Have TV writers ever even seen a computer? Inaccurate portrayals of technology on the small screen

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21 Apr 13

While everyone can probably appreciate the fact that the vast majority of people have about as much of a clue how their computer works as they do about how a jet engine works, it’s likely that most people have all used a computer – and have at least some basic idea of how they function. These days, computers are designed specifically for the mass market, and with the advent of touchscreens you’d think things would be finally and completely idiot-proof. The tablets available on the market right now are so easy to handle that a child could use them – and they do, with astonishing frequency and ability.

However, there is one particular human subspecies to which this assumption appears not to extend. This rare, reclusive set are known as ‘television writers’, and they frequently display an apparent lack not only of knowledge about computers but also of a basic understanding of what a computer actually is.

Let’s look at a couple of illustrative examples.


Im this memorable scene (above) from the lauded documentary series NCIS, we see two people attempting to repel a ‘hacking’ attempt by frantically hitting random keys on the same keyboard. Hacking, apparently, consists of a complex game of electronic tennis. And it can be stopped by unplugging the computer. Good to know…


In another particularly hilarious example from ultra-realistic crime scene investigation drama CSI New York (above), a character states a course of action that is patently ridiculous. For the non-technically minded in the audience: a GUI is the thing you use to move your cursor around the screen and click on things. An IP address is the code computers use to talk to each other on the internet, and the less said about Visual Basic, the better. What this woman is essentially proposing to do is use a chainsaw to carve out an elaborate sculpture in the hopes that this will bring her closer to finding somebody’s phone number.

These two examples aren’t even that old. They’re from within the last six or seven years, long after the home use of computers was so habitual that most people would know that it’s nearly impossible for one person to type reasonably quickly on a keyboard without someone else flapping their hands about at it. Granted, the CSI example is ever so slightly more technical and it may be that the writers simply didn’t care whether they got it right, but these are not isolated incidents. Entire movies have been constructed around howlers like these (anyone remember Hackers? If so, seek therapy immediately). And it becomes all the more baffling when one considers the fact that unless television writers are committed to recreating the experience of writing as depicted in All The President’s Men, they are presumably typing up their scripts on computers. What on earth is going on here?

The obvious explanation is of course that they simply don’t care. And that the shows cited are prime-time froth, the audience of which may not be particularly technologically discerning. The alternative, which is far more terrifying when considered in the long term, is that both the people who wrote these scripts and the people composing their target audience are of a generation that is still fundamentally terrified of information technology. Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, there is still a dangerously high level of magical thinking surrounding computers, as if they aren’t so much machines like a car or a fridge, but boxes full of wizards. If this is true, content like this is likely to persist (to the amusement and derision of the blogosphere) until digital natives start to be more strongly represented in the ranks of media creatives.