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8 horrifying Hollywood computing cliches

Andrew C. Oliver | March 17, 2016
We've all rolled our eyes at ridiculous misinterpretations of computer technology on TV or in the movies. These eight seem to pop up again and again

Let's take a break from data science and application development to talk about a vastly more important topic: TV and movies. Ever notice how badly Hollywood does computing? Here are eight "computer as a magic box" plot devices that drive me nuts.

1. Waiting for the image to resolve

One of my favorite series, "Battlestar Galactica," was one of many shows to use the old "resolving the image" ploy as a plot device. While technically "Battlestar" takes place many years ago far away from earth, the computers seemed very close in capability to the ones we have today. It has been many, many years since computers took significant time to "resolve an image."

What does resolving an image even mean? Well, you can sharpen, mess with contrast, and perform various color corrections. You might have algorithms that do these things more selectively, but all of them take seconds at the most. In crime shows, another frequent device is to "have a buddy in the FBI [or NSA or CIA or wherever]" enhance images taken with really old security cameras in convenience stores. Except that's nonsense: If the camera didn't capture the data, it isn't there.

2. Copying is the same as moving

In one episode of "Star Trek: Voyager," the holographic doctor was saved on a backup. Yet in every other episode, to increase the drama, sending him to any other computer deleted him off of the source. This is a frequent TV trope. When they sent him across the alien network to the Alpha quadrant, OMG, you were supposed to worry that his bits might be lost forever! But logically, the worst thing that might have happened was that he would lose his new memories because they should have been able to restore him last night's snapshot. Why wouldn't you make a copy of such a valuable program?

3. Let me hack that for you

In my misspent youth, I might have broken into a few computers and even altered a grade ... once. However, I didn't simply start typing and trying password combinations. Sure, there are a few obvious ones, but actually cracking into a computer network isn't usually quite so instantaneous or easy as it is on every show from "How to Get Away with Murder" to "24." When the geek "tries real hard" to crack a new computer system and manages to do it in record time, blow a raspberry at the writer and yell, "Deus ex machina, literally!"

4. Open a socket

WTF was Chloe O'Brian in "24" talking about when she said "open a socket?" Hell, WTF were they talking about most of the time? That show was terrible all around, but for whatever reason that annoyed me the most.


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