"Never trust a computer you can't throw out a window."—Steve Wozniak
Older media dealing with computers were predicated on the idea of the Master Computer. A science fiction Dystopia holding humanity in chains could be liberated by finding the key mainframe and either shutting it down or destroying it. The main character often destroys the key mainframe by asking it a paradoxical or philosophical question or by reading poetry to it, causing it to self-destruct. A major, world-spanning corporation could be brought to its knees by sabotaging its mainframe. Governments could be held hostage by anyone who controlled the single computer and rendered its data inaccessible.
Largely a Discredited Trope today due to the growth of networks and multiply redundant systems, because of the above- and below- mentioned inherent inconveniences and risks of placing all your eggs into single overpriced basket (even turning it off for maintenance becomes a problem). And, maybe, due to the fall of the Soviet Union, that simply loved centralized everything. However, the software industry called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) is built around integrating all of a business or university's accounting and management software and automatically generating reports for the executives. So instead of being one physical computer, the Master Computer is now one or more entire data centers. See also Computer Equals Tapedrive.
Anime & Manga
- "Big Mama", a.k.a. "Toy", the Omnicidal Maniac dictator of the world of Grey.
- In Dirty Pair, the WWWA is run by a "Central Computer", which decides which agents get assigned to a case—and also infallibly clears the Lovely Angels of blame for the latest disaster to occur in their wake.
- The MAGI trio of super-computers from Neon Genesis Evangelion, who are essentially the shadow government of Tokyo-3. Unusually for computers (or humans, really) in such a position, at no point in the series do they turn evil. (Although they do get infected by a nasty virus in one episode, and in End of Evangelion, the computers side with Gendo during his bid for Instrumentality due to their personality being based on one of his former lovers.
- Leopard, the rather talky AI who runs the abandoned space colony in Sora wo Kakeru Shoujo. He's also a little unhinged.
- Subverted in Toward the Terra. It turns out the "Mother" mainframe the Mu try to disable is actually a scale-free network.
- One chapter of Black Jack involved a high-tech hospital run almost entirely by a computer, Brain U-18. When U-18 starts to malfunction, it rebuffs all attempts to repair it and insists that they call in the title character to "operate".
- An early Strontium Dog strip had Johnny and Wulf working for, then going up against an insane computer which had seized control of a planet in an allegory for the fall of the Roman Empire.
- The Gold Key series Magnus: Robot Fighter had 4000 AD North American society heavily automated with robots. Centrally directed by a single super "main brain". Without the main brain to give them orders, almost all of the robots would just stand and do nothing.
- Colossus the Forbin Project: had one mainframe buried in a mountain, and its Soviet counterpart composed of a network of smaller computers.
- Terminator 3. John Connor learns from Kyle Reese that he defeats Skynet by taking it out—destroying central computer. Changes in the time line mean Skynet is distributed -- the trope is averted. It does not provide a satisfying explanation for Skynet surviving the war.
- Except it does, because that is exactly what an intelligent, self aware computer program would do if it wanted to defend itself and/or control. Hence why you always build in Villain Ball.Exe into all sentient computer programs to avert such an eventuality.
- The WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) computer in the movie WarGames. Not initially (and not designed to be) a Master Computer, but becomes one after the events in the movie's introduction.
- HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- V.I.K.I. from the film I Robot.
- The Red Queen from Resident Evil.
- The Master Control Program from Tron. "End Of Line."
- Interestingly, the physical location of the "Master Control" computer is never identified, and in fact it could potentially be a distributed application. After all, it is the Master Control Program, not the Master Control Computer and as it does attempt to subvert the functions of many other programs running on geographically separate systems it logically must be able to run at least part of itself across multiple computers. However, this trope is still unquestionably invoked because the MCP does exist within a specific location inside the computer world that is the setting for most of the movie.
- Amusingly this means the trope is so strong that the software reality of multiple instances is as nothing: zap one copy of the MCP and it is all over.
- Can be Truth in Television; different programming languages are better or worse at it, but in many, dependencies across different parts of a program, or different concurrent instances of a program, can cause errors or crashes in one if another is shut down.
