erik lundegaard

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The History of the Internet on Film

The most dated aspect of “The Net,” the 1995 thriller in which freelance software engineer Sandra Bullock’s entire life is erased by malicious corporate hackers, is not the dial-up accounts, or the floppy discs sent via Fed-Ex, or the almost nostalgia-inducing TCP/IP status windows which tell us: “Router engaged... Establishing link... Connecting... DONE.” No, the most dated aspect is a verb. Trying to fathom how the bad guys discovered such personal information about her — favorite foods and movies and men — Angela Bennett (Bullock) suddenly has an epiphany. “They must have watched it on the Internet!” she cries.

Watched it on the Internet? As if the Internet were the new TV. “What are you doing tonight, honey?” “Oh, I think I’m just gonna stay home and watch some Internet.”

Press control/shift

“The Net” was one of two films that year which directly exploited the growing interest in and fear of this relatively new communications system — which means Hollywood became fascinated with the Internet about the same time Bill Gates did. Not bad.

New technologies generally provoke fear — everyone’s got a bit of a Luddite in them, and most of us assume that what we grew up on should be good enough for anyone — and the Internet, a publicly accessible system of interconnected computer networks, couldn’t help but provoke fear and fascination. It’s a small step from “Wow, you mean I can be connected to anyone?” (think: Madonna) to “Crap, you mean anyone can be connected to me?” (think: Jeffrey Dahmer).

But “The Net” didn’t exploit this fear so much as a general fear of computers. If all of our information is on computers, its logic went, then that information can be erased, and thus our lives can be erased, just as Angela’s mom’s life has been erased by Alzheimer’s. The Internet simply made it easier to gain access to these computers. Of course the evil corporate forces could only do what they do because no one knows Angela. She’s a computer shut-in, and that may be the film’s greater fear: that even if we’re as attractive as Sandra Bullock, we’ll wind up lonely and dateless and waste our time in chatrooms with Iceman and Gandalf and Cyberbob, who chant, in homage to Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” that Angela is “One of us... one of us...”

This is the true terror the film exploits. The Internet? You get floppy discs in the mail which take you to Web pages which, if you click on a Pi icon while control/shifting, will make everything go haywire and on its own take you to top secret Web sites. Yeah, you don’t navigate there; you just kind of wind up there. Why be scared of the Internet? It’s a magical, magical fairyland.

Waka waka

The first time the New York Times used “Internet” in its modern usage was on Nov. 5, 1988, in an article about Robert T. Morris, Jr., the son of an N.S.A. computer security expert, who released a replicating program in the Department of Defense’s Arpanet that eventually infected 6,000 computers “or 10 percent of the systems linked through an international group of communications networks, the Internet.” Although Morris was a 23-year-old Cornell graduate student at the time (and is now a professor at M.I.T.), he became the inspiration for Dade Murphy, the 11-year-old Seattle boy who, going by the online moniker “Zero Cool,” crashes 1,507 computers nationwide in the beginning of 1995’s other big Internet movie, “Hackers.”

“Hackers” and “The Net” may have come out the same year but they are at opposite ends of the fear spectrum. The Internet doesn’t isolate us in “Hackers”; it brings us together into groups of elite geeks who hang in hip cyberclubs and play giant video games while rollerskating to a throbbing techno beat. Not sure which vision is scarier.

There are two kinds of hackers in this world: the adult kind, represented by “The Plague” (Fisher Stevens), who tries to dump oil tankers in the ocean to cover up his embezzlement schemes; and the youthful kind, represented by “Zero Cool/Crash Override” (Jonny Lee Miller) and “Acid Burn” (Angelina Jolie, sporting a Vulcan haircut), who prevent the oil tankers from spilling in the ocean. Sure, the youthful kind may play online pranks; but even when Crash Override hacks into a local TV network, he simply removes a Rush Limbaugh-like fascist from the airwaves and replaces him with a classic episode of “The Outer Limits.”

Of the two films, the high-tech language in “Hackers” is probably more accurate, but this merely demonstrates the problem of accuracy in computer movies. At one point the boys crash Acid Burn’s room and they’re all over her computer. “Check it out, guys!” one cries. “It’s insanely great. It’s got a 28.8 kbps modem!” Yesterday’s elite hardware is today’s Smithsonian artifact.

During the final hacker showdown, of course, all nods towards accuracy are lost in favor of gee-whiz graphics (an eyepatch-wearing Pac-Man) and layman’s language (“I’ll head ‘em off at the pass!”). I’ve never launched a virus personally but according to this you just access the “Virus Launch Panel” on your computer — with LAUNCH, INFECT and GROW options — and wait for Pirate Pac-Man to start eating someone else’s computer data. Waka waka. Waka waka. Yep: a magical, magical fairyland.

Job@Book of Job

“The Net,” released in July ’95, did OK business ($50 million) but “Hackers,” released in September, did not ($7.5 million), and Hollywood soon stopped making these kinds of movies. The Internet cache was short-lived, and anyway there’s nothing visually exciting about someone sitting at a computer — which is why you get all the gee-whiz graphics in the first place. A general rule with high-tech movies: the more exciting the graphics, the less exciting the protagonists.

But as the Internet became part of our lives it also became part of the lives of our movie characters, and began showing up, with all of our ambivalence about the medium intact, in small, supporting roles.

