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IT and Hollywood: The reality gap

In the movies, all you need is access to the Internet to change someone's bank account or to launch nuclear missiles. We know it's all for effect, but how much is too much?

In the movies, all you need is access to the Internet to change someone's bank account or to launch nuclear missiles. We know it's all for effect, but how much is too much?

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I love movies. I love television. But if you knew only of the world what you saw in those two media, you'd be one delusional person.

For example, going by movie and TV alone, here's what you would think you knew about the medical profession: Nobody ever comes into the ER with anything less than a rare condition brought on by the bite of a insect that is one of only six left on the planet. Writers write this way because an hour-long episode about a tetanus shot wouldn't be worth watching.

And TV's view of journalism is seriously flawed because it implies that newspaper reporters are always running around chasing down important stories that involve some secret government conspiracy. When in reality, most reporters make a living writing obituary copy or pieces about the local strawberry festival.

Yeah, I know they have to do these things to make movies exciting. But there's nothing more aggravating than when a movie takes liberty with something you do for a living.

Let's take technology, for instance. Why are the people who crack program codes always furiously typing and never having to wait for a screen to load? Why do words on the screen like IM messages or Access Denied messages always appear in 84-point type?

And what's with the preponderance of voice-activated technology? Do you know of many actual offices that make use of it on a regular basis?

And, according to Hollywood, if you can access the Internet, you can access information on anyone's desktop, look up that person's criminal record, and edit your own dental records.

So do any particular pet peeves come to your mind of Hollywood taking liberties in regard to technology? Let's hear 'em!

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

135 comments
OnTheRopes
OnTheRopes

Did anyone catch 'House' last week. They were trying to log in to a Macbook Pro and couldn't come up with the password when someone suggested leaving the PW blank and just hit Enter. Voila. House rocks. Of course, I guess that'd likely be the first thing you'd try. House sucks. Carry on.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

There's nothing unique about how Hollywood butchers the IT world. I've never met anyone who said depictions of his/her profession were even remotely related to reality. For many years, I flew for the Air Force - 98% of all movies involving airplanes in any central way ignore basic aerodynamics and just about everything else about airplanes. I know several lawyers - they tell me that 98% of all movies about the law ignore just about everything about the law. My daughter in law is a cop - she tells me that 98% of all movies about cops ignore just about everything about cops. I know my life and the lives of my family - 98% of all movies about life ignore just about everything about life. In short, movies - and TV shows - are visual fairly tales and could easily start out "Once upon a time..." or "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

hayes_mike
hayes_mike

Basic math and physics take a beating also... Ironman, All that power from the chest reactor power for his electromagnet passed through two 18 AWG wires connected with a miniature molex connector. How many terajoules of power did they claim it could deliver? How fast would the wires vaporize? The Hulk, a biologic reaction that increases mass by a factor of 7 or more? How much air volume or energy would have to be converted to make up this difference? The worst portrayal I remember was what's her name as a chemist (or physicist) in The Saint with her mewlingly coy behavior and explanations of 'cold fusion' at her 'press conference'. Or what the heck was Pi trying to portray with slapped together crap going beyond supercomputer or balanced network technology in its speed and ability to calculate pi's value to so many significant figures, I guess the power drill in the bathroom scene was a hopeful comment on the writer's fate.

dhope
dhope

Countless films show a hacker taking control of the intersections in a city to instantaneously control intersections or create pandamonium with "all-green" intersections (The Italian Job, Die Hard etc.), but that's just not possible. I spent many years programming adaptive traffic control systems and intersection controllers and the fact of the matter is that even if the equipment suffered a catastrophic failure, it is impossible for opposing greens to be displayed at an intersection. Simple, old-school, non-computerized fail-safe equipment monitors the relays that supply power to the street such that if power was somehow simultaneously applied to opposing green outputs, it would instead supply power to another circuit which that places the intersection in an "all-red" flash - a sight we've all seen before. As far as controlling an intersection... it is possible, but at best a "request" is made to the controller at the intersection which will attempt to achieve that request... but only by following a series of predetermined safe steps (i.e. 'green' cannot progress to 'red' without first turning 'amber' and each time a minimum 'safe' display time has to occur.)

Crash2100
Crash2100

Isn't it interesting how our society becomes more and more attached to computers and technology, but yet the stories about computers in the media are less and less believable. As far as I know, the only movie that involved computers and made reasonable sense was made 25 years ago... "WarGames" The part about the WOPR's artificial intelligence was a bit exaggerated, but the idea of a kid looking for a video game manufacturer, and mistakenly finding NORAD was quite believable for that time period.

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

My favorite Hollywood computer moment was in "Along Came a Spider" when Morgan Freeman guessed the villain's Windows password ON THE FIRST TRY. Aces and spades, baby! I also heard that the movie "Hackers" is one of the prime offenders of this trend.

