Friday, April 01, 2016

Making technology real

Ever notice how some shows are more realistic than others in their portrayal of technology? Consider the popular TV series “24”, an entertaining but laughably implausible program, where, satellite imagery captures absolutely everything that happens anywhere in real time, and where the government can easily decrypt any cipher. On the other hand, shows like The Good Wife and Mr. Robot clearly utilized expert consultants to achieve more genuine descriptions of technology. I think movies, such as the recent “The Martian” and my old favorite, “Sneakers”, which employ expert consultants, have a more legitimate feel, even for lay audiences, and the final product is better when the use of technology and science is realistic.

Three days ago, I was approached by movie producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard of Imagine Entertainment with an offer that will be hard to refuse. They are working on a film project about a team of hackers that manages to subvert the primaries of both parties in a US Presidential election. I’ve been asked to consult with the screenwriters so that their portrayal of the hackers and their activities passes the “sniff test” as they call it. In other words, they don’t want techies to cringe when they see the movie.

Without spoiling the plot (which would result in huge sanctions due to the strongly worded NDA I had to sign), the story is quite fascinating. The hackers are able to systematically infiltrate the underlying tallying mechanism used in every state, despite the wide variety of systems. Even the caucuses are not safe. On the Republican side, the system is rigged so that a bigoted, childish, and boastful billionaire demagogue runs away with the election. The hackers are so skilled that they manage to also rig exit polls so that nobody even questions whether the results are legitimate. On the Democratic side, the hackers are more careful, and keep their candidate in second place, and orchestrate a surge midway through the primary season. They manage to keep an unlikely, over-the-hill, radically liberal, self-declared socialist in the hunt, by carefully manipulating the primaries and caucuses such that his rise seems gradual.

According to the script, alongside the hackers is a well-orchestrated hijacking of the media, whose coverage feigns outrage at the success of the two surprising candidates, while at the same time providing  just enough cover to the story so that the public believes it. Word is that Larry David is being considered for the role of the Democratic candidate, but the studio is struggling to find someone to play the Republican. Perhaps the character is just not credible enough. Rumor has it that Charlie Sheen is angling for the job, but Imagine Entertainment feels he is too likeable.

The producers have not shared the ending with me yet, and I’m dying to see how it turns out, but I have to say, that making this scenario believable is the biggest challenge I have ever faced. For some reason they insist on paying me in small denominations of unmarked bitcoin, deposited to an untraceable Cuban account. The coins are only valid on April 1 in odd numbered years.