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Tech on TV: A Little Realism Goes a Long Way

By Peter Suciu
Oct 27, 2016 5:00 AM PT

Watching TV shows often requires the suspension of disbelief -- that is, a willingness to press pause on one's critical faculties in order to believe the unbelievable. Realism often must be secondary to story, in other words. This very often is necessary when computers are used to advance plot lines, when programmers and hackers alike can bang away on their keyboards and produce tremendous results in seconds.

One need look no further than such shows as The Blacklist or Scorpion, which feature keyboard cowboys who can hack into systems at the drop of a hat, hook into GPS systems, or employ some other technobabble gimmick to track the badguy and save the day. This use of computers has been commonplace as long as computers have been around.

"The patterns are not just with recent tech --20 years ago, MacGyver was doing very unlikely tech things, as did the A-Team and so many others -- just with different tech," said Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

"A brief suspension of disbelief has helped storytellers since well before Shakespeare," he told TechNewsWorld.

Impossible TV

What can be done with a computer on some TV shows requires more than a basic suspension of disbelief. In some cases, what fictional computer whizzes can accomplish borders on the miraculous.

With many TV shows, it's likely that accuracy isn't the writers' primary concern, said Jay Rouman, a computer network engineer who has worked with computers since the late 1970s.

"I stopped watching Scorpion after they had a convertible chase a commercial jet down the runway with an Ethernet cable dropped out of the jet," Rouman told TechNewsWorld.

Beyond the fact that the takeoff speed of the jet could be well over 200 mph, the fact that the cable was even so readily available could be something that occurs only in the imagination of a TV show writer.

"It just happened to be on board and plugged into the master computer," recalled Rouman. "I've been in data centers where couldn't find an Ethernet cable that would give you Internet connectivity!"

Brave New World

A new wave of TV shows have been creating more realistic situations, ditching the meaningless technobabble for more accurate computer jargon. Instead of murky plot devices, actual programming is displayed.

TV shows such as AMC's Halt and Catch Fire and HBO's Silicon Valley focus on the exploits of computer programmers -- with the former highlighting the first tech boom of the 1980s and the latter taking place in the modern day.

The shows are very different in tone. Halt and Catch Fire is a workplace drama with soapy elements, while Silicon Valley, which was created by Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, follows the more traditional comedy formula.

Yet computer programming is key in both shows. Each is full of realistic jargon, and close observers will see actual code on the screens, which certainly has made the shows appealing to those in the world of tech.

"The culture around technology is also magnificently depicted in Silicon Valley," added Purtilo.

"Sure it is stylized, just as any cartoonist must emphasize a subject's few key features in order to tell a story -- but they get it right," he explained.

"Maybe we don't know specifics of Pied Piper's fabulous compression algorithm, but I've watched a room full of geeks self-segregate around 'tabs versus eight spaces' or 'vim versus emacs' questions," Purtilo observed. "It's hilarious because that is what we do, and accurate details just help us project ourselves into those situations more readily."

Consulting With Programmers

Getting those details right takes going to the source, and in the case of Silicon Valley, it meant calling in actual programmers.

"We have a large staff of consultants who help us try not to look like idiots," said Dan O'Keefe, co-executive producer and writer for Silicon Valley.

"It's important to us not just to tell well-crafted, funny stories about people who live in this space, but to get as many of the details as right as we can," he told TechNewsWorld. "Or maybe we're just all severely OCD."

A bigger challenge for Silicon Valley was that it had to make the geek-speak not only believable, but also relatable.

"In a generic office show, all the comic tropes have been mined, from The Office going back to Dick van Dyke and further still," noted O'Keefe.

"The tech space, being newer, has newer protocols and rituals and such-like," he pointed out. "So it's necessary for us to be more realistic not just to be believable, but to be funny in the specific way we intend."

Not a Documentary

For a period piece recalling a time that many viewers may remember, Halt and Catch Fire does a decent job of getting the tech right -- especially as it presents the faux history of companies that didn't actually exist.

In terms of the technology it presents, "the show is very accurate," said engineer Rouman.

Even when the technology shown is questionable -- such as how the fictional gaming company was able to purchase an IBM when those systems typically were leased, it "mostly comes down to plot points and what would be most logical," Rouman pointed out.

"Having run a dial-in service, I think they skipped over a lot, but it's a TV show, not a tutorial on running dial-in modems," he said. "Like Star Trek, the show creators are wise not to belabor the technical details, because most people don't care."

If there is a complaint with this particular series, it is in the title suggested Rouman.

"HFC came from a joke in the old 'fortune' program that is still available on modern Linux and FreeBSD systems, where it prints a 'fortune' or some random witty saying as you log on," he explained. "The show's producers came up with some line about how it was an instruction to the CPU that would cause it to loop forever and it was a real instruction. I have never heard of such a thing."

Hack Attack

Anther side of programming on TV shows is hacking. Many have relied on keeping the actual "how it is done" so basic that it just "is" -- no need for any problematic details. No producer wants to be accused of providing a how-to guide, but USA Network's Mr. Robot does attempt to make the on-screen exploits seem a bit more genuine.

"I can't speak to the techniques used to break into systems because I don't do that, but their tools are correct," said Rouman.

"The actual hacking stuff they got right -- sometimes incredibly so," he added. "The stuff that they type makes complete sense; 'ifconfigwlan0 up' does indeed bring up a wireless interface. Nobody gets this stuff right."

Although it's not a documentary on hacking, some programmers actually might learn a thing or two.

"I am actually embarrassed to admit that after more than 25 years using Unix-like systems, I saw a very common command had a default I didn't know about," admitted Rouman. "I tried it and it worked."

Scripted Hacking

Another consideration is that TV shows need to be entertaining, so the plot must supersede how the characters conduct any hacking or programming, and at times serious pros may spot what they consider serious mistakes.

"Mr. Robot is laughable, really, because it isn't so much a show about hackers, but about script kids," suggested Adriel T. Desautels, CEO of penetration testing company Netragard.

The characters on Mr. Robot might seem like hackers, even to many in the tech world, but instead of reverse-engineering software, they rely on third-party hacking tools to do their deeds.

"It is not really the hacking world," Desautels told TechNewsWorld.

Yet "this is the first time that a TV show has even touched upon this part of the computer world," he added.

"More importantly, it is hard to translate that into an action-packed storyline," Desautels acknowledged. "It would be really boring to have the hacker playing with bits and bytes to reverse-engineer the code, especially if you didn't know what they were doing!"

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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