Evil Computers: But They Don't Act That Way In Real Life

McClane and a lighter: how low-tech!
Eugene recently reflected on the overuse of the "mainframe plot" (networked computers about to take over the world). As part of my Christmas traditions, I recently rewatched Die Hard, the original, and was impressed all over again by how a non-computer plot can keep an audience on the edge of its seats.

This year, I managed to see Die Hard on the big screen for the first time (part of a cult classic series in a nearby movie theater). The theater was about 2/3rds full, which is impressive for a non-new release! The audience audibly gasped when McClane limped into the bathroom, his feet full of glass shards--even though we'd all seen the movie more than once and one guy even knew the name of the novel on which the movie was based (there was a trivia game beforehand).

In other words, it is McClane's physical and mental endurance plus Alan Rickman's urbane villainy that holds the movie together, not some amorphous, omniscient big bad.

Low-tech tension.
And I must say that Alan Rickman holds up impressively well. Bruce Willis does, of course, but that's because Bruce Willis has been acting John McClane for years. Unfortunately, villains from older movies often come across as hokey as the dialog references to VHS (that got people chuckling). Yet Alan Rickman is still as scary and suave and deadpan now as then.

While contemplating the impressiveness of Die Hard's non-computer plot and Eugene's post about the lack of plausible motivations (what could the computers possibly want?), I decided that part of the problem with "mainframe plots" is the "nothing ever ever glitches" syndrome.

For example, in response to Eugene's post, Dan comments on Live Free or Die Hard: "There is a state of emergency in DC and yet a large semi-truck housing the bad guys' command center is driving around unmolested (and again are not the roads congested?)." I view Live Free or Die Hard as pure fun fantasy (that plane!), but I think Dan has pinpointed a big problem with the mechanics of "mainframe plots."

It's a problem that also occurs in murder mysteries. In Dial M for Murder, the character, Mark Halliday, a mystery writer, restates the problem in writing terms:
Margot Mary Wendice: Do you really believe in the perfect murder?
Mark Halliday: Mmm, yes, absolutely. On paper, that is. And I think I could, uh, plan one better than most people; but I doubt if I could carry it out.
Tony Wendice: Oh? Why not?
Mark Halliday: Well, because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to; and in real life they don't... always.
Tony Wendice: Hmm.
Mark Halliday: No, I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me.
I complain in my comment to Eugene's post about Bones, Season 8. In general, I think that season's episodes are well-written. However, I dislike Pelant, the season's villain (who luckily only shows up for 3 or 4 episodes) since he is "one of those 'bad for the sake of being bad' villains," more interested in getting attention than in his own self-interest. I consider this boring.

He is also a computer mastermind who uses the computer to do everything. I consider this implausible.

I don't mind when Root and Finch do fantastic things with computers in Person of Interest because the show is built on the premise that The Machine is (1) possible; (2) partially sentient. Of course the people who created and understand it would be masterminds!

I also don't mind because within the structure of the show (I finished Season 2, haven't yet started Season 3), the machine and its creator are still fallible.

What amazes me with Pelant is that he uses the computer to move people around, get people out of jail, get people moved into different facilities, get evidence planted, blah, blah, blah and nothing ever goes wrong with his plans.

Superman can type really fast; that doesn't mean that the computer can handle his speed. There's a great line in Stargate SG-1 where super-speed Carter
complains, "I’m writing a book on wormhole physics but this damn computer isn’t fast enough. When the buffers are full I have to wait for it to catch up!" In the video, she complains that she is stuck on a glacier with "Macgyver," and even he can't rescue them!

Pelant's masterminding also doesn't take into account that people do not always do what the computer says

Believe me--I can't tell you the number of times my students have failed a quiz, print or on-line, because they did not read the instructions.

At one point, Pelant creates a second identity for himself--voila, he is now an Egyptian citizen, and that government comes to get him out of U.S. jail.

But governments are slow. And bureaucrats play games. And higher-ups like to throw their weight around. Isn't it far more likely that the request to release Pelant would end up in a crazy, swampish quagmire of red tape as convoluted as this metaphor? Isn't it more likely that Bureaucrat 1 would decide to trade favors with Bureaucrat 2, and Pelant would languish in some extradition hole for months on end?

In the NCIS episode "Broken Bird," the Afghani ambassador feels compelled to take seriously the accusation against Ducky for war crimes. While sitting in the Afghani embassy, Ziva quietly points out to Gibbs that the man is in a difficult position. He doesn't want to be responsible for creating tension between the United States and Afghanistan, but he can't ignore the issue. He is waiting to make the call home, which gives Gibbs time to play a "I'll give you information for a favor" game with Trent.

All this is far, far, far more likely than that Cause A will automatically lead to Effect B.

"Did you know?" Finch to The Machine. He didn't check!
I haven't even addressed the following in detail: computers break; many computers--especially those in government (healthcare.gov, anyone?)--are slow, unwieldy, and stupidly programmed; nothing is instantaneous, not even Amazon's sales or PayPal (there is a process): stuff has to be downloaded; someone has to look at the stuff; someone has to print it out or forward it to the correct authorities. In addition, information on-line can be corrupted by viruses or the computer crashing; it can be hacked, which means the information is often double-checked against eyewitnesses and/or written information; information on-line can also be wrong because it was wrongly entered in the first place. AND, ultimately, people have to turn the machine on, i.e. check it, to get the information at all.

All the stuff that drives us responsible, everyday citizens crazy when dealing with, say, healthcare.gov is all the stuff that keeps even Finch grounded (and Finch's occasional inability to see the human side of a problem is part of his personality, charm, and inner conflict).

I'll take the clever but fallible villain/hero any day over the computer masterminds who never, never mess up.

Bring back Han Gruber!

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