If you watch movies and if you have two-fifths of a clue how technology works, then there’s a moment we’ve all shared. It’s that point in any techno-thriller when the hacker character – almost invariably a young kid with an iconoclastic concept of fashion sense – is forced to burble some painfully embarrassing rubbish about “secure sockets” being opened into “closed IP walls” while typing extremely rapidly before hitting one final key, sitting back and announcing “we’re in”.
It’s frustrating for two reasons. One, because it make actually using technology feel so boring that you get a sinking feeling of disappointment every time you type something a command line and do nothing more fascinating than ping a server. And two, because 18 years ago Hollywood actually got it right.
Yes, Sneakers – with its incredible cast and zinger of a story line – actually remains remarkably watchable, mainly for the fact that it incorporates a realistic and reasonably accurate look at tech that neither insults the viewer, nor implies that it’s all too difficult for them to understand.
Of course, three years later Hackers arrived on our screens and as far as I can tell Hollywood got so excited by the idea of a young Angelina Jolie being topless they decided to take the film as a template for any future techno-thrillers, which is why every hacker is either a beautiful young woman with a short skirt or an extremely good looking guy whose sole concession to apparent geekdom is a comic-book t-shirt squeezed over his chiselled torso. Or they’re Hugh Jackman.
It’s not just Hollywood films that are guilty of course – TV owes us all an apology as well. CSI, NCIS and anything else that has a title comprised of initials is usually guilty as hell of “jumping the PhotoShop shark”, as a colleague of mine once termed it. That’s the part in any episode when someone keeps saying “enhance” over and over until the picture pulled from an ATM camera two blocks away is crisp enough to scan a fingerprint off a car’s door handle that's being reflected in a small pool of water on the ground.
And don’t get me started on the fact that Miami CSI techs seem to have access to touch computing systems that make Surface look like a kitchen table. Or even more like a kitchen table than it already does, I guess. Being able to pull SMSs from a phone simply by sitting down at a screen? I didn’t realise that people were coding for law enforcement applications of Near Field Communications already. Wow.
But the truly sad thing is that, with the right application of suspension of disbelief, it’s this rubbish and technobabble that makes it all so entertaining. Having Gibbs hang out at his desk for three months while an overworked and underpaid lab technician finally gets around running the epithelial cells from a murder weapon? It might be realistic, but I’ll stick with Abby and her magical mass spectrometer any day.