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11 Pivotal Technology Plot Points in The Net

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

It’s been 20 years since Sandra Bullock found herself the victim of dial-up identity theft in 1995’s The Net, one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts at a “cyber-thriller.” While you might expect the film’s depiction of technology to appear dated, some of it was eerily prescient: Bullock’s character, Angela Bennett, books airline tickets and orders pizza online; in a chat room, her virtual friends have avatars. (She also inexplicably infects both Macs and PCs with the same virus. No one’s perfect.)

"The computer has so much screen time that we saw it as a character,” says Todd A. Marks, a longtime video consultant and the movie's display graphics supervisor. “We often had just two or three seconds in a cutaway to point the audience toward what we wanted them to see." We asked Marks to walk us through some of the pivotal tech points in the film.

1. The Layout

Bullock plays a systems analyst who works from a home office cluttered with books, hardware, and peripherals. The production populated the room with both Macintosh and PC equipment, though Marks estimates 90 percent of the devices seen in the movie are from Apple. “Our preference was to use Mac stuff," he says. "It would do what we wanted when we wanted. For certain ‘hacking’ stuff, she’d swing over and use her PC." 

Even though the film was produced by Sony, few of their products are visible. “They had so much theft of Sony stuff on other productions that they wouldn’t give us anything.”

2. Acting While Typing

“Some actors can’t really act and type at the same time," Marks says. “Sandra could.” Normally, Marks and his team would be on the opposite side of a wall with access to her monitors so they could hit the right keystrokes or move the mouse cursor in case she missed a step. (The custom software would respond to "live" commands.) “Back then you could pull up a window, so we’d chat with her in between takes. It was a little like an early form of texting.”

3. Online Pizza Ordering

Angela is a loner, which prompted Marks and other members of the consulting crew to think up ways for her to interact with the outside world. Her online pizza order—including options for size and toppings—foreshadows the launch of e-delivery services from chains like Pizza Hut and Domino's years later. “At the time, a pizza place in San Francisco was taking orders via email, but it wasn’t interactive. It’s always fun to see something you predicted actually taking place.”

4. Airline Travel

In order to book her vacation, Angela heads for an online travel booking agency and even selects her seating assignment. Marks recalls that some people may have been able to confirm reservations online at the time, but nothing else. “You could maybe email a travel agent. It’s hard to know exactly where these ideas came from, but we read a lot of tech magazines to see where things were heading.”

5. Audible Chat Rooms

Forever alone, Angela spends time chatting with online buddies who sport tiny avatars that weren’t too common at the time. Despite the fact that she isn't blind, she runs a text-to-speech program that croaks out audio of what other users are typing, a way for the audience to get an audio cue. “It can’t always be just the audience staring at the screen. She’s also repeating some of what she’s typing. That way, you don’t have to read the entire thing.”

6. Wolfenstein 3D


Angela’s productivity killer of choice is the popular first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, though it's not called by name and was slightly altered since she was supposed to be beta-testing it. “It was a pre-built sequence made for us that would open and close at the right time.” Why Wolfenstein? “It was what we could get the rights to,” says Marks.

7. Floppies

Much of the infecting and deactivating of viruses in The Net is facilitated with three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks, even though CD-ROMs were in use at the time. “There’s a CD-ROM drive in her tower computer, but back then you had to open a tray to put one in and they weren’t rewritable. It didn’t really work for the story.”

8. Broadband without Broadband

Graphics are very quick to load in The Net, which may have misled new PC owners who had to wait 45 minutes for a picture to appear onscreen. “You have to be a little bit ahead of what’s possible," says Marks. "You can’t have someone sit for 10 seconds while something loads. Sometimes the pages would appear in pieces, which was our way of showing information was still in ‘chunks’ and not instant.”

9. Extreme Hacking Skills

When Angela wants to find one of her chat buddies, she uses a WHOIS program in “UN X,” which provides their real name and IP address in milliseconds. “I can program something where she has to open a program, click this, type that, open this, bounces around, types that, and then onscreen it’s just her face and a cut to the program already open. You can spend all night doing that but editing will take it out.”

10. Static IP Address

As computer-savvy viewers have pointed out to Marks ever since the film’s release, the IP addresses displayed are too long. “People were like, ‘Oh, there are too many numbers.’ Well, yeah! It’s like a phone number. You can’t use a real one. Actually, the phone number used for the pizza order was. It was the producer’s.”

