Saturday, 17 March 2012


Yesterday, I was sifting through some of my old DVDs (funny how even the term "DVD" now seems archaic in this digital age!), and found my copy of WarGames, the 1983 film about a teenager who inadvertently hacks into the US defence system, and almost triggers World War 3.  It got me thinking about my own shifting attitudes towards some of the issues which are thrown up by the movie.

In 1983, WarGames very much rode the "Zeitgeist", tapping into debate and anxiety triggered by the threat of nuclear war, and the increasing role of technology and computers in our lives.  The film was pertinent for me in both respects, as I was just beginning to become interested in computing, like most schoolboys of my generation.  Also, around that time I was flirting with CND, attending a meeting and mingling with a few members.

I later reverted to a more hawkish stance, and retained this until just a couple of years ago. I still acknowledge the imperatives and realities of the Cold War, and although it is tempting to conclude that the multilateralists "won" the argument, I am much more sympathetic now to the sentiments which the unilateralists were expounding in the early 1980s. I tend to question everything now, and would be much less easily taken in by the propaganda.

On the question of hacking, which WarGames also deals with, there was a feeling back then, and up until comparatively recently, that its exponents represented an inherent menace, and a danger to stability and order. I too subscribed to this view until recently. Now, hackers are increasingly seen in some quarters as protecting the liberty and interests of citizens, by exposing mis-deeds of officialdom, and combating centres of authority and power.  Of course, we would certainly not want hackers to trigger World War 3!

My feelings towards the military personnel also differ from before.  Before, I would have been reverential towards them, and other representatives of the state and authority.  These days my view is not exactly contemptuous, but definitely less deferential.  I am suspicious of motives, and assumptions of primacy, albeit still regarding these structures as necessary in some shape or form.  In 1983, the alternative was insidious, but legitimate questions still need to be posed.  Trust has to be earned, and unquestioning obedience is misguided and dangerous. It is foolhardy to put anyone on a pedestal.

Turning back to the movie itself, I thought it was unusual, in that it worked on several levels. Appealing to a younger audience, because of the technology and adventure elements, and empathy with the David Lightman character, but also posing questions about mankind's relationship with technology, and moral quandaries concerning our destructive tendencies.

Some might argue that the issues in this film are less relevant in an era when the Cold War is just a memory, and when computers are integral to all of our lives. However, the issues and dilemmas continue to fascinate and vex. Perhaps the themes are still more applicable to our current situation than we would care to admit....

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