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Talking Into The Mouse: Hollywood And Computers

Movies arrive in tiny, faraway New Zealand well after they’ve opened elsewhere (if they arrive at all), so it was only the other day, and quite by chance, that I caught Disclosure – and was hopelessly confused, thanks to the filmmaker’s ignorance of the Internet.

The film’s plot and details of action depend almost totally upon the current state of computer and networking technology, with such things as fast CD-ROM drives, CU-SeeMe conferencing, and virtual reality figuring heavily. Now, I can suspend disbelief as well as the next person, so it didn’t bother me when a user controls a virtual reality program through a speech recognition technology beyond anything we see today. I also wasn’t concerned when email was rendered without scroll bars, so all messages were necessarily very short – I could accept that as GUI poetic license. Besides, none of these things impinged upon the basic plot.

Not so, however, the facts about how email is coded and sent. The film depends upon arousing our suspicions that Michael Douglas’s office communications are being somehow sabotaged: he leaves a phone message that the recipient claims never to have received, his user privileges are reduced, and his disks are taken away. So when he starts receiving a series of anonymous email messages to which he cannot reply because they contain no "From" header information, I naturally thought: "Wow, whoever’s doing this to him is some serious hacker!"

Wrong. It turns out later that the messages come via the Internet from outside by perfectly ordinary means. No explanation is offered for how the headers were suppressed – nor why, since Douglas eventually has no difficulty ascertaining their physical source through a Whois query. In the end, no hacking of any sort turns out to be involved; they’re just ordinary Internet email messages.

So, because the filmmaker apparently didn’t know that you can’t normally send Internet email without at least some form of "Reply-to" header information being attached, I was misled – meaning, not that I guessed the whodunit incorrectly, which would be fine, but that I misperceived the plot, the physical facts of what the movie was intending to portray before my eyes.

This keeps happening in films today: those based on Michael Crichton novels (of which this is one) seem particularly prone. We all remember being confused watching Jurassic Park when a QuickTime movie – complete with a controller at the bottom of the window and a "thumb" button moving slowly across it as the movie played – was treated by the actor as a live CU-SeeMe communication.

I’m struck by these phenomena, not because they’re errors, but because they’re genuinely startling and confusing to users for whom cyberspace and a graphical interface are the common coin of everyday life. And there are many such users; email and QuickTime are not rarities. Hollywood filmmakers are accustomed to creating science fiction effects that conceive the future for us; but now, when the "future" is here, they’re still treating it as fiction and haven’t caught up with the facts. This leads to the paradoxical result that movies – for whose makers the technologies portrayed are exotic – are showing to audiences for whom those same technologies are mundane! The result is as mystifying as if Hollywood had decided to portray people driving cars, but, not actually having seen a car, they got the number of wheels wrong, or which side of the road you drive on.

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