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Where have all the spy gadgets gone?

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One of my clearest memories as a kid is that moment in Thunderball when James Bond steps outside, slips on a real, working jetpack, and flies away. He looks stupid doing it because, apart from the Mandalorians and the Rocketeer, everyone looks stupid flying around in a jetpack. But the jetpack was a real prototype, the ease with which he put it on and slowly hovered away was real, and my love affair with Bond movies was suddenly real, too.

Since then, I’ve watched a lot of spy shows and films. And sure, I’ve appreciated ones like Slow Horses and The Recruit, which strive for a kind of realism, and I’ve watched a whole mess of Tom Clancy spy bro shows (largely on Amazon Prime). But my heart ultimately belongs to the spy shows full of weird gadgets. My favorite part of a film is that moment the Q-style characters give the hero their whole kit of cool tools to fight bad guys and they walk through all the weird functions that will likely be useful about 20 minutes before the end credits. But that kind of scene, and those gadgets, just aren’t as common as they used to be. It’s like they’ve disappeared, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

“I think what we expect to see in spy movies is something cutting edge,” Dr. Alexia Albion, of the International Spy Museum’s Curator of Special Projects, told me over the phone. “We want to see something that’s kind of a little bit ahead of its time, right? We want to be assured that our intelligence agencies are ahead.”

What Albion means is there’s a fine line between cool gadgets and absurd gadgets. And when you cross that line, the spy film starts to feel less like a spy film and more like a generic action flick. There’s a relatability required of our spy heroes and even their gadgets. For an example of what not to do, she points to the paragliding apparatus Pierce Brosnan’s Bond quickly builds and rides in Die Another Day.

Don’t worry, I also worked hard to forget it. So let’s take a moment to remember it together.

Bond builds a surfboard out of fuselage and rides a tsunami wave, and at no point in the entire sequence of events does it feel (or look) realistic. And when you put it next to that jetpack sequence in Thunderball, it feels even more egregious. Because as goofy as the jetpack in Thunderball is, it’s still based in reality. Bond is wearing a helmet that’s dorky but protective. He’s gliding through the air like an action figure on a string, but he’s gliding through the air on a real working jetpack. He’s not defying physics like Brosnan’s Bond but bending them just a touch.

Nowadays, we have tiny personal helicopters, and you’ll occasionally see a drone that works just a little smarter than it should in reality. But largely, spy films and TV shows have done away with goofy gadgets that are just on the cusp of reality. Increasingly it seems the most powerful tools in a spy’s arsenal are the ones they can pick up at Best Buy.

Which… kind of makes sense. We wear watches that can take phone calls and track our every movement. We carry phones as powerful as traditional computers (and sometimes just as capable) with the entirety of our lives packed in. You can even go buy a pair of smart glasses that, while ugly, do a decent amount of the stuff promised in spy films.

We have gotten to be pretty gadget savvy. So it feels more difficult to find that sweet spot of tech that’s close enough to reality without leaping into science fiction, which is where the hacker comes in. As Dr. Albion and I spoke, it became clear where the gadgets had all gone: they’d been subsumed by a new kind of Swiss army knife, a do-everything tech person.

And it’s not just the hackers who control computers via USB sticks and use Bluetooth sniffers and watches that can kill anyone’s wireless connection. That’s stuff many of us can do right now if we’re shopping at the right DIY stores and hanging out in the right discords. Hackers in the spy genre have developed god-like skills. They “can do pretty extraordinary amazing things,” Dr. Albion told me.

And when you stop and think about it, I bet half a dozen “hackers” come to mind. True Lies has one, and so does the Mission Impossible franchise. Even less spy-fi shows like Slow Horses and Killing Eve count super hackers amongst their cast. In the spy genre, you now can’t shake a stick without hitting someone capable of hacking into every mainframe ever mentioned.

And the wonder of what those hackers can do with a computer can sometimes hit that same sweet spot that James Bond tossing on a jetpack can. We’ve all now seen, again and again, in the news what our information can do when it’s in the wrong hands. So there’s something both disquieting and comforting about an intelligence community full of people who sift through that data like savants and only ever use it for good.

There’s not that much difference between a spy who dons good-looking smart glasses with incredible facial recognition technology and one who pops open a computer stolen from a coffee shop and hacks the NSA. Though, if you’re like me, you’re probably more willing to believe in the hacker than in the idea of someone making smart glasses that look good.

But there’s one big issue I have with replacing gadgets with hackers: they’re not nearly as fun to look at. Watching someone type on a computer screen is never going to be as compelling as a jetpack or the wireless pager being used in 1963 in From Russia With Love or even those aforementioned spyglasses. It’s not even as fun to watch as a fake tooth filled with poisonous gas. Hackers, even the overly powerful ones found in most modern spy shows, might be more believable than a jetpack — but they’re not nearly as entertaining.



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