IT Operations on TV Shows

By Paul Heinlein | Nov 25, 2014

A recent thread on a technical mailing list I frequent was started by someone observing (perhaps complaining) that many television show plots rely on ridiculous IT operations.

I agree, but I don’t really care. I even approve.

First, I’ll have to admit that I have the television habits of a 14-year-old boy, and mostly tend toward the genres of crime/drama and sci-fi. I don’t think my tastes have changed much since I grew to love Columbo and Mission: Impossible as a child. I’m long past feeling guilty about it.

Many of the shows I’ve watched recently — including Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Bones, Criminal Minds, The Flash — regularly feature IT operations as integral plot devices. I’d argue that most of that IT work is functionally indistinguishable from magic. The lone genius IT guru can instantly crack encrypted data, hijack a city’s surveillance cameras, jack into someone’s bank account, or infinitely zoom in on a digital photo. Also, and interestingly, in four of those shows the IT mastermind is female, which is (descriptively, not ideally) as counterfactual as the speed of the “hacking” that takes place.

Perhaps I’ve just lived with too much television, but I don’t get particularly worked up over the mythical lone genius. Instead, I just tend to view IT operations in most shows as the current version of a time-honored plot device with some famous antecedents:

You could even add occasional characters like Huggy Bear, from Starsky and Hutch, to that set of roles. They are the Oracles who send the heros on their tasks.

I have no complaint with this. Research is tedious; few things are more boring than watching someone extract interesting information from a book, library, or computer. So writers use “advanced technology” or “incredible hacker” as a stand-in to speed the plot along.

It’s true that television audiences will get the wrong idea about systems administration, but doctors, cops, soldiers, lawyers, and priests are all misportrayed (often grievously) as well. It’s television. It’s entertainment, and mostly mindless at that. I’ll take a well plotted story over verisimilitude any day.