There is a tendency in fiction to treat a computer as if it is contained in the monitor. This is sometimes justified, in the case of portables and all-in-one desktops that combine the monitor with the processor, hard drive, etc, but it will frequently be seen with other computers as well.
The practical upshot of this is that to destroy the computer, and any data stored on it, you only need to destroy the monitor, and if you're lucky you only need to shoot it.
The trope might originate with early computers such as the Commodore PET, Apple Macintosh, and some models of the IBM PS/2, in which the monitor, motherboard, and drives were contained in the same unit. This may have also experienced a resurgence in the popular consciousness thanks to the success of Apple's late '90s iMac. Many people consider this a Discredited Trope, but "all-in-one" PCs and Macs do exist with modern technological advancements. However, saying that all computers are as such is an ignorant statement and implies that the author hasn't seen a computer tower in their life.
Another possibility is that, psychologically, the monitor is the "face" of the computer. This is where one sees everything going on, so, if one doesn't have specific knowledge of how computers work, it's not unreasonable to think it's where everything does go on. Or else, if the screen is the "face", the casing must be the "head" and contain the "brain".
Rarer is destruction to the keyboard destroying the entire unit (usually due to a carelessly spilled drink). Unlike the monitor, this is actually a more realistic concern considering that most popular 8-bit home computers housed their processors and keyboards in the same unit, using a normal television for their monitor, and many laptops today have the keyboards on top of the circuitry. However, you are far more likely to see the monitor take the killing blow despite it being far less catastrophic.
Damaging a monitor can be justified as making the workstation unusable until another monitor can be hooked up at worst, and possibly killing the computer anyways at bestnote CRTs have powerful capacitors that can hold a very high voltage charge for a couple of minutes even after the power is unplugged. A well placed shot with a metal bullet can, possibly, cause the CRT to discharge the voltage into the data lines, killing the computer or at least the video adapter as well in the process. Even unplugging a monitor with the computer still on can on rare occasion be enough to cause severe damage if it's not designed to be hot-pluggable.
Besides, CRTs blow upso spectacularly, which is why computer science students are taught to only let professionals work on them, as opposed to how other computer components (generally those connected directly to the motherboard) can be worked on more easily. One wonders how long this trope will continue as they become obsolete.
Compare Computer Equals Tape Drive. See Also Screens Are Cameras and Shoot The Television.
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A Swedish ad for a painkiller shows a man working on his computer when it suddenly shuts down (with the sound of the hard drive and fans spinning down audibly), and then cuts to his kid holding the monitor cable. Nowhere is it implied that the boy had removed any other cables, and it is never mentioned why the entire computer shut down by removing the cable.)
The Digimon Adventure movie "Our War Game" uses this trope in an "accidental" sort of use. Taichi, in a frustrated manner, bangs on the side of the monitor he's using to observe the fight between the Digidestined's Digimon and Diablomon. The computer crashes. Hell, he didn't hit it very hard at all. Taichi's reaction is priceless.
A semi aversion as Izumi's first reaction is to reboot the computer instead of messing around with the monitor.
An older Animal Man comic book had this as a plot point. The Big Bad tries to dispose of the friendly A.I. by blasting the monitor. Failure occurs.
Averted in a Post-War Games issue of Nightwing, Dick Grayson is working undercover for the mob. He beats up a witness, but leaves when he sees an associate pull out a gun. A jump cut later, its revealed that the mobster didn't shoot the guy, instead he shot the man's computer monitor. Nightwing mentions how that wouldn't work, and says he'll return later to destroy the man's CPU.
Variation: In Superman/Batman #46, two characters are playing a video game, when one declares that the game sucks and destroys the TV that the game console (clearly visible as a separate unit) is plugged into. The other character reacts as if he'd destroyed the game console itself.
In Spawn computer monitors are shot to stop downloads.
The sequel to Harry Potter and the Natural 20 features an Obliviation raid on a police station to erase the memories of Milo's use of magic. They burst in, Obliviation charms flying, just after the WPC finishes saving her report to a floppy on a brand-new Windows 3.1 PC. Wizards have a shaky grasp of normal technology, and when they come across it, one identifies it as an 'eclectic' [sic] typewriter. The other wizard with him smashes the monitor, because you can't be too careful. This issue comes back to haunt them.
