HACK THE PLANET
The week of August 2, 2015

How cyberthriller ‘The Net’ predicted the future of the Web

By James Crugnale

When The Net premiered 20 years ago this week, filmgoers were astounded by the potential of the Internet to drastically change their lives in irrevocable ways. I’m referring, of course, to the promise of being able to order a pizza online.

In the cult cyberthriller, Sandra Bullock stars as a systems analyst whose world is thrown into chaos after her identity is stolen. The film captured the creeping unease many felt about this powerful, startling technology at a time when most people outside of academia and the military were just beginning to log on. According to Pew Research Center, only 18 million American homes had modem-equipped computers, and just a fraction of them were using the World Wide Web at the time of the film’s release.

But The Net is perhaps best remembered for its opening scene. Before logging in to Cyber Chat and setting one of her monitors to display a crackling fire—not yet Netflix’s Fireplace for Your Home—Bullock’s character, Angela Bennett, places an order on pizza.net: “We deliver the best pizza in Cyberspace!” She clicks the size, selects the crust style, adds some toppings—not unlike the Domino’s Pizza Mogul app , only two decades ahead of its time—then goes about her evening.

“We certainly pushed the envelope of what would later become true, which is more people would stay home and that’s all that they would do.”

On the occasion of The Net’s 20th anniversary, I caught up with the film’s computer/video coordinator, Harry Jarvis, and Todd Marks, the display graphics supervisor, to reflect on the prescience of that pivotal scene.

“We had to come up with something that was practical, not too ridiculous; something she could potentially find that wasn’t this long hacking thing,” explained Marks. “The whole thing about the pizza, it all reinforced the point at the beginning where Sandra’s character Angela is somewhat of a recluse. She works at home, so the people at the company she works for have never met her, they’ve only spoken with her over the phone or through chat.”

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Director Irwin Winkler had Marks and Jarvis team up with San Francisco computer consultants Alex and Harold Mann to make the script believable. In the film, Bullock has a dual-monitor setup, chats online, and plays Wolfenstein 3D.

“We certainly pushed the envelope of what would later become true,” Marks said, “which is more people would stay home, and that’s all that they would do.”

“That scene seemed outrageous at the time, yet so mundane now,” Jarvis added. “There was no way to do that [order pizza online] at the time, so we had to [with the writers] find something that seemed plausible, if a stretch. Aspirational, if not yet actual. And then figure how we thought it might look visually and make a director sequence that accomplished that.”

“That scene seemed outrageous at the time, yet so mundane now.”

Prior to filming, there were some early rumblings of online pizza ordering. In August 1994, Pizza Hut and software company Santa Cruz Operation announced an experimental pilot program, PizzaNet, that allowed computer users in Santa Cruz, Calif., with Internet access and the Mosaic Web browser to order pizza from their nearest franchise (though the restaurant would still call you back to verify the order) and have it delivered to their houses. For most people back then, the notion that you could simply log in to your computer, make a few clicks, and have a pizza pie delivered to your house was pure science fiction.

Compared to Pizza Hut’s limited delivery portal, The Net’s vision of a pizza delivery website was a fairly high-tech operation, with many highly customizable features. In the film, Bassett orders a 20-inch pie with anchovies, garlic, and extra cheese.

“I worked with Harold and Alex Mann to design that,” Marks said, “and we went through different rounds of what you would see, and what kind of information is there when you click on this; the size of the pizza changes and the type of toppings, and it would automatically tally the price.”

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It still took many more years for online pizza ordering to catch up to The Net’s vision—keep in mind, Amazon.com launched to the public the same month the film came out—but the advancement of the Internet and pizza have been intertwined ever since.

It took years for online pizza ordering to catch up to The Net’s vision, but the advancement of the Internet and pizza have been intertwined ever since.

The first item ever ordered with Bitcoin, the digital cryptocurrency, is thought to have been a Papa John’s pizza, delivered in 2010. At the peak of Bitcoin’s value, the cost of the pizza—10,000 bitcoins—was worth $750,000. Now there’s a site, Pizzaforbitcoins.com, that simplifies the process.

“Pizza is the Esperanto of the Internet, a universal language that anybody can understand,” observed FirstWeFeast’s Regan Hofmann.

In fact, delivering pizza to strangers online has become something of an Internet pastime. It’s a goodwill gesture in the hands of Reddit community Random Acts of Pizza and a favorite prank of 4chan jerks.

The technology has advanced to the point where you can order a Domino’s pizza using emoji or through its voice-activated system, or use Push for Pizza, a Yo-like app that reduces pizza delivery down to a single button. You can even 3D-print a pizza. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is constantly testing new delivery gimmicks, like its real-life Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pizza launcher.

Twenty years on, Marks remains proud of his contribution to the popularization of pizza on the Web.

“It wasn’t like we were predicting the iPhone,” Marks said. “But we were predicting where the technology would go, and went there ahead of the curve.”

Screengrab via Can We Still Be Friends