Ceespace
Ceespace

OK - am I alone on this? In movies/TV huge amounts of data are transferred onto cd roms / flash disks or are sent by email in seconds - unless the plot requires a bit of suspense

cquirke
cquirke

If you just watched Hollywood's industrial output, you'd think 99% of US folks used Macs, and wonder what "Windows" was. I know money is applied to create a better mindshare for Apple, but it's becoming visible as a joke - right up there with JR and execs in "Dallas" earnestly discussing a DOS Dir listing on screen :-)

seanferd
seanferd

Really. I've seen so many times, I'm beginning to believe it.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

For Hollywood's corruption of technology, one need look no further than the computer enthusiast whose interest outside the socially acceptable "main stream" while perfectly legal, is grounds to be demonized. Remember kids, just like TV tells you, everybody who touches a computer can crack government encryption with just a few keyboard buttons and anyone remotely related to those nasty ???Hackers??? is only out to hurt you. Don???t bother running to turn off your computer, they are already there.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

1. Word processors never display a cursor. 2. You never have to use the space bar when typing a long sentence. 3. All monitors use 2-inch letters. 4. All high-level computers such as those used by NASA or the CIA have really cool graphical interfaces. 5. Those high-level computers that don't have really cool graphical interfaces have command line interfaces that understand basic English. 6. You can gain access to any information by typing, "UNLOCK ALL SECRET FILES". 7. You can infect any computer by typing, "UPLOAD VIRUS". No transmission medium is necessary. 8. Viruses cause temperatures to rise in systems just like they do in humans. All computer panels, cabinets, and displays have flashpots just under the surface. This overheating trips the flashpots and explains the explosions, sparks, and smoke that pour out of infected drives and monitors. 9. All computers are interconnected and can be remotely booted. You can access the data on any other computer even if it's turned off. 10. All computers beep when you press a key. 11. All computers scroll text at easy-to-read speeds. Advanced ones replicate the sound of a dot-matrix printer as the text refreshes. 12. All data is saved automatically. 12A. EXCEPTION: If two people have a file open, when one deletes the file it also disappears from the other person's screen. 13. All passwords can be guessed on the second try. All passwords can be overridden. 14. All calculations and transactions take less than three seconds. 15. All computers use the same disk formats and data encryption algorithms. All computers can run the same programs. 16. The processing power of a system is directly proportional to the number of unlabeled lights and buttons on the case, and to the size of the monitor. 17. All computers have realistic 3D graphic capabilities with resolution so sharp you can read the text reflected backwards in a hacker's glasses. 18. You can zoom into a graphic image as many times as needed to view microscopic details. 19. Photos take with cell phones are as detailed as those taken with professional SLR systems. 20. Laptops, handhelds, and even cell phones have the same processing capabilities as a Cray.

techie.brandon
techie.brandon

Wasn't that a win98 issue? Or maybe even before that? I'm assuming that it is true for the macbook since you brought it up (I have no idea since I don't own/use any mac machines, plus I'm not going to google for the answer :o) ). Funny mac would be addressing same security loopholes a decade later.

Ceespace
Ceespace

"The Hulk, a biologic reaction that increases mass by a factor of 7 or more? How much air volume or energy would have to be converted to make up this difference?" and more to the point where doers it go to afterwards? - yes muscles can increase in size but only so far good point well made!

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

As you noted, these types of systems are controlled with mechanical, non-digital relays, and the ability to reprogram the equipment on the fly is quite limited. Oh, and elevators can't be programmed to fall, either. Too many mechanical failsafes that can't be overridden by the programming.

DasTwitcH
DasTwitcH

a team near where i work is currently developing systems for emergency response vehicles involving wireless transponders that will control intersections to allow speedier response times. The tech involved is expensive and it's gonna take ages to come online. and yeah Similar failsafes here in Aus apparently. We actually had a similar discussion regarding The Italian Job recently :D

redux
redux

Well, I liked the movie, too, but really, now -- a computer system sophisticated enough to calculate nuclear response strategy that crashes because it can't figure out tic-tac-toe?? AND, it's not like it had never seen the game. He types in 'play tic-tac-toe' (or whatever he typed) and there it was. Hummmmm...

Top.Gun
Top.Gun

"War Games" was good but one thing always sticks in my mind. At one time they show a guy standing in front of a reel to reel tape drive pushing buttons with the implication he is looking for something. I must have missed that - a person being able to read data right off the tapes on the drives.

crt
crt

And then it takes forever as the computer needs to count up to the amount.

computerguru
computerguru

I thought everyone was able to access a single computer in a warehouse that happened to contain thousands of stolen documents, copy them to a USB stick, run to their car, plug the USB stick into their car stereo, and upload the entire thing to their office in under a minute to issue the search warrant just in time to catch the guy before his jet takes off to Mexico.

nubbs17
nubbs17

I want to know when keyboards will be available like in the Cube 2. Seen it? I would so use one!

