TelevisionWhat's changed since The X-Files: hacking, chat rooms and Satanic Panic
In the wake of The X-Files comeback news, Hopes&Fears puts plot points from the original series into 2015 to see how they'd play out... or not. What's new in computers, TVs and time travel theories?
On March 24th, Fox announced that they would be reviving The X-Files with its original creator Chris Carter and lead actors, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, for a special six-episode run. And the internet said, "amen." What will it be about? Will it continue the on-going mythology or will all of the episodes be standalone "monster-of-the-week" episodes? What writers will be involved? All we know is that shooting will begin this summer and no premiere date is set.
In the meantime, we can at least take a look at what's changed since the classic paranormal investigation show ended its television run back in 2002. Sure, cell phones would've gotten Mulder and Scully out of some jams after 1993, the year the show premiered), but today, everyone carries pocket-sized computers around. Climate change has become scarier than aliens or monsters. We now know who Deep Throat was, so that wouldn't make a great name for Mulder's anonymous informant. And no one trusts the government. Well, some things change and some things stay the same.
Here are some "new" things that would've made individual episodes of the original X-Files different or impossible.
The "Satanic Panic"
Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria began in the '80s and ended in the late '90s. This period has sometimes been referred to as the "Satanic Panic." There are many episodes of The X-Files that revolve around sinister Satanists and variations on this phenomenon, such as "Die Hand Die Verletzt" (Episode 14, Season 2).
J. Gordon Melton
Professor of American Religious History at Baylor University
Accusations of Satanic Ritual Abuse have all but disappeared. No evidence was found to collaborate the accusations back in the 1980s and 1990s and the psychological establishment began to frown upon people doing forgotten memory counseling. Also, some of the original cases turned out to be completely fraudulent.
The decrease in media coverage played a small role, but it was the more substantive work by researchers, psychological professionals, and law enforcement people that primarily killed it off. The McMartin case was also of primary importance.
The McMartin case refers to a landmark trial in which the administrators of a daycare in California were accused of abusing students. Allegations ranged from Satanic Rituals to children being flushed down toilets. One child identified Chuck Norris as his abuser. After seven years, all charges were dropped.
1996 study of Satanic
Ritual Abuse cases
Number of cases reviewed
Number of Cases found
to be rooted in fact or
corroborated by a witness
Hackers are better
It "Anasazi," (finale, Season 2) Mulder receives a DAT tape (it's like a USB drive mixed with a cassette tape) with the defense departments encrypted files on it from a hacker named Kenneth Soona aka “The Thinker”. The hacker is killed by the Cigarette Smoking Man. Mulder flies into a rage when finds out that the tapes are encrypted and he has no way of retrieving the information. Today, the hacker could have used encrypted communication software like TOR to send files or go through Wikileaks to tell the whole world about everything from Roswell to who really killed JFK.
We reached out to an Information Security Specialist to explain how The X-Files hacker could've gone about leaking his secrets today.
Information Security Specialist
He probably wouldn't have to meet Mulder in person, but everything else would have been the same. He would have probbaly stolen it on a thumb drive, plugged in into a laptop in a public WiFi, and used an anonymous email service via Tor to send it.
Internet speeds are faster, so unless he's sending a massive cache, he probbaly could have emailed it today.
Then he would have wiped the laptop, reinstalled it with something else, thrown out the thumb drive, and never touched any of that shit again. He'd have worn a baseball cap and generic clothing, as not to be well visible on cameras, chanted clothing in a bathroom with heavy traffic and disappeared into a crowd of normals exiting a coffee shop or leaving Bryant Park.
If you look at the Silk Road trial, or any other bust, the information security methods, encryption, Tor, were solid. It was ultimately the person making an operational failure that allowed law enforcement to move in. Ross Ulbricht literally kept a crime diary, encryption keys on his laptop, and worked in public so the Feds could grab his laptop and then decrypt everything. Tor, modern encryption, they were all solid.
