Pop Culture Figures Out the Internet, Part I: The Foresight of ‘Ghostwriter’

After my appreciate of Ghostwriter last week, my friend Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, pointed out that not only is the show a model of race and class diversity, but even thought it was filmed before the Internet made its commercial debut in 1995, it was a brilliantly prescient look at the way we’d come to live our lives online. She’s discussed that further here, and for the rest of the week, I’ll be taking a look at some of the pop culture artifacts from the earliest days of the internet to see what we got right, and what we didn’t.

By Erica Newland

Last week, Alyssa wrote about Ghostwriter, a PBS children’s series about thoroughly normal kids from Brooklyn who solve neighborhood mysteries with the help of their eponymous ghost friend. Although it aired from 1992-1995, Ghostwriter works surprisingly well today: in many ways it is a thoroughly 21st century show, and not just because the title character is something of a search engine for the real world. In making computers a central part of the Ghostwriter characters’ lives, the show anticipated the role that the Internet would play in our lives and our television shows.

Television today is awash with Internet-themed episodes. Last season, Brick from The Middle developed an Internet addiction, Liz Lemon of 30 Rock was impugned on a Jezebel-like website, and Chief Webber discovered Twitter on Grey’s Anatomy. But even in these episodes, digital devices and the connectivity they enable are gimmicks that drive a storyline, not the third limbs and backup brains that they have become in the real world. With a couple exceptions, like The Big Bang Theory and iCarly, remarkably few characters on TV while away hours reading blogs, cement relationships over instant messager, make important life decisions via email, or Google a contested point in the middle of an argument.

It can be tough to turn scenes like these into good television—and it’s an open question whether we really want our on-screen doppelgangers as chained to their devices as we are. But the brains behind Ghostwriter deserve extra credit for figuring out a way to turn computer use into entertaining TV.

Computers figure into Ghostwriter’s plot just four minutes into the series’ first episode. Jamal Jenkins, the main character, is typing away on his PC when Ghostwriter appears for the first time. A boxy CRT monitor quickly emerges as the best medium for communicating with Ghostwriter, and something akin to instant messaging becomes the primary mode for talking to him. Throughout the series, Ghostwriter often feels like that close friend you chat with daily over IM but rarely see in real life. Over fifteen years later, it’s hard to find a TV series that so naturally incorporates a relationship that’s based mostly online.

Deaf and mute ghosts aside, the makers of Ghostwriter deftly integrate computers into the lives of the characters. Sure, the show has its share of analog moments (the team uses a card catalog to locate a book about how computers work, pen pals communicate through snail mail, and Jamal’s modem sings the dial-up song, but characters are also shown composing stories, letters, and high school application essays on the computer. The actors perfectly capture the frustration of sitting around a single computer, trying to write a document as a group, swapping the keyboard back and forth. They play computer games, print computer-generated images, spend time in computer class, and hang out in their middle school’s well-equipped computer lab.

Even Ghostwriter’s own token technology-themed case demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the new opportunities and challenges presented by the Internet (which only went commercial two months after the show’s finale). A hacker known as Max Mouse is attacking the computers at Zora Neale Hurston Middle School and as the team tries to track down the hacker, they connect to the Internet with Jamal’s new modem, log in to bulletin boards, and try to trace the locations of other users.

When Max Mouse’s actions nearly result in the death of a young child, the show grapples with the still-unresolved question of how to proportionately punish Internet crimes relative to their real-world counterparts. Yet Ghostwriter understands that the Internet offers more than just a playground for criminals. A hacker and student played by a pre-teen Julia Stiles goes so far as to offer members of the Ghostwriter team a Barlow-esque description of cyberspace: “It’s a world where you’re judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like. A world where curiosity and imagination equals power.” (Extra points to Ghostwriter for making the school’s two best hackers female):

Ghostwriter could hold its ground against any 21st century series, but it’s especially remarkable considering how slow other contemporary shows were to understand the importance of the internet. Seinfeld was cancelled in 1998, three years after Ghostwriter ended its run. But while successively more modern Macintosh computers sat in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, we only see Jerry using the computer during one of the show’s 180 episodes. Seinfeld may have been a show about nothing, but it missed that theme being writ large on the new medium growing up around it.