What You Learn About Tech From Watching All 456 Law & Order Episodes

20 pounds of DVDs, 319 hours of tape, 11,000 screenshots: how the ultimate binge-watching project documented the invisible culture of computing.
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The first computer in Law & Order that is turned on. Season 1, Episode 9. (NBC)

Sometime soon after Netflix's streaming service launched, Jeff Thompson found himself watching episode after episode of Law & Order. It was so easy. An episode would end and he'd click "next." We've all been there. You can watch a lot of Law & Order that way.

But Thompson's approach was different than your average binge-TV viewer's. Thompson brought an archivist's flair to his hours watching. As he'd go, he'd screenshot "oddities": scenes taken from a first-person perspective, or those portrayed in an unusual split-screen fashion.

After a bit, most of the oddities melted away and just one thing—one single thing—kept popping out of the frame to grab Thompson's attention: computers. There's a computer. There's another. And there's another. He kept screenshotting them. "It didn’t take long," Thompson wrote to me, "to realize this should be extended to an exhaustive project."

So in 2012 Thompson applied for, and received, a commission from Rhizome, an organization in New York City that supports work at the intersection of arts and technology.

And that's when his work really began.

Thompson set out to document every single computer that appears in Law & Order over the course of the series' run. He ended up finding about 2,500 of them. He took five screenshots of each instance, which means that, all told, Thompson collected 11,000—yes, you read that right: 11,000—screenshots. Which, he admits, "sounds pretty insane." (The best of those screenshots, one per computer appearance, will eventually be published to Thompson's Tumblr http://computersonlawandorder.tumblr.com/.)

To understand just how "insane" this undertaking this was, let's begin with the basics: Law & Order ran for 20 years. It is tied with Gunsmoke for the longest-running live-action show of all time. There are 456 episodes. When Thompson received the complete DVD box set he ordered from NBC (Netflix's quality was too unreliable), it weighed in at 20 pounds. Thompson suspects that NBC hadn't mailed all 120 DVDs together too often: "They shipped it to me and they seemed to have no idea how to pack it, because it came with all the boxes all torn up and stuff," he told me. (The complete set, which cost $700, was purchased with funds from the Rhizome commission.)

Now, each Law & Order episode is around 45 minutes long. To watch all of them would take about 319 hours, or about two straight months of watching 40 hours per week.

But that's not how Thompson did it. Thompson parsed out his Law & Order consumption over a one-and-a-half-year period, during which time he watched about an episode a day, and sometimes five or six on a weekend. He watched these episodes, not like a casual Law & Order viewer (Thompson, after all, is no casual viewer) but at 150 percent speed, reducing each episode to a mere 30 minutes, "which," Thompson admits, "sounds kind of crazy but it's totally watchable that way. It did drive my wife crazy, in the background, but ... it saved me over 100 hours of watching time. So it was kind of obvious that that was the way to go."

Looking back, Thompson says that for the first 10 seasons or so, the project was new and exciting. "After that, it became more and more of a drag," he told me. "By the end it was really just work."

"This kind of binge watching requires specialized equipment," Thompson told me. He custom-built himself a device to capture the screenshots as he went. "I would touch it and it would interface with some software I wrote that would pause the video and take five sequential screenshots and then continue playing." The software would automatically tag the images with the episode number and where in the episode the image was from. (Jeff Thompson)

Law & Order, Thompson says, is in some ways a perfect artifact for exploring the history of our relationship to computers. For one, the show's run covers what is perhaps the significant period for this relationship, the two decades during which computers arrived at and gradually became central features of our lives. But Thompson says that the show's value is more than that. It's "also the format of the show: It's ripped from the headlines. It's meant to mirror things that are happening right now, to be really reflective of culture."

Additionally, unlike other crime procedurals, Law & Order, in contrast with CSI, tends to give a pretty realistic portrayal of our technological capabilities. Thompson said there are really only two exceptions to this: the classic "zoom and enhance" trick, which works way better on TV than in reality, and the elegance of software such as facial-recognition programs. "The real thing often is really boring looking, or really technical," Thompson says. For the show, they hire a designer who makes software that looks like what your "mom might think facial-recognition software would look like." 

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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