That’s not how computers work


It really bugs me that one of these isn't straight

How hacking works. Ha!  I like this comic.  And, while I usually find it funny, I see something based on this premise—pointing out the vast differences between how things are portrayed in fiction and how things really are—at least once a month, always in a forum aimed at people who specialise in the field that some piece of fiction misrepresented.

The tiresome practice of yelling “That’s not how it really works” at the screen while watching a movie is something of which I am repeatedly and unforgivably guilty. It’s silly.  Of COURSE things that happen in fictional entertainment aren’t always accurate! That’s the point, sort of.

Where it gets interesting is when you try to establish a fixed demarcation between verisimilitude and absurdity

Whoops!  Sorry—I sounded smart there for a sec.  I’ll start again…

Where it gets interesting is when you discover the point at which you stop buying into what you see on the screen (or in the book, or at half-time, or whatever), and start calling bullshit.   If you look at any entertainment from the right angle, you can find absurdity, inconsistency, or just plain bulllshit in it.  If you are looking at one particular facet (be it computer use, armory, historical or medical accuracy, or whatever), you can usually find flaws of fact or interpretation.  At the same time, you can also find flaws in behaviour or thought or emotion in the characters.

The art of any fiction lies in how it draws you in, so that you don’t particularly care that we have left reality behind. You might notice, but you don’t care.  If I wasn’t afraid of sounding smart, this is where I would use the term “Willing suspension of disbelief.”

This is hard enough for an entertainer to pull off with normal folks, but if you’re a specialist, you will notice the details of your specialty.  If you are a computer nerd, it’s not enough for you to hear a story teller to say “…and then he did something with a computer and found the puppy!”  You have to know what the story teller did, and if it doesn’t make sense, that bugs you.

This means that anyone lucky enough to NOT care about computers has a better chance of enjoying the story than you do.  Luckily, you can wreck the experience for them as well, simply by not shutting up.  At least, that’s how I’ve successfully wrecked many movies for people.

But I wonder: Is it really worth wrecking an entertaining fiction for someone just so that they will know some meaningless detail is incorrect?  Is it more important that they know I’m right than that they enjoy a few minutes of innocent entertainment?

Well, of course it is.  It’s more important that I’m right than ANYTHING.

A few years ago, I was talking with a clever and insightful friend of mine about some incredible story that I had read in a newspaper.  The actual story is unimportant here—something about trees, I think.  I was really impressed with how things had unfolded in the story, and how whatever problem the story was about had been solved.  And my friend said “Well, maybe it didn’t happen that way at all.”

I was kind of taken aback by this, and pointed at the page, showing how the story had been reported.  And he said “Look–when you read a story in the newspaper about something you know a lot about—computers or music or whatever—how often does the writer actually get the facts right? How often do they ACTUALLY sound like they know what they are writing about?”

And I said it was a very small percentage of the time.

And he said “So what makes you think that they do any better with things you DON’T know a lot about?”

Hmmm, eh?

Maybe it’s OK if impossible or implausible or just plain dumb things happen in fiction, as long as it’s supposed to be fiction. Maybe I should just calm down a little about that. Voluntary suspension of disbelief is where the fun starts, after all.  That’s no excuse for just plain artlessness and bad work, but if we can’t go along for the ride, at least we can let others enjoy it.

Maybe it’s better to yell at the screen louder when impossible things happen that AREN’T supposed to be fiction. When someone obviously skips several steps in the narrative of how things came to be, or how they will cause them to be something else. Or when they create false narratives in order to make a story seem more interesting, or someone in it seem better or worse.  Or when they quote “studies” non-specifically, or use generalisations about groups of people. Or when they avoid speaking plainly and hide behind “you know what I mean.”

Do more of that when it matters, and less of it when it doesn’t.

By golly, if I was a smart person, this is where I would use the term “Involuntary suspension of disbelief.”  I believe is more plausible for someone like me to end this with “Monkey bum.”


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