Visualising the internet on film and television

16 May 2013

Over the course of our research in to films and television series dealing with identity management, we’ve watched a lot of DVDs. And one of the things we noticed was that the internet rarely went quietly about its business, as it does in real life; instead, the virtual world was typically visualised.


Once we started thinking about it, we realised that this wasn’t something new – in 1982 Tron took us into a cyberspace that was simultaneously new and exciting yet reassuringly familiar, with road-like grids. Hackers did something very similar in the mid-1990s. By then the internet was not so alien a concept to audiences, with the phrase “information superhighway” appearing all over the place; the way we ourselves travel provided a natural metaphor via which to imagine this invisible exchange of information. Little surprise, then, that it hasn’t really gone away. In the recent web series H+, a world map is overlayed by a network diagram to show how everybody, anywhere, is connected.

In H+ the internet is not just something our computers pick up, but something people connect to through implants in their bodies. This gives the filmmakers the chance to do something a bit different – by turning our internal networks of veins and nerves in to electrical cabling. (In this instance, the existing similarity may help to unnerve viewers, as much as anything, since the series starts with billions being wiped out by a network virus.)

In gathering our sample we noticed that the number of films and series which revolve around (issues relating to) identity management has been rising rapidly since the start of the 1990s, when the internet was big news. From very few films in the 1980s, titles such as The Net, Hackers, Sneakers, Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix began to appear. A little over a decade later it was the turn of biometric technology, with the release of Minority Report, Code 46 and A Scanner Darkly all following the forerunner, Gattaca, which came out in 1997.

If filmmakers are following – and pre-empting – technology, it is probably no surprise to find that technology cannot go ignored on screen. Online is increasingly where our lives take place (the distinction between offline and online is fast diminishing), and so it is where the action is. The video we’ve put together also shows clips from Cybergeddon, a recent web series sponsored by Symantec; during the climactic scenes, in which the lead character halts a globally targeted web virus, we see numerous shots “of the internet” turning red as it is infected and then being restored.

Just for fun I made an edited version of this action, with all of these shots removed. It’s interesting to think about the impact this has on viewers: is there added tension because you can’t see what’s happening? Or is that merely frustrating?

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