CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
– Arthur C. Clarke
I don’t blame screenwriters and novelists for not thoroughly researching technology. Before I began writing about the tech industry, had I decided to write a techno-thriller about – oh, I don’t know, a city-wide, social media-driven version of Truth or Dare – I probably would have just Googled “the dark web,” read something like this BBC guide, and concluded that yes, it would be possible to have a game with thousands of people watching illegal activities on something resembling YouTube without law enforcement knowing anything about it.
That’s because like many writers, I would have been viewing my story’s game of Truth-or-Dare-meets-Pokémon-Go as a means to an end, a way to reflect on how our online interactions can lead us to dehumanize others in the name of entertainment – and in that sense, the new teen-oriented techno-thriller Nerve works surprisingly well (at least on me).
The movie follows a high school senior, Vee, played by Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece), over the course of a long night as she decides to become a “player” in the titular game, whose “watchers” quickly assign dares tying her fate to veteran Ian, played by Dave Franco (younger brother of James).
Of course, since I am now writing about the tech industry, I probably thought about certain elements behind Nerve (the game) more often than directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) or screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (American Horror Story) wanted me to, like…
Central to Nerve’s thriller elements is the repeated insistence, mentioned by many but particularly Vee’s hacker friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) that Nerve has no creator, and no data centre storing all of its user data. Instead, each new user’s mobile device becomes a new server, which…
There’s no logical way to finish that sentence. Did the writer and directors consider just how much data Nerve’s hundreds of thousands of watchers would generate by watching, liking, commenting, and daring its players? Facebook users, to cite the obvious comparison, generate around 600 TB per day – a good deal more than the 200 GB available on the highest-end Galaxy S7 Edge.
Encryption and User Privacy
Pokémon Go’s well-documented security concerns have nothing on Nerve, which automatically scans a user’s banking information, social media posts, online orders, and apparently any photo they’ve uploaded to the Internet to build a personal experience especially for them – like Vee meeting Ian because he’s reading her favourite book, To the Lighthouse – while somehow hiding their identity from public view.
The problem with this setup – aside from its lack of user authorization, a gross violation of privacy laws – is that as an online game requiring users to be constantly logged in, Nerve’s encryption system would be impossible to maintain. There’s a reason banks automatically sign you out if you leave your browser idle for too long: The longer you’re on a system, the easier it becomes for outside users to hijack your session.
To its credit, Nerve selectively remembers this fact during the climax, which involves hackers making bots do something I don’t think bots are capable of doing.
In lieu of a central creator, Nerve vaguely implies that a series of interconnected bots – or something – keep its title game running. Whatever it is, Nerve’s central platform can:
- Transfer money to and from users’ bank accounts;
- Ask watchers to suggest dares, which the code is immediately able to detect as having been successfully completed or failed;
- Give players dares that affect other players’ games;
- Provide automated audio instructions for said dares;
- Punish “snitches” – users who try revealing the game to law enforcement – by trapping them in a shipping container.
I’m assuming bots serve as the game’s central nervous system because at the end a group of hackers use them to turn the game’s user base against itself – though if bots were really as powerful as the movie makes it seem, I doubt their grammar would be nearly as smooth.
The “Dark Web”
To keep Nerve under the nose of law enforcement, the blockchain – or whatever keeps the game running – is located on the so-called “dark web,” that section of the Internet outside of Google’s jurisdiction where you can buy anything, legal and otherwise, known to mankind.
And logging in is apparently as simple as opening a new browser.
The problem is that security on the dark web isn’t based on encryption (see above), as the movie seems to think, but elusiveness: imagine having to browse a library relying only on the Dewey Decimal System instead of titles. Everything you’re looking for is still there, but you need to know exactly where it is.
If you do… well, yes, it can be as easy as opening a new browser – but for a game of Nerve’s scope to work every player would need to know its address, and what’s to stop a police officer from discovering the mobile game that dared someone to attempt pulling their gun from their holster?
As Pokémon Go has taught us, the combination of streaming, tracking, and plain old data use required by Nerve would drain your batteries long before the movie’s night is over – and neither Vee nor Ian are seen charging their phones or using emergency batteries.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Like many similar tales, Nerve uses technology as a means to an end – it wants to say something about the human condition – and in this, I believe it succeeds.
Surely you won’t be surprised to learn that Nerve no longer exists when the credits roll, but Vee’s solution is ingenious, and eerily plausible: she enlists her friends, and a group of hackers led by Tommy, to stage the ultimate dare – one of the game’s two finalists must shoot the other.
And they ask the watchers to approve it. The watchers overwhelmingly vote yes.
Naturally, those who vote no turn off the game in disgust. Those who do watch the other finalist appear to kill Vee, then receive an automated message revealing their name and saying they have been accomplices to a murder. They quickly log out, perhaps having learned a powerful lesson about how easy it can be to dehumanize others.
The platform on which they learned their lesson doesn’t matter. It could have been anything – magic, really.