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

No file is larger than 1.4 Megabytes File transfers take seconds, no matter how large the file. Any teenager on his parents' computer can outwit IT professionals who have been on the job for 20 years Only 'nix and Mac users have any hacking skills People use emoticons as a form of Identification (The NET, w/Sandra Bullock) OSes never crash A reboot takes ten seconds. Five if you're in a rush. Any idiot can learn programming and become a master hacker in a few weeks. Computer geeks automatically know everything about every computer. Networking, programming, web page design, it's all the same thing, right?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

21. Computer-controlled security systems are always programmed to close one barrier at a time, in sequence. The barriers closest to the center will close first, allowing you to run out through each one as they close behind you.

arignote
arignote

Super computers are housed in 20-story cylindrical rooms, with access via suspended walkways at the top level, in order to drop in a virus when the super computer becomes sentient.

Professor8
Professor8

8. over-heating computers Well, there was the TRaSh-80 that would over-heat if you programmed in a tight loop. And I was doing a performance test on a Cyber 835 once, that did start to belch clouds of black smoke. A plug into the power supply had a wire that wasn't properly tightened down by the screw. 10. computers beep when you press a key Ugh! We had some old Lanier dedicated word-processors at one place I worked that had an option to synthesize a click noise at every key press, and a co-worker who loved it. Drove the rest of us nuts. 11. noises as computer displays text Yah, Belisarius liked that gimmick, but used a much more pleasant tone than what a dot matrix printer would. 12. all data is saved automatically On some systems and applications, there is a journaling feature to do precisely that. It pretty much writes to disk the equivalent of the undo/redo record. We had this back in the early 1980s. 16. lots of lights and buttons Well, the 64K processor Connection Machine was quite powerful. 18. graphical drill-down I did prototypes that would do this back in the 1980s. It's really quite a user-friendly way to go if you can smooth out the transitions from simple graphic zoom to additional levels of detail. * You knew the bad guys were especially vicious in Die Hard when they murdered those innocent Cybers and Crays just to get at John McClane. * OK, so we made it too easy for the bad guys to jigger records in "The Net". Time is money in a movie, and it's not as though people hadn't experienced having their computer records jiggered by people out to get them before that. At least their back-door creating software was a reasonable rationale for their ease at hacking. These days, they'd be adding the victim to a terrorist watch list or some such.

techie.brandon
techie.brandon

Just adding to your list... All computers are ready for user input after 1 second from power on, boot is silent and OS is fully functional as soon as you sit down. Computers do not need cooling as fans no longer spin up during boot and awake the spy you've slept with to gain international secrets. All spies have custom built OS's with voice activated identification and built in explosives.

The Dream
The Dream

Not strictly IT, but who has a telephone that 'immediately' goes to dial tone when the other party hangs up?

sylvain.drapeau
sylvain.drapeau

... laptops in movies must use nuclear powered batteries because they have incredibly long life. Also, high speed wireless internet access is available everywhere and is transparent to the user. Power-up your laptop and you're connected. Note to the first posters : I hate the no-mouse-lightning-fast-typing-thing too.

Bizzo
Bizzo

Remember the old Commodore PETs? If you "poked" a value to a certain memory location, I think to speed up the graphics of something, it actually did start to smoke. Although that might just be folklore.

WTRTHS
WTRTHS

Except those really long important transmissions, which take minutes, and when interrupted at 99%, not even partial data will be left on the other computer.

khenson
khenson

How is it that the Hulk still manages to have shorts on after his transformation? I guess they must be some super pliable material made to stretch as much as his muscles!! Technically speaking though, he should be running around tearing up things in the buff.

rball
rball

What about computers that are self-aware (think 2001), that can think for themselves? I am of the belief that it's simply not possible, at least with technology as we know it now, I highly doubt you could create something that's truly self-aware like we are - you can't make a soul. You'd have to program every possible scenario, but then it still wouldn't be self-aware. Yet it's in movies all the time. How would you program love? Sarcasm? True understanding? Now I KNOW somebody's gotta have something to say about that ...