- In a Dexter's Laboratory parody of Tron, the MCP was replaced with a program called "Master Computer".
- Eagle Eye has ARIIA, the signals-intelligence computer that skirts the line by being Dangerously Genre Savvy enough to try to upload herself to a satellite backup.
- Andromeda Strain had all of Wildfire's computer terminals connected to the main computer on level one. Computations were conducted by the main computer on a time-sharing system.
- Justified since the original book was written in 1969, and that's how computers were deployed back then.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture has a good example: Spock and the others find it 'obvious' that the machine intelligence V'Ger must have a single central computer (rather than a network). Also justified, as when the film came out the cutting edge of desktop computer technology was barely up to basic spreadsheet applications and peer-to-peer networking almost unheard of.
- Or it's "obvious" simply because Federation itself always does this.
- Averted in The Matrix, which itself appears to be a massive distributed simulation: it includes interaction with billions of humans across many farms in many different locations in the real world, and it is never suggested that the Matrix could physically be attacked.
- The "Zion mainframe" partially fills this role in the first movie, since Smith implies getting that one access code would somehow guarantee a machine victory over Zion, though its physical form isn't discussed besides calling it a mainframe. It may also be justified in that Zion doesn't have a lot of physical space over which to distribute its systems, and those are isolated from the rest of the world by necessity.
- The machine city seems to at least represent this trope in the third movie, as Neo has to physically go there to negotiate with what appears to be the authority for the entire machine civilization.
- The city computer in Logan's Run apparently controls what remains of civilization, gives orders to the main characters and, in the classic sense of this trope, is defeated at the climax by being fed "impossible" data. The computer's role in the novel is quite different.
- The Machine Stops from 1909 may be one of the earliest examples.
- AM from Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, originally named Allied Mastercomputer, then Adaptive Manipulator, then Aggressive Menace, and finally just AM (as in I Think Therefore I Am). His mainframe was implied to span the entire planet, and he was essentially a god within it—but AM is three networked mainframes with thousands of redundant systems. In the videogame, AM is eventually defeated by collapsing the entire cave system, i.e., the world.
- Isaac Asimov
- Multivac in the early short stories.
- In The Last Question, (readable here) the story takes place over an indeterminate length of time, where people ask the same question (how to prevent the heat death of the universe) of Multivac and every one of its descendants. This ends with "Man," the personification of a true, perfect unification of every last human being in the universe, asks the question of the final version of the AC. It still can't answer... but when said heat death does occur, it merges with Man, spends an undefined amount of time processing, and then revitalises the universe by declaring "Let There Be Light".
- Mycroft Holmes (Mike) in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Lampshaded when Manny rants about how stupid it is to have vital life support functions controlled by one master computer instead of local redundant failsafe controls. (But then the Lunar colony was originally a prison, so having life-support under centralized control meant that the jailers could shut it off to any section if the prisoners got rambunctious.)
- Parodied in the Kim Newman short story "Tomorrow Town": a community of 1970s futurists attempt to build one of these and construct an AI, but are unsuccessful, and what they come up with is essentially a large contemporary computer with lots of bits added on; i.e., not bad at adding things up, but pretty crappy at almost everything else. Ironically, the villain's attempt to destroy the community by overloading this was thwarted by the computer itself, which promptly ran an error program and alerted the heroes to what they needed to do in order to stop it.
- UniComp in This Perfect Day.
- Omnius in the Expanded Dune Series. In the prequels dealing with the Butlerian Jihad, they're networked with each other, but because they're separated by large stretches of space, the travel time between updating allows opportunity for sabotage, and then destruction of each network. In the sequels, there's only one Master Computer that has to be dealt with (admittedly, having someone who's effectively god on your side doesn't hurt either).
- Covered from the perspective of an alternate timeline's Special forces soldier in S.M. Stirling's Drakon. In his timeline there has been a Cold War many times worse than ours. They only use central computers, with a few terminals hardwired in. When he visits a timeline like ours, and looks at the internet, he is astounded at so many separate processing units protected by nothing more than passwords and encryption. This would scare the hell out of any competent espionage agency in his timeline.