The climax of Equilibrium has the protagonist taking out the computerized control-and-surveillance systems of his dystopian city by walking down a long hallway, blasting the monitors that line it. Of course, that might have just been catharsis, as the process also chased away the people watching the monitors. The holograms around the city stopped functioning after Preston shot the monitors, so the computers may be built behind the monitors.
Justified in Zoolander: the computer in question is an iMac, which has a built-in monitor. And, even if it was just a monitor, Derek and Hansel would probably have tried to destroy it anyway… The files were in the computer, after all.
At the climax of Revelation, the heroes begin uploading a virus onto the villains' computer to prevent the Day of Wonders (a very bad thing) from occurring, only to be caught in the act and herded away while the local bad-guy technician gets to work stopping it. When he fails at this, he unplugs the computer, and when that fails... he desperately begins shooting the monitor. Since the whole scene is implied to be divine intervention at work, he wouldn't have had much luck either way, but he really should have known better.
In the French action movie Taxi 3, Bai Ling hacks into a police desktop PC by sticking a suction cup on the monitor. Apparently that magically sucks up the contents of the hard drive...
Subverted in The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse. The characters are trying to steal a script on one of the writer's hard-drive. Not having a computer of their own to transfer the script to, they have to take the computer in a very limited time and so only take the essential parts; tower, keyboard, mouse... "Leave the monitor, we don't need that!" "How are we going to read it then, genius! Braille?"
Averted in The Core: When the hacker genius kid sees the feds at the door and assumes he's busted, he immediately pulls out an industrial magnet and rubs it across all of his desktop boxes and servers, and not the monitors.
Averted in Fireproof when the main character, struggling with his pornography addiction, takes the monitor out in the yard and smashes it with a baseball bat. A moment later, he smashed the CPU tower as well.
In The Negotiator: A dirty cop shoots out the monitor of a computer after being told it contains evidence of his crimes. However the evidence didn't actually exist, it was just a ruse to fool him into a confession.
A distinct aversion of this trope is a major plot point in I, Robot. When the heroes need to destroy the evil supercomputer VIKI, the hero suggest shooting her computer brain with his gun. The smart heroine informs him that VIKI is fully back up throughout the building. What they need are special computer-destroying nanites that will not only destroy the main core but also go one to dismantle the backup systems.
Averted by Dean Koontz in Midnight. A kid is portrayed as a computer geek. When he has a chance to merge with his computer, he takes off the casing of the tower, and merges with both the tower and the monitor in horrifying fashion.
Justified in The Jennifer Morgue - the protagonist uses some dark magic juju (which is indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced mathematics) to hack into his captors' computer network, by way of an insufficiently locked-down monitor in the room in which he is confined.
Well, actually what looked like a TV at first turned out to be a Windows Media Center PC built into the flat-screen TV. So in this case it's a subversion.
Averted and lampshaded in Zodiac. The baddies trash a computer by busting both the monitor and the processor ... which tips off the protagonist that they aren't the dumb thugs he'd assumed, else they'd be content with just breaking the former.
Live Action TV
In the new Doctor Who, in every episode involving computers, the Doctor controls one by using the sonic screwdriver on the monitor. In the episode "Dalek", a Dalek "absorbs the entire Internet" through a (broken) monitor. And in "Smith and Jones", when the computer's database is erased, the Doctor looks for a backup by checking the back of the monitor. Also see Computer Equals Tape Drive, a trope much more used in the original series.
May be semi-Justified with the sonic screwdriver, as if you look at the keyboards of some of the computers used, you can recognize them as Macs, with the monitors built in to the computer.
In Alias, nearly any time Sydney Bristow (or any other character) uses a device to hack, disable, or clone a computer, the device is placed on the computer's monitor.
Data from 20th century computers are downloaded by pointing the tricorder at the monitor. They are effectively taking screenshots!
Voyager has a more subtle and pervasive example of the computer being mistaken for its I/O device: the Doctor. Logically, the Doctor should be a program running in Voyager's main computer that uses a holographic image of a human male as its user interface. However, the series says over and over again that the Doctor is a hologram, and any threat to the holographic image is treated as if it were a threat to the Doctor himself.
In a Colin Hunt sketch on The Fast Show, a deliveryman shows up and says "I've got your new computer". It's just a monitor.
