What 'The Sopranos' taught me about technology

With "The Sopranos" TV series expected to have its last hurrah this year, it's time to celebrate the HBO program's most overlooked story line: Those thugs loved technology almost as much as they loved young women, good food, money and guns.

Naturally, the younger generation on the show - Tony and Carmela's kids Meadow and A.J. - led the way.

Meadow arrived home late one night to find Tony drunk on wine, having barely survived an attempt on his life. He was all ready for a long talk, but she took the modern way out: "I gotta go online."

Online is where she and A.J. also read up on dad and his activities outside of waste management. They pored through Web sites that showed the mafia hierarchy, a point not lost on Tony and his compatriots:

"It's hard to raise kids in an information age. To protect them," Tony's consigliere Silvio Dante lamented in an episode during the first season.

Early on in the show, it was clear that Tony and Carmela still had a few things to learn about technology.

Coming home to a pile of snail mail one day, Carmela came across a handful of computer disks and said to her daughter: "Look at the money they waste on these CD-ROMS. Mindspring, EarthLink, what are these exactly?" (Though a couple of seasons later, Carmela seems caught up on technology, using a laptop computer to research financial portfolio information.)

During one of his therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony shares with her that he is flummoxed at A.J.'s behavior of late. She says it sounds like his son has discovered existentialism, to which Tony replies: "[!@%$#%@] Internet." But Melfi defends the 'Net, assuring him that existentialism is a European philosophy that was around long before the Web. Tony had an outburst during another session, expressing frustration and anger of automated voice-response systems that claim your call is important but don't actually answer the phone.

Tony also seemed wowed that Svetlana, a young woman who took care of his mother and with whom he had a fling, was actually creating a Web site for her business from home.

Tony asked: "You know how to do that?"

Svetlana, pecking away on her Apple laptop computer: "I'm going to pay someone $35 an hour [to do it for me]?"

Sometimes, though, Tony seemed pretty up on technology. He proved handy with a practically surgically attached cell phone and also jumped on the flat-screen TVs trend, for instance.

And he once had to set his team straight about hacking. During this episode, Tony and the others were hanging around the grill at a barbecue when the subject of scamming airlines arose. "I always thought there was some way to divert frequent-flier mileage on a grand scale...." said Hesh Rabkin, one of Tony's advisers. But another associate chimed in: "To do that you gotta break into the airlines' main computer. What do they call it, crackin'?" Tony corrected him: "Hackin'"

Friend Artie Bucco once even told Tony that he admired his friend's ability to process information at "Internet speed."

Tony and Carmela showed their tech acumen one night over dinner when they tried to set their kids straight about the history of telephony.

Carmela: "Did you know that an Italian invented the telephone?"

A.J. replied: "Alexander Graham Bell was Italian?"

Tony: "You see? Antonio Meucci invented the telephone and he got robbed! Everybody knows that."

Meadow put an end to the discussion with: "Who invented the Mafia?"

Tony also once tapped Silvio's "friend at the telephone company" to put traps on all of his phone lines, in hopes of figuring out where a missing member of the family might be.

Though you had to wonder about Tony's tech acumen during one exchange in his office at the Bada Bing club. Associate Gigi Cestone, working some numbers on a laptop, said: "Ton', I think we may have a problem." Tony: "Log off. That cookie sh- makes me nervous."

It wasn't the only time that the Sopranos expressed their distrust of the online world. During one episode, Meadow was grieving the death of an ex-boyfriend and urging her mother to focus more energy on the funeral arrangements. But Carmela had other things on her mind; namely, her son's failings in school of late: "Your brother doesn't have a school. He can't be allowed to sit and chat all day on the Web with the other dropouts and flakes."

In another episode, Silvio and others were looking for a way to quash a Native American uprising against Columbus Day celebrations. After smashing some heads, the Soprano gang attempted a less violent approach that involved exposing a supposed Native American hero's true heritage. But an Indian casino owner broke the bad news that that tact wasn't going to work: "[The leader of the Columbus Day protests doesn't care.] It was some Internet rumor . . . It's like knowing James Cahn isn't Italian."

But Tony and his gang also saw the value in technology. Cousin Tony Blundetto even found his girlfriend through an Internet ad while in prison.

Telephone calling cards also proved to be big business for Tony Soprano and his associates, as discussed at a restaurant one night:

Silvio: "Telecommunications once again fails to disappoint."

Furio Giunta, who recently moved to the United States from Italy, asks: "What's this thing? Telephone calling cards."

Sal Bonpensiero explains: "You find a front man who can get a line of credit, you buy a couple of million units of calling time from a carrier. You become "Acme Telephone Card Company". You're now in the business of selling prepaid calling cards. Immigrants especially, no offense, they're always calling back home to whoever. . . . And it's expensive, right? You sell thousands of these cards at a cut rate. But you bought the bulk time on credit, remember? The carrier gets stiffed. He cuts off the service to the card holders, but you already sold all your cards."

In another episode, several members of Tony's gang are at a construction site getting paid to sit around. Tony's nephew Christopher spots a big spool of cable and asks the others what it is. The reply: "Fiber-optic cable - high-speed Internet access." Another from the gang assures Christopher that "there's a lot of money in this sh--." Christopher's eyes get big, as he says "Oh, yeah?" Next thing you know, the cable disappears and gets resold for a profit, putting the bigger project at risk and ticking off Tony.

Not that all characters on the show were making a killing off network technology. Restaurant owner Bucco, complaining about his wife Charmaine to Tony, once said: "She's knows what I . . . make. Who am I Bill Gates?"

And Dr. Melfi summed up the whole Information Age backdrop against which the show took place during one therapy session with Tony: "We live in a time of technological and spiritual crisis . . ."

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Bob Brown

Network World (US online)
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