As far as the government hacking you, they were doing it back then too. DES (Data Encryption Standard) was developed in the early '70s by IBM with the "help" of the NSA and was criticized at the time for being weakened by the NSA. Controls on exporting cryptography appeared at the start of the Cold War. It was done with the support of US allies against the Eastern Bloc. You still need to get approval from the US Deptartment of Commerce to export cryptographic technologies, though they loosened restrictions in the '90s. The IBM scientists in the '70s were right; the NSA intentionally weakened DES against brute force attacks, since they could afford the massive computers that were then necessary to break them. Cryptography and the devices around it count as munitions or dual-use goods. The one thing that irritates me about the infosec coverage is everyone's surprise, as if they weren't doing that. We were suspicious of it for years and now Snowden just went and proved it.
Electric chairs aren’t
really a thing anymore
In "The List" (Episode 5, Season 3), a death row inmate who was executed by electric chair in Florida haunts and kills five people who were involved in his death. No one has been executed by electric chair in Florida since 1999 due to public outcry following a prisoner's head bursting into flames. While the method hasn’t been banned, it is only used if it’s specifically requested by the prisoner. No one has in the last 16 years. The episode's plot could still "happen" but they would have to throw in the frivolous detail that the prisoner requested electrocution or go with Florida’s preferred method of institutionalized murder, lethal injection.
Milton Underwood Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University
The main reason Florida moved away from electrocution in 2000 was a lawsuit alleging that electrocution was unconstitutional and that lethal injection was a more humane method of execution, in the wake of several incidents in the 1990s (including a man’s head reportedly bursting into flames and another man’s shirt turning read with blood). It should also be noted, however, that the botched executions may have been due to incompetent staff rather than the electric chair.
Senior Program Director at Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights
Prior to the Florida Legislature adopting lethal injection as the state's primary method of execution during a special session in 2000 — convened largely in response to the U.S. Supreme Court agreeing to hear an appeal concerning whether Florida's method of execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment — three different Florida governors presided over at least three electrocutions during the '90s when flames reportedly shot out from the electrode attached to the inmates' heads, or other malfunctions occurred.
Interestingly, legislation was filed in anticipation of the 2012 regular state legislative session to eliminate lethal injection as a method of execution and substitute with firing squads, while offering electrocution as an option.
It didn't gain traction.
Number of executions
by electric chair in Florida
In "2Shy" (Episode 6, Season 3), Mulder and Scully hunt a man who lures women to murder via chat rooms. Today, chat rooms are virtually non-existent and he would most likely be using OkCupid or Tinder. The apps would be far more effective and give him a huge selection of victims to choose from, complete with psychological profiles. On the other hand, investigators would probably check out the victims online history and track the killer down much faster.
Odds are, if this nefarious character stuck to chat rooms to meet his victims today, he'd just meet other psychotics and serial killers.
Amy Van Doren
New York City
People no longer meet in online chat rooms. And now, strangers at the bar get confused if you try to talk to them in real life. Tinder seems to be the dating fad of the moment. With one million new users joining every week, the app makes 22 million matches a day in 140 countries. Tinder sees over a billion swipes a day! People have swiped until they have gone blind and are ravaged by carpel tunnel.
Some people feel a need to go back to a more human, more analog way of meeting their partner and they contact a professional service.
Online dating today
Number of Americans who have tried online dating in 2015
Annual revenue from online dating industry
Percent of marriages in the last year in which the couple met on a dating site
Percent of sex offenders who use online dating to meet people
TV signals are
In "Wetwired" (Episode 23, Season 3) people are driven into murderous dementia by a subliminal signal being generated on their tvs. Many televisions are fundamentally different these days and broadcast television in the U.S. is entirely digital as of February 17th, 2009. An HDTV displaying a digital signal would just be a series of pixels with no room for subliminal information. Without a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) display this diabolical plan would be much harder if not impossible to pull off.
