or Willow Ufgood stuffing Elora Danaan under his shirt, or Shatner getting the robot to self destruct by telling it that he is lying.

The techy solution to WarGames would be, like “Oh yeah: there’s a memory processing bug in the routine that handles grayscale image processing. We need to hook WOPR up to, like, a dozen monitors, switch the visuals to black and white, and tell it to visually model every attack that it’s planning. The RAM will stop refreshing and the system will crash in three minutes.”

Yes, it’s “understanding how it was programmed.” But it’s an INT check, not a WIS check.

Belinkie: Can’t it be both a technological solution and a fairy tale one? The idea that the magical villains in fairy tales operate like computers, trapped within their own rules and logic, is super interesting! Rumplestilskin is basically a story about looking for the system administrator password. Once the girl finds it, the system crashes.

Stokes: Heh, that’s funny. “Hmm, three guesses. Is your name ‘1234Password’?” “CURSES! HOW DID YOU KNOW?!”

But while I think that computers tend to be treated like fairy tale villains in the popular imagination, what little I know about hacking suggests that this is a bad approximation for how computers actually work.

Here’s what I use to illustrate “how programmers think,” maybe Wrather can confirm or deny. First: why is this funny?

YouTube Tom Wildenhain

On The Turing Completeness of PowerPoint (SIGBOVIK)

Stokes: Second, why is this beautiful?

The Story of Mel

In each case, I only kind of get it. It’s like reading poetry in translation: I sort of get the shape of how it works, but it doesn’t really work for me.

But a proper cinematic handling of computer programming would have to capture some of that aesthetic flavor, and I don’t think WarGames does it.

I will go to bat for both Sneakers and Mr. Robot, which tend to gloss over the coding aspects and focus on the social engineering and (as John notes) information theory sides of hacking, which are easier to turn into drama.

Belinkie: Maybe I’m romanticizing hacking but I feel like you’re focusing on the details but missing the big picture. Hacking is about finding loopholes that let you do things the people who programmed the system don’t want you to do. WarGames works for me because Matthew Broderick wins not because he types some magical code in (Swordfish is terrible that way) but because he has taken months to understand the computer program and he uses that understanding to create a backdoor way to shut it down. Sure, the details aren’t realistic, but it feels light years beyond something like The Fate of the Furious, where the rival hackers just type very fast until one of them gives up.

Stokes: Well, the notion of true understanding is interesting, and feels right. But I think the secret knowledge that you glean tends not to be some big conceptual riddle, but rather the knowledge of some specific overlooked loophole.

Belinkie: Right, but isn’t the excitement of hacking the moment you realize that loophole is there? “Hey, what if I tried this?”

Stokes: Here’s the problem: movies treat computers like they are people who act in the world, and want the kinds of things that people would want. So that in WarGames, the computer is acting like it wants to start a war. But in real life, computers don’t want anything. Or if you’ll allow it, let’s say that they “want” purely computational things. To execute such and such a block of code, to follow their instructions, etc.

Thinking like a programmer means engaging with the computer on its own terms. Ignoring the broader goals like “start a war,” and focusing on a goal like “return a true result if this string turns out to be a palindrome.” The reason that computers can be hacked is that the original programmers didn’t translate their own goals into computer goals well enough. Like for any security software, the goal is to keep bad guys out. But a computer can’t want to keep the bad guys out: it just wants to execute its code. The trick is to come up with a set of instructions that the computer can follow that will result in your goal being accomplished.

And the trick for hackers is to find a way to give the computer new instructions (which it will follow because it “wants” to follow instructions), that end up overturning the goal of the original programmer. So the end of WarGames doesn’t feel like programming because it feels like Matthew Broderick is engaging with the programmer’s goals instead of the computer’s goals. It’s not “Ah, they forgot to sanitize their inputs” — is that a thing? Xkcd made me think that that was a thing — it’s “ah, this computer is a reasonable person, I’m sure if I argue carefully I can convince him that war is not good.”

So yes, the excitement is “what if I tried this,” but “this” is never something reasonable.

Never something that advances your own goals.

Never, “what if I convinced the computer that war is bad?”

Peter Fenzel: By this model, maybe the best “hacking” movie is Blazing Saddles.

Stokes: GO ON


Come back next week for Part 2!



3 Comments on “Think Tank: Computers and Technology in Movies”

  1. An Inside Joke #

    Oooo, I’m an aspiring screenwriter & my day job is in IT, so this topic is right up my alley.

    I suspect a major element in the “computers in movies don’t think like computers, they think like people” may be an attempt to make the movie accessible for the broadest possible audience and/or computer illiteracy on the writer’s part. I’ve never considered myself particularly tech-inclined (I don’t know how to code or assemble hardware from scratch, etc.) but I’m still way more knowledgeable than a significant portion of people who call the help line I answer. Since smart phones and tablets and personal computers are so ubiquitous these days, it’s natural to assume most users are computer savvy, but we forget that a lot of these interfaces are designed to be intuitive, so that users don’t have to really understand how their computer does the things it does. Even in 2017, I’m on the phone at least once a week with someone who doesn’t understand what I’m asking when I say things like “What browser are you using?” or “Open the control panel.” I’m guessing that the amount of exposition necessary to let your potential audience understand the point made in this article that computers don’t “want” things beyond executing commands would bog down the front half of any movie too much to make for a satisfying narrative, so instead “computers think the same way people think” is used as short-hand to get the ball rolling on plot.


  2. Mike #

    “Hacking” is a lot more simple than you think.
    Spam email (Clinton) or just ignoring the password and going to the “secret question”. An hours worth of sleuthing on facebook and google maps can tell you a persons favorite food, book, mothers maiden name, street they grew up on, etc.
    Just searching the persons email or name can show you other websites that they’ve signed up on whose password or secret question protection aren’t that great (don’t block you after numerous failed attempts). And chances are they use those passwords on those more secure sites as well.


  3. jmasoncooper #

    So the flavor I get from Stokes like of reasoning is ‘why don’t characters do actual computer things when they use computers to “hack”?’ I really like those two examples as they demonstrate the storytelling potential packed into knowledge people have about computers. I also do not fully comprehend the stories, but I get the outline, and hence the sense that there are layers of knowledge about computers that can make them do magical-type things.

    But I think a bit that might be overlooked in demanding that characters in movies who do ‘computery/hacking’ type stuff actual follow the rules of actual hacking overlooks the function of those things in the story.

    I was watching a TNG episode after I read this and it occured to me that characters in that show use the main computer, voiced by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the same way that people in NCIS or Castle or ‘insert modern show or movie here’ use an IT-person/hacker. In the story the information is always present, it is just not properly analyzed. So Geordi La Forge asks the computer which has collected all the relevant data a question and the computer aligns that information into a certain way that illuminates the problem so the character can take action based on that information.

    It does not matter to the story how the information is gathered, it just has to exist for the characters. That information then needs to be conveyed to the characters so they can take action. We all have computers and we get information from them. The trope of the ‘IT-person/hacker’ using computers is completely understandable and transparent to the audience, because those types of people always seem to be able to gather information that others do not.

    I think the point that Stokes is making is a frustration that there do not seem to be stories about coders/hackers/IT-people and their work. We have the films of Damien Chazzelle illuminating the lives of over-worked musicians, the films of Jon Faverau and Christopher Nolan illuminating the lives of tortured/cynical artists, The films of John Waters exploring human sexuality, the films of John Huston exposing the lives of P.I.s, etc. We just need the next great artist to expose the true life of an IT-person and their powerful depth of knowledge and its glory or shame.


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