Software Should be so Lucky

February 19th, 2010

It never fails to elicit an eye roll and a heavy sigh. The days of Deities descending in a chariot to save the protagonist may be over, but “Deus Ex Machina” has taken on a new (if you can call it new) twist has become the cliché that refuses to die.

I speak of course of how computers (and in particular software in any form) are portrayed in television and movies. You know what I’m talking about, the “who done it” crime shows where the right computer software can enhance an image, clean it up and add almost infinite detail if the right protagonist is manipulating it. Other examples include, hackers and viruses that can break into any system, even the most secure, even those that have no external connectivity, and sometimes those of other times, races, worlds and even galaxies. Yes, these computer programs are almost deified in their own right according to screenwriters (and other writers too I’m sure).

One “classic” example comes from Independence Day when the lowly Earthlings uploaded a virus to a never before encountered race of alien’s computers, dropping their impenetrable shields and allowing them to be destroyed by mere missiles and nuclear weapons. One might ask – How did this little virus some guy wrote know how to effect the alien systems? Is there any reason to believe the virus wouldn’t look like static noise to the alien system if it saw it at all? How did they get the alien ship to even interface with the human technology? Well, fear not – it was a Mac!

The problem here is this: as a software engineer, programmer, and computer scientist myself I find these plots, and devices so horrifically fantastical that it completely destroys my ability to suspend my disbelief. Whether the genre is basic fiction, science fiction, mystery, or any other I see how poorly they understand computers and it makes me wonder how badly they must understand law, police or military protocol, other sciences, and anything else that may be in the story.

If a computer centric episode that gets it wrong occurs occasionally, I can usually still enjoy the series (ie. Stargate-SG1 and Atlantis seem to throw these in now and then), but when the dependence on utterly wrong and impossible computing takes place 1-2 times per episode (ie. CSI, and similar shows) I lose all ability to watch. The cringe factor becomes too large.

For all of you writers out there, I have only one plea. PLEASE STOP! Stop, writing super viruses, hackers, and otherwise magical programs that can’t possibly exist. Unless you’re writing science fiction (and even then if you don’t have a good explanation) just say no. Just as you can’t extract blood from a stone (for the simple reason that a stone doesn’t have blood), you can’t extract additional detail from a digital photo! It just doesn’t have the detail beyond the original pixels. Yes, you can enlarge it and blur it a bit then sharpen the image, but that’s not more detail, that’s less and with increased uncertainty, and you certainly can’t do that to the extent done on TV on a weekly basis to solve crime. All of these things are blatantly wrong! They show ignorance. They mislead and misinform the public. But worst of all – they’re cliché.

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