In an episode of Stargate SG-1, a replicator accesses a computer by literally sticking its hand into the monitor through the glass. Without damaging it. According to the replicator, it was accessing the computer "directly."
It's not entirely inconceivable that the replicator could access the hard drive via the monitor. After all, they are connected with a convenient cable that transfers data. Furthermore, many new monitors are capable of sending information back to the computer.
My brother answered my question how the replicator did it by telling me that the replicator cells can go through everything. The replicator could have stuck its hand into the desc to achieve the same.
After all, the Replicators can stick their hands into a human's body and access their memories, and the process only harms the human in question if they want to. Given that brains and computers both operated through electrical impulses, it makes as much sense for Sufficiently Advanced Aliens like the human-form Replicators to be able to access the memory of one as it does the other.
During season 2 of LOST a lot of the action for the season took place in a location known as the Hatch. Within the Hatch was a computer that had to have numbers entered on it every 108 minutes or "the world would end." Early in the season, someone shoots the computer monitor, and Desmond, who's been running it for years, freaks out and runs away, leaving Sayid to repair it before the timer runs down. Later on, the computer is totally destroyed by smashing the monitor on the floor. Only the smashing can be justified, as the actual CPU is attached to the bottom of the monitor, and is smashed to the ground with it.
In the episode "Passion", evil Angel destroys Jenny Calendar's computer by throwing her monitor off of the desk, whereby it lands on the floor and explodes pleasingly. Justified as he's over two hundred years old, and thusly doesn't understand computers. Also, he only destroyed her current data, it was actually saved onto a floppy disk found later. Later, in the spin-off Angel, Harmony shorts out a computer by spilling coffee on the keyboard. In the Buffy universe, maybe trying to destroy a computer by breaking the monitor isn't so stupid after all.
A scene in "I Robot,You Jane" has Willow becoming annoyed with 'Malcom' (aka the demon Moloch) and appearing to turn off the computer just by punching the monitor's off button.
Primeval has the variant where a character knocks out a computer by pouring water on the keyboard.
Battlestar Galactica. Averted (and used for a Crowning Moment of Funny) when Baltar has been framed by the Cylons with fake footage showing him committing sabotage just before the Cylon attack on the Colonies. Baltar destroys the hard drive that's enhancing the image, only to whimper helplessly as he sees his face still staring out at him from the monitor, as he's destroyed the wrong computer. His actions only make him look more guilty than ever. For bonus points, the moment he is caught he is about to swing a chair at the monitor.
This was averted a little 'too' far, and in the opposite direction in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. At a crime scene, they discovered that the suspect's/victim's PC wasn't booting. The cause? The suspect hid their pistol in the case. While computer components themselves are very vulnerable to liquid or even small amounts of static electricity, placing an object inside the computer case probably wouldn't even affect the operation of the computer, let alone preventing it from booting, unless it was placed in such a way as to crush or bend a component, or damage a connection. The average tower has plenty of space for a small to medium-sized handgun.
In the utterly appalling Killer Net, written by Lynda La Plante, the "hero" decides to destroy his computer because... the plot says so, basically, although it's implied that the software is some kind of threat, somehow - look, it's a The Internet Is Evil story, don't expect it to make sense. He does this by hauling the monitor and only the monitor up to the top of a building and throwing it off.
Justified in an episode of NCIS, when computer-averse Gibbs tries to fix the e-mail client on his computer by whacking the monitor with a baseball bat he apparently kept under the desk for just this purpose. Gibbs is the type to believe this, and his attempt doesn't accomplish anything. However, played straight later in the same episode when Gibbs is faced with a mainframe that needs to be shut down, which he does by shooting it up; the bullet that apparently serves as the killshot goes through (one of!) the monitors. (If you're feeling generous, you could say that it was an all-in-one system that was part of a Cn C cluster, and they just used the term "mainframe" because it would make more sense to the audience. If you're feeling generous.)
In Scrubs when Dr Cox decides to destroy an old computer in order to force Kelso to buy a new one. However, all he throws out the window is the monitor. The tower is never seen.
In the Nikita episode "Covenants", when Michael leaves Nikita's loft he shoots her computer monitor with his shotgun. This might be justified in that he was more interested in proving a point than actually destroying her computer.
