Plugged in and logged in: a history of the Internet in film and TV

The sky above the farm is the color of noise, tuned to the thoughts of a dead man. Fox Mulder clings to a telephone pole and examines a nondescript gray box marked “OPTIC FIBER CONNECTION” before following a thick rope of cables to a trailer parked behind. He is about to encounter an online artificial consciousness hiding in a dimly lit nest of wires and gates and monitors. It uses a secret government T3 network – the gold standard for high-bandwidth internet connections – to commit 32 forms of crime and mayhem. I’m looking at The X files“Kill Switch,” one of the best episodes of 90s television over the Internet, written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox.

The most striking thing about watching old internet and cyber culture shows is that going online, from the 1970s through the 1990s, was a conscious, deliberate decision made by turning on the modem and logging in – something that became easier and much easier. intuitive and taken for granted after ethernet became a standard that would boost our relationship with computers. The internet became fuel for the Hollywood imagination, starting with the 1983 classic War games to dystopian horrors like mind warp, where people were permanently connected to VR and controlled by a supercomputer. Last year, Alissa Wilkinson researched how Videodrome was one of the first movies to really anticipate the way we pull away from the kind of connectivity we now associate with the experience of being online.

It was also full of cables: big beautiful bundles The X filesthin ribbons of telephone cords Murder she wrote. In J. Michael Straczynski’s Lines of Excellence, Jessica Fletcher finally rejects tradition after seven seasons of technology and embraces modernity in the form of computer classes. She learns the hard way that being connected to the internet can also mean getting hacked. Came a year later Sneakersthe understated 1992 comedy/technothriller that brought penetration testing and phreaking to mainstream audiences in a pre-Hackers world. David Strathairn, as blind phreaker Whistler, is the centerpiece of the movie’s most iconic scene, where he hacks into the federal reserve system using a dynamic braille display (there’s also just a fantastic cast of A-listers like Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford , and Dan Aykroyd).

Then came Hackers – a pure adrenaline rush that blossomed an oft-misunderstood hobbyist subculture into a cult classic starring hormonal teens dripping with Hot Topic and contagiously manic energy. The public then may not have recognized the power of a long shitpost when they saw one, but Hackers was hot and young, had a killer soundtrack, and pushed hacking and phreaking and cyberculture—and the values ​​of The Hacker Manifesto—to cinematic immortality.

Besides the spectacle of slick high schoolers feeding their techno lust, there’s something special about revisiting the dial-up and early broadband eras through perfectly mundane shows like Murder she wrote, Seinfeldand even occasionally Law and order (the SVU depictions of cybercrime are hilariously bad and deserve constant ridicule). In “The Serenity Now,” George, trying to cheer Jerry up, says he can check out porn and stock prices if he buys a computer, which is honestly what my dad was doing when I heard the faint screaming of the modem from the computer heard. back of our house in 1995.

The public back then may not have recognized the power of a long shitpost when they saw one

But it’s “Kill Switch” and the vision of Mulder’s flaccid body wrapped in coils of cables, restrained by bits of hardware, that really imbues the internet with power for an entire generation of young viewers. It wasn’t a service your parents signed up for or something nice old ladies like Jessica Fletcher paid to cum for them. It was, through the eyes of the hackers on the show, a transcendent future living on the fringes of suburbia and corporate America and in the very best tradition of Cronenbergian body horror, a new and malleable infrastructural entity that we were happy to invite into the skeletons. . of our homes, businesses and public places (the internet is now largely regarded as a modern amenity and by some as a human right).

“Who could have predicted the future, Bill, that the computers you and I only dreamed of would one day become household appliances capable of the most technical espionage?” says the Smoking Man at the end of Season 2. In retrospect, the dull limitations of his imagination make perfect sense now, even if I didn’t quite understand it then – if only he had read a little bit of early cyberpunk fiction that fueled the early s ’80s so much social and technological paranoia.

