The internet has been an inextricable part of daily life for the last two decades, and has become an unavoidable part of movie and TV show plots over the last 10 years in, particular. But hard as they’ve tried to create a compelling representation, filmmakers have still not yet figured out how to portray the internet, and its lightning-speed data transfers on the big screen.
Most recently, the trailer for Oliver Stone’s Snowden offered up a new vision of the ‘web’, complete with exploding lines and strings of light bouncing across the screen. The jury is out on the film until the fall, but its attempt to present the internet on screen is very underwhelming — and this is a movie that is all about covert data transfers. Why can’t we seem to get the internet right on film?
“Data visualization is the ability to show relationships between complex topics or points that we typically wouldn’t find otherwise,” says Wesley Grubbs, founder of data visualization studio Pitch Interactive. “It basically allows us to explore relationships or trends or movements of things.”
Its not quite that simple, though.
“When you’re trying to just represent the internet onscreen,” says Grubbs, “that’s kind of like trying to just represent love. Its complicated.”
Complex doesn’t even really begin to scratch the surface of the internet. It’s more or less endless, composed of many corners, connections, nooks and crannies — and the internet we interact with is a fraction of the massive network that makes the digital world go ‘round.
“For me, connections via the ether and networks are a matter of space,” says Santiago Giraldo of CartoDB, a company that works in data mapping and visualizations. “Servers across the world are responsible for structuring and maintaining this information across everything from personal computers, government operations, banks, invisible network infrastructures, what is known as the ‘deep web.’ Really the internet as you know it is a small piece of a much larger infrastructure.”
Its not just some big, invisible network of lights, though — there are tangible, physical elements of the internet, and that might be the place to start. The 2012 film The Fifth Estate, about Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, depicted the internet as a gigantic room, with people inside of it, but was far too high concept and abstract — not to mention dramatic — to register as realistic.
“It’s not so much this abstract series of translucent lights and wires,” says Giraldo, “but physical servers, connected to other servers, connected to computers, transferring information all across the world. To represent this, I would use a map showing where the cores of this infrastructure are located, then map networks across physical space in a color coded pattern to understand how these networks intertwine and who they serve.”
It’s not just the mechanics of showing how the internet functions that poses a obstacle, though. The other big problem might very well be us.
Or rather, the absence of us.
On a fundamental level, films are about people. They’re about characters, not documents or servers. But visualizations and visual effects that try to illustrate the internet take characters out of the story, and that’s an issue.
As these in-film visualized moments disconnect from us, they feel less human, irrelevant, and unimportant. The intention behind these visualizations is — or, at least, should be — to clarify, to give the technical aspects of these concepts some meaning in the broader context of the story. But that’s not really what we see. Instead, we tend to see flashy, futuristic-looking graphics that mean…uh, mostly nothing. And therein lies the problem.
“The internet really consists of so many different kinds of things, but it’s about information being transferred… you’re transmitting information back and forth when you really boil it down,” says Grubbs. “That takes all humanity out of it, that explanation, so you probably want to inject some form of humanity into it.”
How might filmmakers do that? A little bit of re-angling might be a way to start, and scaling back on The Matrix graphics to focus on a few technical aspects that are most crucial to the story.
“You try to find stories about the internet that you want to communicate,” says Grubbs. The internet is more than just web pages, and “it’s [about] trying to find a storyteller or somebody who can build a narrative around the significance of that.
Thinking of the internet as a series of pages or inboxes, wires and tubes isn’t interesting, and doesn’t make for a good element of the story. Any attempt to represent a vast, powerful and invisible network without a humans or a narrative is likely to fall flat. Instead, we need to see the network humanized and we need to see how people use it. Its existence isn’t compelling, the effects are.
“It’s really just computers and wires, but without the human element none of it matters,” says Giraldo. “The most important thing here I think has to do with who is creating and sending this information, who is receiving it, how is the information being used, and most importantly how are both parties being affected. The technological mediator is impressive but difficult to conceptualize in this context.”
When it comes down to it, data visualization isn’t just for show, it’s about communicating, building recognition and developing a story.
“For us as a studio and what we do,” says Grubbs, “its really about how do we communicate complex information, how do we help people remember it and kind of build a story around it.”
In the context of films, that story may very well come from a simple element that the audience is likely to recognize.
Be it emails traveling from inbox to inbox or files making their way from one pair of eyeballs to another, its clear that a big problem with the representation of the internet in film isn’t technical — it’s human. For all of the many advancements of the last nearly twenty years, it seems like filmmakers could stand to go a little less Snowden and a little more You’ve Got Mail.