A Finnish newspaper strip had the mid-level boss Murikka first smash the computer screen in frustration, but after becoming more computer savvy, he then takes his anger out on the processor, and later on apparently sets out to go punch Bill Gates himself.
In Tomb Raider 2 Lara Croft destroys the important data belonging to the Evil Scientist by shooting about eight LCD monitors. Spectacular and expensive but kinda pointless.
Averted in Chaos Theory, where in order to remote-hack any computer, Sam must locate the actual hard drive instead of the usually more visible monitors. Averted even further in that computers with destroyed monitors can still be remotely hacked.
Also in the first game: when bad guys are removing all the evidence from the computers, one of the mooks shoots the monitor and is convinced that the job is done. Another one scolds him, telling him that he needs to wipe the hard drive, collect the USB sticks, and then shoot the mainframe.
In the first Max Payne game, Max travels to Aesir Corporation and decides to destroy a computer by shooting the monitor several times. Possibly justified, as the accompanying dialogue is rather ambiguous about whether he actually cares if the data contained within is destroyed or if he just shot it for the sake of catharsis.
Averted in an easily-missed way earlier on, while Max is forcing his way into a steelworks owned by the Big Bad, which is doubling as a narcotics lab. At one point you have to release an employee who'd been shoved in a holding cell for some reason so he could unlock a door for you. The monitor of the computer terminal into which your new friend had to enter the access code would break if it took a stray bullet when you disposed of the mooks at the security station, but the NPC still manages to open the door, with an extra line of dialogue handwaving his ability to operate the machine blind.
In Grand Theft Auto IV, the Albanians throw Roman's computer monitor on the ground, and he complains that they "killed" his computer. Of course, Roman is the kind of person who fits into that list from the top of the page.
The mascot of the Hectic Hackers team in Backyard Basketball is supposed to represent a computer. It is just a monitor (WITH HANDS!) and a keyboard.
First played straight, then subverted in Phantasy Star Online. The first form of Vol Opt can be damaged by attacking the tasers that pop out of the floor, or the monitors on the walls displaying the boss's face. After taking enough damage, the remaining monitors explode and Vol Opt's "real" body descends into the room to continue the battle.
Discussed in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors; Lotus and Junpei have a conversation about how a caveman would think that a monitor was the whole computer; this ties into the game's theme of passing information between two seemingly unconnected things.
In the game Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, in a mission in Kuala Lumpur, you have to shoot a screen in order to complete one of the mission's objectives. Justifiedsomewhat as there is no CPU visible.
In Golden Eye 1997, destroying a critical monitor can cause you to fail your mission. Justified in that you don't have time to go around fixing computers. However, you can destroy everything except that monitor without consequence.
Ace Attorney Investigations features an aversion with a cell phone. The cell phone in question had a cracked LCD display, but otherwise functioned well enough to ring when called. It also featured a camera, and the phone's memory contained a photograph which proved critical to the case. Franziska accessed the photograph by synchronizing the phone with her own cell phone, which was a similar model.
On Homestar Runner, two out of Strong Bad's three computers contained nothing but a monitor and a keyboard, with their internals apparently inside the monitors. (The third one was a laptop, and the current, fourth one has not had many details released yet, but is flat-screened.) The computers they are very, very loosely based on, the Tandy 1000 and the Compaq Deskpro 386, both have a separate computer and monitor.
Although, seeing as how many Homestar Runner characters are missing LIMBS, this is perhaps unsurprising.
In one Strong Bad Email, Strong Bad assumes the Cheat won't be able to print out the logo design he just made because "someone sliced off the back half of your monitor" (it was the first flat panel Strong Bad had ever seen). Even given Strong Bad's lack of experience with new technology, this makes no sense.
Even more jarring is the fact that The Paper is perfectly capable of being printed on the Lappy and the new Desktop.
How does Bubs fix the virus on SB's computer when it screws up the entire site? Shoot it with a shotgun Homestar's leg!
But note that after that, when Strong Bad is having a Wangst fit in front of the now-dead computer, the computer appears to have gears inside. It also appears to be larger on the inside...
Played with in this strip of The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, what is apparently a very stupid time traveler plays it straight, the more well-informed Clone of Ben Franklin lampshades it with a sarcastic protest. To be honest to him, he later does go for actually vital and fragile parts.
