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'Sherlock' and the triumph of the mind over the computer

Warning: this post contains spoilers about Sherlock season 3. Read on at your peril.

It’s been an interesting time as of late, seeing Stephen Moffatt (and to a lesser extent Mark Gatiss) juggling Doctor Who and Sherlock. In a way, the shows have gone opposite directions. Doctor Who has got increasingly technological, as shown by the increasing powers of the once-humble sonic screwdriver (beautifully captured by John Hurt’s War Doctor chastisting of his more recent regenerations: “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments not water pistols!”).

Sonic Screwdrivers in the Day of the Doctor

Not to mention all the super computer stuff like the Doctor being able to hack into any system. On the other hand, Sherlock has been far more critical of technology.

In The Reichenbach Fall, I’m sure that many a tech person sighed as Moriarty pressed an impossibly beautiful and simple app on his iPhone to instigate four break-ins. It would never be like that, we all thought.

Luckily for us, it wasn’t. As Moriarty explains to Sherlock, there would be no way of doing that type of technological magic. Better to do things the old fashioned way, through bribery and other human means.

We had echoes of this again in His Last Vow, where audiences are led to believe that Magnussen has something of a Google Glass contraption that might be a backup of all of the incriminating documents he is alleged to have in his Appledore mansion.


But before people can complain of product placement (or even for Google to complain, as it’s not a particularly Googly brand match) it’s shown that in fact Magnussen has an even more grand mind palace than Sherlock: it’s all in his head, memorised and categorised. No wifi needed.

In some ways, this is perhaps true to the spirit of Holmes: a triumph of intelligence rather than brute force, human or technological. (As Willa Paskin points out on Slate, the plot of the Empty Hearse actually being about Sherlock understanding what a fugitive meant was akin to the books where Holmes is often merely following through on information from his network). Still, as shows like CSI and Bones push futuristic tech and timelines into a supposedly here-and-now world, it’s refreshing to see its limits openly pointed out. Just as the pen can be mightier than the sword, there are still times when the mind is greater than the computer. Though perhaps those days are coming closer to an end.