bill.douglass
bill.douglass

That movie where Robin Williams gets elected president because of some sophisticated computer calculation glitch involving his name - within the new computerized voting system... There are three choices for president and each person selects one check box - Now how many calculations can that involve? Some movie where 50 million (or so) dollars is being 'downloaded' just like a data file (with a progress bar indicating percentage etc.)... Since when are dollar bills downloaded? It would, in reality, be a single number popping up on the screen - (but there would be no time/suspense element in that).. Boilerroom - where an FBI agent asks a trader they are 'using' to bust a scammy stock trading firm to 'download the entire contents of his hard drive on a floppy'... And of course, he does it (very small hard drive!).. The Net made an attempt at realism but there are numerous laughs... like when the virus takes over, the screen image suddenly disintegrates into an eerie melting array of colors...(I always hate when that happens)...and I'm still looking for those secret 'pi' symbols on web sites that give me instant access to the pentagon mainframes... National Treasure (esp. the sequel).. I liked those movies but they are full of ridiculous scenarios.. Like Riley (hacker guy) being able to access and control all building access from the mens room, or reading invisible ink fingerprints off a keyboard, or remotely/wirelessly/instantaneously hacking into the traffic control computers of some italian city in order to get a copy of the picture just taken by the automatic intersection-cams in order to read the inscription of some ancient artifact nick cage just ripped off...yeah, it could happen... The thing is, it would take a 10 minute consultation with a real tech person and a minor script rewrite to make these things much more realistic...especially when more and more people are computer literate and identify the blatant unrealities presented on the screen...

Crash2100
Crash2100

Neon Samurai is right, in the movie, the computer didn't crash playing tic-tac-toe, it simply learned that the game was pointless, that there was no way to win. So it gave up playing. And my point had nothing to do with any of this to begin with. I was simply saying that the idea of someone accidentally finding a dial-up connection into NORAD was quite feasible back in 1983.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

If I remember back correctly, it was not that the machine crashed but rather that the machine ran through all the strategy it could and constantly found that the game was not winnable; loosing or a tie was the only possible outcome. By learning that not playing the game is sometimes the only way to have a winning outcome (nuclear war as it where), the machine aborted the other un-winnable game it had running in memory. Still unbelievable but in terms of AI technology rather than machine failure.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Yeah, its got to display the incrementing digits, often down to the penny.

w2ktechman
w2ktechman

Man, I thought everyone could by now. Oh wait, I keep forgetting about this top secret prototype stuff that I am a usin. Oops, I've said too much. Please disregard :^0

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

.. your not transfering the garbage file while smoking a joint with your mom at the door talking on and on about being rounded or some such thing; then you can be sure the transfer will fail at 95%

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The grand and a bit price tag is far outside my budget but that grazy german keyboard with each key as an LCD would be fantastic provided it supported multiple platforms. My gaming keyboard with backlit keys would have nothing on that beast. Now i have to go look for a screenshot of the cube2 keyboard.

seanferd
seanferd

I hope that the watertight compartments on ships don't work that way.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Because that Windows "Start music" will wake up the sleeping spy.

brians
brians

They always get a dial tone on their cell phone when the other party hangs up...I've never had dial tone on my cell phone.

brians
brians

...or when the boss is coming to ask you to work on Saturday and your computer won't shut down. "Hey Peter, how's it going? I'm gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow...I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too. OK? Thanks..."

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's my opinion anyhow. I have a very healthy suspension of disbelief with superhero settings and other blatantly out there stories. Something like War Games, Hackers or that previously mentioned Bruce movie with a contemporary setting don't get that same pass on reality. With Hulk, I'm not sure how they deal with it in the commics but the most recent movie does have him tearing apart clothing and looking for stretchable fabrics that could be used instead. The Incredables had an even better aproach; a fashion designer specializing in superhero outfits and a fantastic character for the movie too. Now, Hulk does continue to get bigger and stronger the more angry he gets so at some point parents are going to be covering children's eyes. I don't see a plot point in a movie or comic story that justifies that scene outside of a spoof movie.

MurphysAcolyte
MurphysAcolyte

If I remember rightly, someone did dial into NORAD or another top security place a few months after WarGames came out. I remember seeing the news report.

seanferd
seanferd

To the hundredth of a penny. :)

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

only when someone is about to be caught or shot at though. The rest of the time they are pretty quiet :^0

seanferd
seanferd

All computer I/O devices are required to be in line of sight and easily accessible from ventilation shafts, are they not? Fire code or something? Mind you, all shafts are large enough for an adult human, are built to bear at least 800 lbs, and are made of stealth sheet metal that makes no noise while you are crawling through the ductwork.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

put the heat sensor right under the AC vent now. Thanks for that security tip :D

Ceespace
Ceespace

so do you have the palm reader, retina scanner or key card entry system - oh and the pressure pads under the floor of the computer room and the interesting lighting effects if it is tripped? (right Tom, pop down city hall and get the plans for w2ktechnician's workplace. We need to find the air conditioning duct above the computer room, if we are in luck it will be directly over the keyboard)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I've found all sorts of info about the movie but no scene shots showing the keyboard yet.

Dr. Tarr
Dr. Tarr

Please post it, I'm curious too.

santeewelding
santeewelding

They go almost immediately all at once if everyone is doing their job, to include isolating someone like me directly under the deck plate to which was bolted a five-inch. I thought that damn thing would never stop firing and rattling my very brains.

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