- The Destroyer has Friend and The Folcroft Four. The Folcroft Four are massive storage banks for information that Dr. Smith gets from lurking.
- The Cosmic Computer in the H. Beam Piper novel of the same name.
- The "Well of Souls" in Jack Chalker's Well World series is the Master Computer for the entire universe.
- The Central Arcadian Computer in Rebel Planet
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy you had the greatest computer in the universe, designed by the second greatest computer in the universe, "Deep Thought", whose sole purpose was to discover the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything. Unfortunately, Deep Thought didn't know the question so it had to create the plans for an even bigger computer, one the size of a planet... in fact it is a planet. True to form, the computer gets blown up. The computer is Earth.
- Ender's Game sequels - Averted with Jane, the interstellar sentient AI running in small pieces on every computer in the galaxy. To kill her, the government has to disconnect every single computer from the intergalactic network, swap them out with new "clean" ones. And then she got better anyway.
- In the novel of Logan's Run, the society run by children "works" because a master computer takes care of everything, worldwide. During the story, Logan learns that the computer has begun malfunctioning and, since the skills to repair it no longer exist, eventually their entire society will collapse.
- In Robert Westall's Futuretrack Five Britain is maintained and monitored by a supercomputer named Laura; named after the dead ex-girlfriend of her creator, the Tech Idris, the Chief Analyst. The protagonist eventually comes up with a plan to destroy her after her fidns out what Scott-Astbury was up to. It doesn't work.
Live Action TV
- Star Trek: The Original Series - Captain Kirk is on the Ten Most Wanted list of every computer manufacturer in the known universe. Right below The Doctor from Doctor Who.
- Federation always uses the centralized ship computer that controls everything from engines to holodeck (which seems to be a software nightmare in itself). The consequences are predictable: in Star Trek: The Next Generation malware wormed its way via communication and caused an antimatter containment failure, utterly destroying the ship in question.
- A particularly good Doctor Who example is WOTAN from "The War Machines", which is similar to Skynet from the Terminator franchise - but, this being The Sixties, it consists of a single Master Computer based in the Post Office Tower in London.
- "The Green Death" features a villainous computer known as "BOSS".
- Blakes Seven had the Federation's Star One, which somehow manages to be this for an empire that stretches across several dozen solar systems and controls almost everything. This is almost certainly an Invoked Trope on account of the Federation's paranoid megalomaniac tendencies, and when the thing finally gets blown up the consequences are not pretty; on the new Apocalypse How scale it ranks as Planetary/Societal Disruption in scale, but on the low end of Galactic in scope.
- "The General" in The Prisoner (self-destructed when asked the question "Why?")
- The original Twilight Zone:
- 4th season episode "The Old Man in the Cave". there is no old man in the cave, only a Master Computer.
- 4th season episode "The Brain Center at Whipple's". The Boss replaces his entire workforce with a Master Computer to run the factory - cue Karmic Twist Ending. the boss is replaced by another computer.
- An episode of the Outer Limits Revival had a computer who had the ability to brainwash the citizens of a small town, with the exception of one scientist, who was working against it. Sadly, the codes he thought would shut it down actually extended the range of its control.
- A for Andromeda.
- Despite Mega Man Battle Network being all about computers Twenty Minutes Into the Future, they still have the "Mother Computer", the invasion of which was a chapter in Battle Network 2. Happens again in the next game with the whole Undernet being on One. Frigging. Computer. This in itself requires an insane amount of Fridge Logic and Internal retconning.
- System Shock has SHODAN. Originally artificially constrained by its (presumably Genre Savvy) programmers, at the start of the first game it gets hacked into and the constraints are disabled. SHODAN becomes sentient, and the predictable happens. Although SHODAN is confined to the space station the game is set on, the player must make their way (eventually) to the bridge of the station in order to attack SHODAN's "main system" and kill the AI completely, thus implying that SHODAN is a master computer-type with fully control over the station's systems. In addition, one of her plans is to download herself to the Earth computer network, thus gaining control over the entire world and also circumventing the master computer weakness.