11. The Incredible Melting Virus

Real viruses are usually covert, burrowing into systems and doing damage before they’re detected. Clearly, that’s not very cinematic. When a computer gets a bug in The Net, the screen usually begins to pixelate. “Obviously, it’s not how viruses work, and it was one of my least favorite things, but you have to convey it to the audience. It’s [meant to be] a virus eating through the layers of information.”

Released the same year as Hackers, The Net made a respectable $51 million in theaters; Marks has continued working as a video playback supervisor, including duties on Danny Boyle's upcoming biopic of Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender.

“I’m certainly proud of the work we did on The Net,” he says. “One of the things we’d tell people is that it’s a movie, not a documentary. It’s always a fine line between accurate and visually interesting. I have people who would email and go, ‘Oh, that’s stupid.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I know.’ But you have to do it in order to get through the story.”

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A Rare Apple Lisa 1 Computer Is Up for Auction on eBay
Dave Jones, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Dave Jones, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For superfans of vintage Apple products, a working Apple Lisa 1 is the holy grail of collector's items. First released in 1983, the pioneering computer (the first to feature a graphic interface and a mouse) was a commercial failure and only sold 100,000 units, very few of which survived to the present day. But an eBay seller is offering up the super-rare opportunity to own one, as DesignTAXI reports.

The computer in question, selling for more than $55,000 as of January 8, is in mint condition. According to the listing, it has only been turned on a few times.

A Lisa 1 computer
professorinschubert, eBay

As you can see in the video below, everything seems to be in working order.

The seller estimates that there are only 20 to 100 Lisa 1s left in the world. And even for a Lisa 1, this one is a rare machine. Lisa computers, reportedly named after Steve Jobs’s daughter (though there have been some other theories about the name), were the only machines Apple released with its doomed Twiggy disk drives—a faulty format that turned out to be incredibly unreliable, leading to the product’s downfall. Apple then released the Lisa 2 with standard 3.5-inch floppy disk drives, offering customers free upgrades for their Lisa 1 Twiggy drives.

Since most customers jumped at the chance to make their $10,000 computer ($24,700 in today's dollars) run properly, Lisas that still have their original Twiggy drives are incredibly hard to find. The Lisa 1 on sale still has its twin Twiggy drives though, and they work, at least as well as the drives ever worked.

Whether the seller will actually get his $55,000 is questionable. In 2010, a similar Lisa 1 sold for just $15,000. But the model seems to have gained a lot of value since then, since one sold for $50,000 in November 2017.

[h/t DesignTAXI]

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Big Questions
Why Do Honeycrisp Apples Cost So Much?
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iStock

Apples to apples is no longer a valid comparison. As gastronomic writer Sarah Jampel at Food52 has observed, shoppers who prefer a premium fruit experience by opting for Honeycrisp apples can pay up to four times as much as they would for other varieties. When did Granny Smiths become the RC Cola to Honeycrisp’s Coke?

According to Jampel, the answer invokes the old law of supply and demand. There’s plenty of demand for the apple, but prices get engorged when there isn't enough to go around.

The scarcity is a result of the Honeycrisp’s eccentric nature. Introduced commercially in 1991 after being invented by University of Minnesota scientist David Bedford, who cross-pollinated seeds to create a more durable and winter-resistant apple, the Honeycrisp tree demands very specific soil and maintenance requirements. The fruit can ripen at various times, necessitating more frequent harvests; the skin is thin and delicate, so they must be trimmed off by hand. Many of the trees are so delicate they require a trellis [PDF] to support their branches.

All the extra labor means more time and money—the latter of which is passed along to the consumer.

Growers who didn’t anticipate the surging popularity of Honeycrisps were also caught off-guard. As trees can take up to six years to bear enough fruit for commercial purposes, the number of trees currently producing isn’t really proportionate to the level of demand.

That will change as more are planted, although it might be a little while before the Honeycrisp proves to be on the same economic footing as its Red Delicious counterpart. Before you celebrate a cheaper version, remember that growers looking to feed the market might opt to grow the apple in less-than-perfect conditions that could affect its famously crunchy taste. Enjoy it while you can.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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