In “Copycat” (1995), agoraphobic psychologist Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) uses the Internet as a means of communicating with the outside world (that’s good); but then a serial killer sends her taunting messages and videos via e-mail (that’s bad). In “First Kid” (1996), the titular brat browses the “Kid Internet” and makes online friends in a “snake chatroom” (that’s...um...good, I guess); but the online friend turns out to be a wacko who wants to kidnap him (that’s bad). The fear of what can come through those phone lines and fiber-optic cables is best reflected in a horrible B-flick called “Ghost in the Machine” (1993), in which a computer-savvy serial killer is zapped into electricity and continues killing via the Internet.

Exaggerations in these movies, obvious 10 years hence, abound. Computer programs are invariably interrupted by a bar-shaped window with a flashing red message: INCOMING E-MAIL. E-mail messages are slid into envelopes and float away on wings. When necessary, computers talk. When pressed for time, passwords are easily decipherable. Hackers tend to be fatsos with long greasy hair or nerds with oversized glasses, but if they’re lead characters they suddenly morph into Angelina Jolie or Hugh Jackman. Nice trick.

Errors in these movies, obvious 19 years hence, also abound. The insufferable teen protagonist in  “Ghost in the Machine” tells a friend, “I was just searching around on my computer? I found this great sex program!” That’s some magical computer. Did the sex program come bundled with the operating system or what?

In “Ransom” (1996), CEO Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) receives a phone call from a subordinate telling him...he has an e-mail. Is that how CEOs worked back then? No wonder so many companies failed. The easiest error to spot is the f’ed up e-mail address. The James Bond thriller “Goldeneye” (1995) knew enough to give its hacker a proper suffix (.edu), but in “The Net” Sandy Bullock sends an e-mail to “jg@gms.wrld.” Even a year later the first “Mission: Impossible” (1996) hasn’t figured it out. At one point super agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) creates the account “Job@Book of Job” and receives an e-mail from “Max@Job 3:14.”

A dot, Ethan. Dot something. We’re waiting on a dot.

Joshua

So did the collision of Hollywood and the Internet lead to the making of any good movies? Yes, but the movie was released before we or the New York Times even knew the term “Internet.” That may be key.

In “WarGames” (1983), Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman owns a TRS-80 monitor. To connect to other computers he has to press his phone into a suction-cup modem. In an attempt to access Protovision, a computer game outfit, he creates a program in which his computer dials every phone number in Protovision’s area code and lets it run until it connects to another computer. When he needs to research a programmer, Dr. Stephen Falken, he actually researches: libraries, card files, microfiche, for God’s sake. This kind of research lent itself to a visual montage. These days he’d just Google “Falken,” which lends itself to nothing. Cue the gee-whiz graphics. Then cue you in the audience going, “That ain’t Google.”

“WarGames,” in other words, had a kind of patience the other Internet movies didn’t. More, its writers, Lawrence Laker and Walter F. Parkes, who would go on to help write 1992’s “Sneakers,” were interested in character. The flirtation between David and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) is charming, not least because she’s the sexually aggressive one. The two teenagers feel real. Subtle things occur. She traps him between her legs and laughs at his confusion and/or her daring, but nothing comes of it.

After he realizes he hasn’t contacted a computer game company but the NORAD computer, and after the computer calls him back to “finish the game,” he not only takes the phone off the modem, he unplugs it completely and then cradles it in his arms. “WarGames” still works nearly 25 years later because it’s about people, not technology. A suction-cup modem is soon outdated; David Lightman is not.

Whose pipes are these anyway?

By 1998 more of us were online, and since less of the Internet was unknown there was that much less to fear. Which means, God help us, the Internet became safe for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail,” a two-hour-long commercial for AOL, Starbucks and — through example — Barnes & Noble. At least writer-director Nora Ephron managed to make writing and sending e-mail visually interesting (no mean feat), and she did show the fun of flirting via this new medium; but I’d still like to see the version where ny152@aol.com turns out to be the fat hacker with long greasy hair. Just to see Meg Ryan’s reaction.

But if we didn’t have as much to fear from the Internet as we originally thought, the Internet still has a lot to fear from us.

It was created in a spirit of cooperation and democracy which is now being threatened by businessmen like AT&T’s CEO Ed Whitacre, who, in an interview with BusinessWeek last November, implied that it’s not enough for consumers to pay for ISPs and it’s not enough for host servers to pay for more bandwidth; he now wants each individual Web site to pay for consumer access. He wants money coming and going and coming again, and in doing so he will create what the Internet has never had: a hierarchy. “We and the cable companies have made an investment,” he told BusinessWeek, “and for a Google or Yahoo! or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!”

I’m not a businessman. I’m not a computer geek either. When the Internet was in its early stages and money could be made from it, I wasn’t interested. Now that its origins are part of history, I’m fascinated. That’s how much of an idiot I am. Wherever money can’t be made, that’s where you’ll find me.

Ed Whitacre doesn’t have this problem. He reportedly made $17 million last year, with a pension of over $5 million-per-year waiting for him. AT&T reported a profit of over $4.7 billion in 2005. Now they want more.

Here’s the problem I have with these guys. There are people who create something and if they’re lucky they make money from it. Tim Berners-Lee, now a Sir, created the World Wide Web in 1989. I hope he made some money from this act of creation; he changed the world. Guys like Ed Whitacre, on the other hand, create little. They simply take an existing thing and try to squeeze more money out of it. It doesn’t matter if, in the act of squeezing, they ruin the thing, as long as money is extracted. The bankruptcy of our culture is embodied in the ascendancy of these guys.

So a fictional corporation tried to erase Sandra Bullock’s life. A fictional corporation tried to dump oil tankers in the ocean. If only real corporations thought that small.

—Erik Lundegaard supports net neutrality. You can read more about it at: http://www.savetheinternet.com/. This article was originally published on 6/8/06 on MSNBC.com.