I love old science fiction TV shows and movies. Does it have a bunch of intrepid astronauts smoking cigarettes in the suspiciously cardboard-looking cockpit of their rocketship for a 15-minute flight to the forested landscape of Mars where they’ll encounter a warrior race of women with beehive hairdos? Dude, I am SO there!
But I think my favorite vintage science fiction cliche involves computers. I’ve even seen versions of this in relatively high-end stuff, like “The Prisoner” and the original “Star Trek.” Now by computers, of course, we’re talking about wall-sized metal boxes. They usually have blinking buttons on the control panel. Sometimes, for extra measure, they have a pair of reel-to-reel tape spools. And they speak in halting, tinny voices.
And every computer in vintage science fiction — no matter how advanced, no matter what alien civilization designed and built it — comes with one inherent flaw. If you confuse it, it self-destructs. And by confuse it, I don’t mean input some kind of destructive code. All you have to do is say something confusing around the computer and it will self-destruct, usually while shooting streams of sparks out of its control panel and repeating “DOES NOT COMPUTE! DOES NOT COMPUTE!” in its reedy, nasal voice.
Now, obviously it’s a good thing that real computers don’t have this flaw. Although it’s kind of a shame, too. Think of the fun you could have at the office. You’ve got some downtime. You’re bored. So you go over to the desk of that guy Lou in purchasing who’s kind of a douche. And the following exchange takes place.
You: Hey Lou! What’s shakin?
Lou: I’m busy. What do you want?
You: This statement is false.
Lou’s computer: IF THE STATEMENT IS FALSE, IT MUST BE TRUE. BUT IF IT IS TRUE, IT CANNOT BE FALSE. THEN IT IS TRUE. BUT STATEMENT PURPORTS TO BE FALSE, THEREFORE …. DOES NOT COMPUTE! DOES NOT COMPUTE! ZZIIIIRRRRKKK! (Computer throws of a shower of sparks from its control panel, then shuts down.)
Lou: Thanks a lot, asshole! (Picks up phone) Yeah, technical support? Could you send a guy up here? Somebody just said something confusing in front of my computer.
You: Heh heh heh!
Lest I sound too hard on science fiction screenwriters of the past, I’m aware that the purpose of science fiction movies and TV shows — then as now — was to entertain, not to provide documentary-style realism. And entertain they did.
And to be fair, computers were still a pretty esoteric field of study in the 1950s through the 1970s. Those writers can certainly be forgiven for not grasping how they work. These days, everybody’s got a computer. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to making computers accessible and user-friendly. So do more modern screenwriters have a better handle on the subject?
Well … according to the movie “Masterminds,” this is what hacking looks like: