Sunday, May 24, 2009

Saving the world before the Internet

To follow up on my posting a week ago, the season of 24 ended. It is the only one I recall where Jack has nothing to do at the end (although at the end of Season 5, he’s immobilized by Chinese kidnappers). Thus, the enhanced interrogation efforts were left to someone else.

Even if Jack can’t solve Hollywood’s business model problem, his short term contribution to Fox’s bottom line is impressive: almost $7.5 million in ad revenues per show, second (on all of US TV) only to American Idol.

But there is a question about how dated the 24 concept is. It debuted in November 2001, soon after 9/11, and for several years was reacting to the implications of that event.

In researching my last column, I came across another way that 24 is dated: its reliance on technology. The staff of imagined a “pilot” for 24 in which Jack Bauer tries to save the world in a pre-PDA, pre-cellphone, pre-mobile Internet era. (It’s available on their website and YouTube).

While I loved the premise, I thought there were two major inaccuracies.

The first error was being too pessimistic. In the video clip, Jack (savior of the free world) doesn’t seem to have a cellphone. In October 1994 my employer bought me my first cellphone, a Motorola MicroTac (probably the MicroTac Elite), an N-AMPS phone running on the AirTouch network (built for the LA Olympics). Wikipedia* helpfully notes that the first MicroTac was released in April 1989.

The second error is of being too optimistic. While I can’t speak to CTU or the US government, my recollection of the 1990s is that nearly all documents were stored in paper form — in file cabinets, binders, library shelves. The barriers were three:
  • Capacity. Servers in 1994 had a gb or two, typical desktop with 5.25" spindles had 300-500 mb.
  • Software. The software for storing arbitrary data on disk wasn’t there. Yes, Autocad was out, but that only worked for people generating and viewing drawings in Autocad. Adobe Acrobat 1.0 was introduced in 1993 (according to Wikipedia*) with no free reader until Fall 1994.
  • Attitudes. Even if we could store documents on a hard disk, we didn’t. When I took my laptop (PowerBook 140, later PowerBook 145) to night school to take notes in fall 1993, no one had ever seen anyone type notes in realtime on a laptop. I didn’t start collecting journal articles as PDF until 2000, and dropping paper copies until 2003 or 2004.
Overall, it’s a fun satire — and, like most satires, doesn’t bear too detailed a scrutiny.

* To make a point, I'm using the dubious tertiary data of Wikipedia in lieu of tracing down real evidence.

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