Many people are concerned just how much corporate technological behemoths have embedded themselves into our lives nowadays. A few years ago now I spent a few days in meetings with some Microsoft consultants at their main British headquarters, and I entertained myself by counting the number of times I saw a pained look on the face of a Microsoft staffer having to physically stop themselves using “Google” as a verb. “We’ll just do a…” wince “…internet search for that.”*
The people I feel sorry for now, though, are the producers of TV shows. Yes, a particular website or app might be key to your plot, it might be vital to the everyday life of your characters, but you can’t use it, because no doubt its owners will be greatly upset if you do. So, for TV, thousands of working hours are spent producing mockup apps and mockup websites for the characters to use on-screen.
An award surely has to go to the producers of Australian police drama Deep Water, a rather good drama series about gay hate murders in Sydney. Their murder victim was obviously going to be using apps such as Grindr to meet guys, but they couldn’t show it on-screen: so, they invented—or, I assume they invented—an app called Thrustr for him to use instead. Now there’s a name that’s even better than the real thing.
What really made me want to write about this, though, is the Netflix series The Stranger, released earlier this year. Its not-Google-honest website is rather tasteful and well-designed, the Google screen layout but with a logo of interconnecting blue dots and lines that could, just about, plausibly be a Google Doodle that isn’t quite legible enough to make out the words of. When it comes to apps, though: they have a whole bevy of them, to fulfil whatever magical device the plot needs at the time. A phone-tracking app that uses some sort of dark-mode map layer for Extra Coolness. An app to allow the organisers of illegal raves to, well, organise illegal raves anonymously, but that also tells you where its anonymous users are. Of course, all these tracking apps always track people perfectly. They always have a mobile data signal and a good GPS fix, even in the city centre. The map view always updates exactly in real time: I hate to think how much battery power they must be using up sending out all those continual location updates.
The Stranger is set in a genericised North-West England: Cheshire and Lancashire with the place-names filed off. Because of that, it has the usual issues any sort of attempt at a “generic landscape” always has when it uses very recognisable places. The characters somehow manage to catch a through train, for example, from the very recognisable Stockport station to the equally recognisable Ramsbottom station, despite one being a busy main-line junction and the other being a silent, deserted heritage line. Talking of trains, there was also a rather fun chase sequence around Bury Bolton Street yard, although the joyless side of me has to say that you really shouldn’t crawl under stock the way they were doing. Nor can you in real life lean against the buffers of the average Mark 1 carriage and stay as clean as the characters did. Anyway. I was saying how unrealistic the GPS-tracking apps on the characters’ phones were: the one that really made me laugh out loud was when one character says that, as a given car registration is a hire car, he’ll be able to hack into the hire firm’s vehicle telemetry and get its current location in the time it takes to boil a kettle.
Admittedly, I have specialist knowledge here, because I used to be in charge of the backend tech for one particular vehicle telemetry provider’s systems. But the whole idea: assuming that they can see from the VRN which hire firm owns the car, they then have to know which telemetry firm that particular hire firm uses, and then know how to get in. Unless you do happen to have a notebook of where every car hire firm gets their telemetry services, and then have backdoors or high-level login credentials to every system, which I suppose is just about plausible for a private investigator, you’re stuffed. Getting in without that? Whilst someone makes you a cup of tea? Not feasible, at all.
Yes, maybe I’m applying unreasonable standards here for keeping my disbelief suspended. It seemed to be a particularly bad example, though, of technology either being magically accurate or terribly broken according to the requirements of the plot at any given time. Does the plot need you to know exactly where someone’s phone is? Bang, there you go. Does it need a system to be breakable on demand within seconds? All passwords to be immediately crackable as long as the right character is doing the cracking? No problem. Oh well: at least their not-Google looked relatively sensible.
* They all used Chrome rather than Edge or IE, though. Things might be different now Chromium Edge is out.