Still, as of 2014, 41% of Americans have at least one CRT television in their home, so it's possible the plan would work on some people. But, Mulder wasn't affected due to his color blindness and he was able to recognize that people were going crazy. It's really an all or nothing kind of scheme.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that you will probably watch the new season of The X-Files on a different kind of TV than you did back in the day, or on no TV at all.
There are a lot of properties of analog television that distinguish it as richer territory than digital for suggesting latent violence and the unknown. The image is created by something called an “electron gun” within the television, which is literally firing electrons against the screen in the direction of the viewer to produce the image. In the process of rapidly drawing these interlaced fields, CRT televisions only show part of the analog television signal. There is some visual information that’s masked, but there’s also a blanking period while the set’s internals prepare to draw the next field. Meanwhile, sync pulses released during this period that keep everything working like clockwork.
In “Wetwired,” a nefarious actor has inserted additional information into the blanking period, creating hidden fields that induce a murderous trance. And generally, the electronic signal responds to interference and decay in a much more organic way: slide a mangled VHS tape into a player or run magnets alongside the set, and compare the results to harsh digital artifacting.
What’s funny is the supposedly hidden images that induce the murderous trance could totally be reproduced digitally, since they are just pictures inserted between television frames—at their core, analog and digital television are similar in that they are basically just producing a series of pictures, one after another, at a rapid pace that the eye registers as motion due to the phenomenon of persistence of vision. But what’s unique to analog television is the way that the invasive part of the signal is stowed away amid the blanking period and sync pulses.
I guess what would be analogous today is to embed it within the metadata that travels along with the image—renegade bits of malignant code. The artist James Hoff has worked with using viruses to corrupt iPhone ringtones, inducing unexpected harsh noises over the recognizable sounds. One might conceivably do something like this visually using a virus that created subtle variations to the image engendering the same “photic driving response” that the Lone Gunmen identify in “Wetwired.”
Time travel has
In "Synchrony" (Episode 19, Season 4), an old man has traveled back in time in order to alter the events of the future by killing time travel researchers with a freeze serum. When the old man encounters his younger self and explains what he's doing, they engage in a brawl that kills the young man and they both burst into flames. According to Wikipedia, the writers of "Synchrony" were inspired by an unspecified article in Scientific American.
Presumably, the writers were following the theory that the old man wouldn't be able to kill his young self without them both being destroyed, but newer research by scientists says that might not be true. According to a Scientific American article from 2014, new studies show that you could theoretically go "back in time" and kill yourself because it wouldn't be you at all, it would be you in an alternate universe.
We asked the author of that article to explain.
Editor at Scientific American
Depending on whom you ask, the idea would be like this: if they were even able to meet in the first place, that would indicate that one of the individuals is not exactly the future/past version of the other, but rather the future/past version of the other from a parallel universe (or, a bit more jargon-y, "elsewhere in the multiverse").
If all that holds true, then when they met in mortal combat, only one would die. And given that it's a researcher fighting a much more elderly version of himself, my bet would be on the younger one. It seems like all the older one has on his side is his mysterious ability to summon fire spirits, plus his dirty trick of injecting people with freeze serum... Man, what were those writers on when they came up with this one?
Stephen Hawking has a funny idea called the Chronology Protection Conjecture which basically says that the laws of physics simply prohibit time travel on macroscopic scales. There are lots of plausible mechanics from general relativity and quantum mechanics for how this prohibition might work, but the show's climax might be seen as a dumbed-down metaphorical example of Hawking's conjecture in action, with a perhaps unintentional nod towards matter-antimatter annihilation: If you manage to go back in time and give past self a hug, you will both instantly burst into flames and burn to ashes from some ineffable universal force.
The Grandfather Paradox
— is a proposed paradox of time travel. The paradox is described as follows: the time traveler goes back in time and kills his grandfather before his grandfather meets his grandmother. As a result, the time traveler is never born. But, if he was never born, then he is unable to travel through time and kill his grandfather, which means the traveler would then be born after all, and so on.
Despite the name, the grandfather paradox does not exclusively regard the impossibility of one's own birth. Rather, it regards any action that eliminates the cause or means of traveling back in time.