George Costanza would like to sell you a computer.
Image: NBC

In Season 5, we learn the origin story of the Lone Gunmen, the iconic trio of hackers who worked with Mulder and Scully and even had a short-lived spin-off show of their own. At an electronics trade convention in 1989, we meet Byers as an outright FCC officer who clashes with competing illegal cable vendors Frohike and Langly. The latter presides over D&D’s backdoor games as Lord Manhammer, and there’s plenty of easy comedic relief in the sheer naivete of these stereotypes. Byers hacks into ARPANET to help a mysterious woman and the rest, as they say, is history. necessary guides to a then still mind-boggling frontier of virtual reality and new technologies.

It was, for better or for worse, the Lone Gunmen who made heartfelt heroics really damn cool in an extremely awkward time for so many kids growing up around early home computers, when logging in was still a distinctly mechanical, physical process that led to untold riches in the ether (when logging out and avoiding the phone system was emphasized repeatedly as a way to avoid the FBI).

The Stop and catch fire episode “10BROAD36.”
Image: AMC

No piece of television nails the fear of being bridged offline better than the second season of Stop and catch fire‘s “10BROAD36”, named after a long-dead Ethernet standard developed for IEEE 802.3b-1985. The year is 1985, and fledgling online game company Mutiny is facing a killer surge in data speeds from a huge oil company, Westgroup Energy. The Mutiny house is the evolving heart of the season, as is the growing cultural fixation on being online – the programmers literally drill into walls (and studs) and lay anarchist cables along every available surface. Their only chance is to meet Westgroup’s new benchmarks, with the best chance of porting their code to Unix overnight. Taking a page from their bootleg HBO efforts (to catch half a chest, of course Cats People), the Mutiny punks disguise a Commodore 64 as a functioning AT&T Unix computer, complete with their own local broadband setup to simulate remote Internet access.

Cables and wires no longer invite wires to pull on and play with

Naturally, their working demo falls apart. There’s a sheer, simple clarity to how the show links data to empowerment, at least through the eyes of an idealist; there’s also a lot more to unpack in the episode’s time-sharing and network-sharing plot points that make the importance of data control clear. It’s amazing to realize that getting your elbow deep into the bowels of computers and stray wires is no longer part of the PC experience: cables and wires no longer invite you to pull and play with wires.

By the end of season three of Halt and catch fire, a new era is dawning: the World Wide Web proper and the evolution of Internet ontology and early indexing. In “NeXT” we see power marketing madman Joe MacMillan on top form, talking about how to tackle the “Tower of Babel”, the internet according to Tim Berners-Lee. There’s no point, he explains, in trying to figure out what the web will become, because we can’t and don’t want to know. “All we have to do is build a door,” he says, recalling a childhood memory of his mother taking him through the Holland Tunnel and the blast of sunlight at the end, with all of Manhattan ripe for exploration. His pitch lands perfectly, and suddenly there’s a clear target at the end of each cord: a portal.

The Lone Gunmen in The X files episode ‘Kill Switch’.
Image: X-Files Archive / 20th Century Fox Television

Despite all the effort we’ve put into integrating them into our private spaces, cables are now ugly, obsolete things that need to be made obsolete in the name of convenience. It’s perhaps too fitting a metaphor for basic technology literacy today and certainly a crappy version of a hands-on past when users were forced to learn how their machines generally worked. The cyberpunk dystopia we read about as kids—a much sharper delight in 1980s fiction—has been reduced to a shapeless mainstream aesthetic that, more often than not, forgets the bendable copper wires from which it came.

Something has been lost in the way we left behind those all-important, all-consuming cables

Don’t get me wrong: there are great movies and shows being released over the internet these days, albeit reflecting very different concerns about different kinds of technological experiences. We all go to the world‘s Fair, for example, is a brilliantly awkward time spent in the face of social media. 2018 To search was a story told entirely through screens and prestige dramas (hey, Succession) routinely use on-screen text messages.

But something has been lost in the way we left those all-important, all-consuming cables behind – Ethernet is still central to our lives, even if we don’t give it much thought. If the best movies about the internet and hacking are spectacles of a barely recognizable near future, it’s normcore television that has more to offer about the technology of the characters’ present; maybe we’ve passed a paradigmatic Rubicon where playing with the guts of the internet will never matter again.

For example, I’m glad to return to old prime-time television, when the camera still hung with curiosity on ports and connections, when most of us got swept up in the thrill of Web 1.0, and then the idea of ​​pulling the plug still felt like a painless option.

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