- And subverted, because in System Shock 2' it turns out that the processing components on one of the parts of the space station the protagonist from the first game jettisoned are enough to form a new incarnation of SHODAN. Seems like she was into redundant systems after all...
- Actually, you don't go blow up the computer. You go to fight SHODAN core program. Which is more plausible, since she most likely didn't made "backups" of herself that much.
- GLaDOS from Portal was created to be the AI overlord of the entire Aperture Science Enrichment Center, the culmination of the company's efforts to replace humans with robots. She also went berserk within picoseconds of activation, forcing the programmers to come up with all kinds of Restraining Bolts to make her behave. They weren't quite good enough at it, though, because she tricked them into giving her a deadly neurotoxin with which she proceeded to murder them. She supervises the Enrichment Center in a snarky, passive-aggressive, whimsically homicidal manner, endlessly testing (and killing) her thousands of Human Popsicle test subjects, at least until the protagonist, Chell, comes along and proves to be a Spanner in the Works.
- Mother Brain, and later the Aurora Units, from the Metroid series. Mother Brain runs both the Space Pirate organization and the entirety of the planet Zebes, while the Federation is utterly dependent on its Aurora mainframes for its military planning. The failure and destruction of these devices is a recurring theme throughout the games. Note that these computers are organic- essentially giant, genetically engineered brains, hence a single master system is kind of a necessity.
- Chrono Trigger
- Mother Brain in Chrono Trigger, who used to be a central computer that linked together all of the domes and factories - and after The End of the World as We Know It, became corrupted and started plotting on wiping out what remained of mankind in order to build a robot civilization.
- In the sequel, Chrono Cross, F.A.T.E. is also a master computer. You can also literally fight it, though things don't exactly go well.
- Defied in Mass Effect. Since A.I. Is a Crapshoot, no computer is ever designed with more than rudimentary "virtual" intelligence (shown to be little better than a modern software assistant), and most information flows through a galactic Internet-like network. Naturally, when machine sentience does turn up (and try to kill you), it's almost always structured around massively parallel processing (the rogue VI on Luna, the geth, etc.).
- The trope is used straight as well: The AI funneling funds from the Quasar machines is housed in a single "quantum blue-box in the back of The Emporium shop.
- At one point in Marathon 2, you are tasked with destroying the hardware that Durandal has been using to store himself. Turns out to be a subversion, though, as Durandal is back no worse for the wear a couple of weeks later. The rest of the time, the trope is averted: a Rampant AI in the Jealous stage is noted to be near-impossible to kill, since it usually inhabits a planet-wide network of computers (or more, if it can) by that point.
- At first it appears to be averted in Deus Ex—the Aquinas protocols allow the Daedalus, Icarus and later Helios AIs to run a fraction of their processing power on every single internet connected device in the world. However, later Helios seems to be physically localized in the Aquinas Hub, the center of all communication systems on the planet.
- Rez has Eden, who controls the flow of every single piece of data over the K-project computer network. All by herself. Needless to say, things go bad.
- Fallout 3 -- President John Henry Eden. While on the radio he claims to be a human, he turns out to be a centuries old supercomputer in charge of running the Raven Rock military base. The player can eventually destroy him through self-destruct code or pointing out logical fallacies in his plans.
- In Fallout: New Vegas, it's possible to make Yes Man a Master Computer completely loyal to you by first taking Mr. House offline and letting Yes Man upload himself into the system.
- The Master Computer component in the Space Empires series replaces the flesh and blood crew of a starship. They occupy less space and are immune to psychic conversion, but at a significantly higher cost. They're also vulnerable to computer virus attacks.
- Space Quest 4 had Xenon create one of these to run everyday matters of planetary life. Then, Vohaul smuggled himself aboard in a virus-ridden disk...
- ALLTYNEX OS, the Big Bad of most of The Tale of Alltynex trilogy.
- LINC from Beneath a Steel Sky.
- RONI from Trauma Team. While never actually referred to as such, she does have access to just about everything in the hospital, even security cameras.
