Computers and popular media

In my (quite harsh, admittedly) review of Trojan Horse I pointed out a number of “WTF” moment that I had while reading the book, most of which come down to technical details. On Twitter, the author as surprised I preferred Zero Day – even considering my review wasn’t much nicer – as both him and the reviewers found the new book more interesting.

What I’m afraid of is that for the most part, the difference between reactions is connected to the different between the dayjobs. When you’re writing something that is completely real about computers, most of the time it’s tremendously boring. If you want some kind of thrill, you need to bump it a little bit out of “real” into “realistic” if you wish to make it thrill at all — often this is achieved by making the book happen twenty minutes into the future (Warning: the link points to TV Tropes!).

I’ve read and enjoyed a lot William Gibson’s cyberpunk books, and even though they are definitely fiction, and fantasy, they give you the idea of “realism” by being far enough into the future that you can’t pretend them to be happening now.

Other times, even if it’s not “real”, something can be “realistic enough” if it doesn’t seem entirely out there — just take a look at CSI or (better) NCIS. They obviously do a ton of stuff that’s not really possible, but it still doesn’t feel totally alien if you know a bit about technology — not now, but maybe in a matter of a dozen years. I honestly enjoy watching NCIS because in the middle of the fantasy and highly unlikely things they are able to poke in enough “real” things that it feels like they are winking at me (and the other technical viewers) saying “yes we know we exaggerate, but it would be boring otherwise”. This includes, in the poorly disguised pilot for NCIS Los Angeles, the presence of a touch-screen device highly reminiscent of Microsoft Surface PixelSense (interesting to note how Microsoft re-branded their old product so they could use the name for a new one, isn’t it?).

Then again you got shows like CSI Miami, Numb3rs (damn it and their l33t speak!) and movies like Hackers (I know for many it’s still a decent movie due to the presence of Angelina Jolie.. I don’t like her so it doesn’t have even that redeeming quality for me). In these, computers are completely alien technology from what we know and they do everything, but thanks to the fact that they are explained like they were actual things that could happen, many people believe that it’s the case. Think of it as a CSI Effect where people expect you and me (the computer guys) to be gods on earth because they’ve seen other computer guys doing that on movies. You know what I mean don’t you?

Interestingly, I know of other two authors who’ve been involved with computers before writing: Patricia Cornwell who worked as a computer analyst (at a coroner office, no less), and (at least I’m pretty sure I read about it before, although now I can’t find much in suitable references) Jim Butcher. Their approach to dealing with computers in their book is quite interested.

The former has actually written proper technical talk in her books, to the point I’m always positively surprised of what she can pull off while making the story enjoyable for people who have no clue whether what’s written is real or not. The latter has taken a quite drastic approach: wizards destroy computers just by being present, so there is no computer or technical talk involved in the books at all — although the amount of popular culture and geeky stuff that is referenced in the books shows how much of a real geek Butcher is.

Russinovich stance is for the most part akin to what of CSI in my view: he’s making it generally realistic and then stretching it a bit to make it more interesting. This was good in Zero Day, even though at that point the stretch was that everything, including the Dreamliner was running Windows XP (or Vista, or 7)… but in Trojan Horse, trying to abandon the too-technical talk, to focus more on the story… we ended up with the big WTF I noted. More so, I don’t really see much interesting in the story as it happens in Trojan Horse as I’ve said, so …

3 thoughts on “Computers and popular media

  1. I’ll note the title down. Unfortunately I don’t see it available on either the Kindle Store (at least the american one) or Kobobooks..

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  2. The best technical scene I’ve ever seen in media is from the movie Breach. The movie itself is about Robert Hanssen, an FBI double agent, and based on how he was eventually caught.There’s a scene early on when he (Robert Hanssen) goes to talk to the IT department. As far as I can tell it hits a trifecta: the terminology is correct, it’s used right, and the advice he gives the guy is right.

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