Opinion: The technobabble network

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This article appeared in the December, 2010 issue of CRN magazine.

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Opinion: The technobabble network

The genre of science-fiction has a long and venerable history of technobabble. From Jules Verne onwards, any time a writer has wanted to impress upon an audience the highly technical and sophisticated nature of what a given character might be doing, they have resorted to stringing together technical and sophisticated-sounding words.

Whether those words actually had any resemblance to actual science did not matter nearly so much as the audience accepting that it was scientific.

The classic example everyone knows is Han Solo's boast in Star Wars (1977) that the Millennium Falcon "made the Kessel run in under 12 parsecs".

Completely meaningless, given that a parsec is not a unit of time, but it sounds like the ship must be fast and sciencey, so it'll do.

Likewise, whenever computers feature in a story you can bet your bottom gigabyte that someone at some point will say something utterly nonsensical. Given that computers generally cannot do what they are depicted as doing (for example hacking into some miscreant's webcam in order to catch him in the act of miscreanting) they may as well make up some jargon for it.

The zenith of this practice (or perhaps the nadir, depending in your point of view) came in a recent episode of CSI:NY when the resident geek archetype headed off to "write a GUI in Visual Basic to track an IP address". It's so wrong in so many ways that it takes on a kind of beauty of its own.

(Even product placement and assistance from technology companies doesn't always help, as in Criminal Minds where the characters recently sprouted iPads and started referring to videoconferences as "FaceTiming" despite the fact that iPads do not have cameras and therefore cannot "FaceTime".)

When the intended audience for a work is expected to have some technical knowledge, though, there's more of a requirement to get it somewhere close to right (without bewildering civilians who've been dragged along). So it is with The Social Network.

The story is based upon the events leading to the foundation of Facebook and, while the big-name director and big-name screenwriter might drag some folks in off the street, there's a reasonable expectation that most of the people who care about what happened in the foundation of Facebook are to one extent or another geeky. So there'll be no GUIs written in Visual Basic for us, thanks.

For the most part, the film meets that challenge. There's a mention of having to "crack out emacs and modify the perl script" that actually makes sense in context, and other references to Linux commands do correspond to a character's need to do what those commands actually do.

Amazing. There's one rather laboured line about how "we need more Linux servers running Apache" but that's it really*.

Right up until the very final scene, which finds Mark Zuckerberg forlornly sending off a friend request on Facebook and waiting vainly for a reply.

Touching, sort of. Sad- ish.

Except here's the thing: I think you'll find Zuckerberg has admin privileges on Facebook, which means pretty much unfettered access to everything and anything that's in it.

If he wants to be your friend, he can be. He can't be blocked, he can't be unfriended, he can't be bargained with and he will not stop until you are dead.

Hang on, I think that might be a Terminator, not Zuckerberg. Whatever - six of one...

I'm looking forward to next year's film about the founding of Twitter. Or perhaps it should be a series of very, very short films.

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