A Little Realism

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 Fireis a workplace drama with soapy elements, while Silicon Valley, which was created by Beavis and Butt-Headcreator 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.”