Played in an Imagine Spot in the Arthur episode Sue Ellen Moves In. Spy!Sue Ellen pours water on a professor's keyboard which shorts out the entire computer system before making her escape, just after stealing a vital computer disc.
Regular Show does the same thing when Mordecai and Rigby pour coffee on the keyboard of Benson's surveillance system in the episode "Peeps".
In Iron Man: Armored Adventures, our hero needs to stop Fixer (who has been turned into a sentient computer program) from killing a rival, so he shoots him... in the holographic representation of Fixer's head instead of the computer projecting it. Naturally, this works.
Technically true in some "smart" terminals, although it obviously won't affect the mainframe (which may be miles away.)
The DEC VT-103 was basically a PDP-11 crammed into a VT-100 chassis, shooting the monitor would put the terminal out of commission. (But if the processor boards aren't damaged you could save part of the computer.) The DEC VT-78 and DECmate systems are basically a microchip based PDP-8 stuck into a terminal for word processing. Finally the DEC GT-40 is another PDP-11 crammed into a terminal.
Also, shooting a terminal puts a minicomputer out of action until another system console can be found. (Unless you like flicking switches and can mystically read machine code.)
Also technically true for so-called all-in-one systems (apparently, the keyboard and mouse doesn't count as part of the system). There's too many past and modern day examples to list. Apple lives by the trope (by designing the original "beige toaster" Macintosh as such thus taking the design mainstream, and still keeps it coming with the iMac series of computers), and many PC manufacturers are getting on the bandwagon (especially with the advent of LCD displays and touchscreen all-in-ones). Computer Equals Keyboard variants became rare after the 1980s, but can still be found being made for a niche market.
The IBM NetVista X40 actually had the entire motherboard and HDD in a box on the back of the monitor, making it the computer most vulnerable to this Trope. One reasonably well placed bullet from the front could get the screen, motherboard and HDD.
Speaking of boxes on the back of monitors, some very small desktop PCs (Micro-ATX and smaller) are commonly attached to the backs of normal flat panel monitors using special brackets that fit VESA mount points.
In any collection of stupid customer anecdotes, there will always, always, be at least one story from an electronics store employee about someone who came in looking for a new computer, pointing at a monitor and vast array of peripherals and saying "I need that and that and that", then pointing at the tower and saying they won't be needing it because it's too expensive for a peripheral. Sometimes the entire collection is variations on that one story.
Or at least a user is told to push the reset button.
User: There is no reset button.
Tech: Then turn it off , wait 10 seconds, and turn it back on. That'll work, too.
User: *push* (10 seconds later) *push*
User: No, it's the same as before. (After turning the screen off and on)
Or a user decided they didn't need the "space heater" (tower case), turned it off, "and now the computer is broken".
On a slightly higher level are users that are aware that the tower is the important part of the PC, and where the disk drive is, but still think the desktop lives in the monitor and they have to somehow transfer their files if they replace the monitor.
There's one story where thieves broke into a computer lab and stole the monitors and keyboards...but not the tower cases.
Although that one might have been out of familiarity with Commodore 64, which had the computer and keyboard in the same unit.
Amstrad were another company that made computers with the processing hardware built-in, instead of in a separate tower. In most models, the hardware was contained in the back of the keyboard, even with the floppy disk drive jutting out of the side. However, shooting out the monitor would still put the system out of commission temporarily, as the monitor plugged into the mains and converted the AC into DC before passing it through to the keyboard unit.
The Commodore 64, the Atari ST, and the Amiga 500 were home computers with built-in keyboards. Later (2008?), some "new C-64" was offered to retro-gamers, where the computer was in the chassis of a joystick.
There's also a rather expensive modern replica of the Amiga 500 knocking around, running the latest version of AmigaOS. (Yes, they still exist.)
A subversion with convertible tablets. When in laptop mode, even a genre savvy person who doesn't know the model of the laptop may think all the guts are in the keyboard dock, where they would be in a normal laptop. However, the guts are entirely in the "monitor", since you can take it out and use it like a tablet.
Van Eck Phreaking is almost a straight example. CRT monitors -and to a lesser extent modern flatscreens- emit tiny amounts of electromagnetic radiation that change measurably deending on what's on the screen. You probably couldn't read an entire document that way unless the monitor was very old and poorly-shielded, but the technique has been tested against electronic voting machines and proven capable of compromising the secrecy of the ballot.