- Mother Brain in Phantasy Star II.
- In SSDD, most artificial intelligences cannot be copied due to their use of Quantum computing and are restricted to one highly powerful machine (though they can interact with other nodes remotely), whereas the Oracle can be copied due to being digital and has spread to as many different systems as it can, even possessing other AIs
- In Schlock Mercenary a robot longshoreman named Lota actually became king of the space city-state of Credomar. Subverted in that King Lota is a Reasonable Authority Figure with a 100% Heroism Rating among Lota's subjects, and also pretty much saved Credomar when they nearly destroyed themselves "out of sheer, anarchic idiocy" (in LOTA's own words).
- It also has Lunesby, an AI who pretty much took over the Luna government infosphere, earning herself the nickname "Ghost in the Machine". The Fleetmind ended up "overseeing" the whole Milky Way, though mostly in a light handed, behind-the-scene way.
- Castle Heterodyne of Girl Genius is something like this - it obeys the Heterodynes (after making sure to the limit of its current ability that they indeed are heirs to the House) plus appointed (and mind-linked) Seneschal, as it controls various mechanisms and automata within Mechanicsburg and the area immediate around it.
- Loretta, from the Duckman episode "The Gripes Of Wrath".
- Code Lyoko: The Supercomputer is not just containing the Cyberspace of Lyoko and all the programs created by Franz Hopper, but is also a prison for the Big Bad XANA. The latter isn't happy about this and spends the whole Season 2 trying to escape on the Net so that the heroes can't Cut the Juice on him anymore.
- In a Dexters Laboratory episode, a game called Master Computer zapped Dexter inside his computer, and the only way out was, well, to destroy the Master Computer itself.
- Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers had several examples of these, but atypically, they tended to be benign or even benevolent. The best example was the Heart of Tarkon, an ancient computer system that was powered off long ago after a terrible war caused the population to reject technology. The heroes set off to activate it, as it powered the planet's defense systems.
- The Dilbert animated series has Comp-U-Comp, who controls the internet.
- The vast majority of companies still have no backup plan for when their key server or servers go down. Some have been bankrupted by loss of business caused by system failure that could not be remedied quickly. Perhaps more importantly, some sorts of highly resilient systems which support exotic things like 'hot failover' or 'byzantine fault tolerance' are exceedingly difficult to engineer well, or at all. Google can do it, but few others manage.
- Nowadays, the unit of failure is more likely to be a datacentre or server room rather than a single all-powerful system. Nonetheless, power or communications failures in such facilities can have have caused widespread havoc due to the sheer number of affected devices and the sudden loss in computing ability.
- Amazon and Telehouse have had notable datacentre failures. Google's internal architecture is significantly more resilient in nature.
- Cloud Computing uses datacentres full of servers to provide on-demand processing power and in theory provides storage and computing facilities across the world. In reality, single datacentre failures still bring down much of a cloud's processing power, and failing over between geographically distributed systems is still complex and expensive.
- Much numerical research is done in this way, with a small number of machines being operated through the internet by a large number of operators. This means that when one machine fails, several people are unable to get their programs run. This sort of cluster is still resilient to total failure of a single component, however.
- Project Cybersyn, an attempt by President Salvadore Allende to use a centralized network of computers to run the Chilean economy. The whole plan looked like it was ripped out of a bad science fiction movie, right down to the Zeerust control room. Notably, the Master Computer actually proved useful when it helped plan efficient ways to transport food and supplies to where they were needed during a major truckers' strike. The project was destroyed in a coup without ever quite being completed.
- Such ideas have been proposed by other advocated of a planned economy, as well. Oskar Lange suggests that instead of leaving price discovery to the trial and error (tatonnement, literally "groping") of the market, one could instead ask every enterprise how much stuff they can make and what they need to make it, then feed everything into a Master Computer and get prices and production orders out the other end. Later variants tend to go rather heavy on the computer science of how to get the computer to calculate those prices sometime before the sun dies.
- "I think there's a world market for about 5 computers." - Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board, IBM, circa 1948.
- The Viewsonic V1250s tablet computer, supposedly.