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Columbia Pictures

11 Pivotal Technology Plot Points in The Net

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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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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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Big Questions
What Are Those Tiny Spots on Apples?
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The little pinprick spots on apples, pears, and potatoes are called lenticels (LEN-tih-sells), and they’re very important.

Plants need a constant stream of fresh air, just like people, and that “fresh air” means carbon dioxide. Flowers, trees, and fruit all take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. But unlike people, plants don’t have nostrils.

That's where a plant's lenticels come in. Each little speck is an opening in the fruit or tuber’s skin or the tree’s bark. Carbon dioxide goes in, and oxygen comes out. Through these minuscule snorkels, a plant is able to “breathe.”

Like any opening, lenticels are vulnerable to infection and sickness. In an apple disease called lenticel breakdown, a nutrient deficiency causes the apples’ spots to darken and turn into brown pits. This doesn’t hurt the inside of the fruit, but it does make the apple look pretty unattractive. In the equally appealing “lenticel blotch pit,” the skin around the apple’s lenticels gets patchy and dark, like a weird rash. 

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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