With the advent of the film WarGames, to the recent prosecution and suicide of information freedom activist and coder, Aaron Swartz, hackers and hacking have become part of our language, imagination, and cultural landscape. With their beginnings in the 1950s to the present, our collective conception of the hacker has gone from hero to antihero; from political prankster to rebellious teenager, to criminal master-mind out to undermine the social fabric.
Embedded within the archetype of this trickster figure are also our unconscious fears and ambiguous connections to technology. Because of the direct link with technology, hacking and hacker culture is especially illustrative of our relationship to fear of technology, and its power and control. This is so because technology is not only about the physicality of machines; it is also about our relationship with them.
If we look at the language of computers themselves, it is apparent that the idea of a relationship was built in from the beginning. In one example, powerful mainframe and UNIX systems that came before the PC are called hosts. After a network connection handshake, if allowed, a new user can log in as a guest. This relationship also rides on the assumption that technology is essentially hostile and that managing technology requires knowledge and control. When we speak of computers as user-friendly there is the implicit assumption that this is the exception that there has been some sort of modification to change the essential wild nature of the beast.
We have windows, wizard programs, and applications that shield us from the underlying complexity of the binary code of ones and zeros. These manageable layers that distance the user from the confusing innards of the machine shield us from the workings that might come loose. It is this confusion and lack of knowledge that the hacker, through social engineering can compromise, and can gain control of technology. As one who has the expertise, the programming guru has not only engineered the technology, but is the only one most able to modify, and thus hack. The archetypal hacker thus becomes not only the monster’s maker and keeper but is also demonized as a monster.
Added to the mix of our relationship to technology, we have gone from a culture of openly sharing research and ideas, to a culture of commoditizing information for profit. To be able to sell information requires protecting it as one does a secret-behind securely locked doors. The first generation of hackers was thought of as computer geniuses who went on to form start-up companies and then huge corporations such as Apple and Microsoft. They were also the same generation that founded the open-source movement. However, the second generation hackers, their children, grew up with PCs in their homes and schools.
If we consider our government and corporations as Senex (old man) institutions, the first generation hackers represent the status quo, the old guard that the Puer aeternus (eternal boy) second-generation rebelled against. This boy culture used mastery over technology to define their independence and to confront adult authority. Not surprisingly then, each generation sets up the cycle for the next.
It is no coincidence that we language and call upon software wizard applications to help us with our computer alchemy. Because of our relationship with technology and our distance from its internal workings, its unfathomable processes can take on a mystical quality to the uninitiated. Because the veiled, uncanny operations of the microchip have hidden subtlety, we might view this power as belonging to the feminine realm. Further, if we look upon the machine as a reinvention of nature, it becomes more evident that it takes some authority to master it; a powerful operator to tame it.
We are both in awe of the machine as a mysterious beast, and its sorcerer who can write and cast the spells to gentle and control it. This wonderment, in turn, gives the magus hacker command and control over those whose relationship with technology is inferior. As in WarGames, with our technological ignorance, we may view the hacker as a boy genius who both exposes the W.O.P.R (War Operation Plan Response) creature and in turn, saves us from its destruction of humanity.
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, we may view the hacker as a criminal seeker of credit card numbers, or even further, as terrorist who is out to expose government secrets. All of these views of the hacker, old or new, put them in a superior position of knowledge that inspires fear in those who are without the same capabilities to understand the technology that now rules and controls our lives.
Where does this irrational fear come from? It seems to stem from the wild and vast aspect of the Internet; its uncontrollable beast nature, its ability to shapeshift and grow at exponential rates. Certainly, this wily nature does not conform to Senex’s sensibilities; to the management of command and control.
If a prime indicator of power is progress; we can see that the desire to control and censor the Internet correlates to its growth. In its unprecedented expansion of connections and Websites, the Internet is growing without a center, and without a brain. It is growth that lacks a teleological progression. Its survival and rapid progression is random instead of plotted; its survival is like that of kudzu rather than a civilized pruned English garden. This instead is a wild power reminiscent of nature. It is no wonder that our dis-ease with its power over us; our lack of control instead would require ease with chaos. And it is just this chaos that breeds its creative form.
If we consider the Internet as a political form is it possible to see that its mutability, creation, and existence does speak to its nature as a collective creation. Its psychological field made up of millions of intersecting and overlapping circles of potentials and discoveries, constantly building and reverberating into chaos, yet constellating into meaning with every new intentional act of awareness. This psychic wholeness that is available to all also creates fear and a threat when it comes to the scale and speed of the Internet.
From the beginning of computers during World War II as code-breaking machines, the first generation of computer scientists connected its evolution to the interests of secrecy and national security. Since that time, in our efforts to secure information of all types from military secrets to research to sell, the function of computers, computer scientists, and hackers still revolves around code-making and code-breaking.
This security entails secrecy that generates unconscious dynamics at all levels of the individual and society. It is the image of the hacker in particular, as a symbol in popular culture that gives a face or image to the fears, uncertainties, and doubts that accompany technological changes.
With the present generation that has grown up only knowing computers and the Internet, not as something new, but as a ubiquitous part of daily life, will our fears subside, or will they become unconscious to the point of needing compensation as some other monster yet defined? Or will the freedom to access information, and the freedom to connect become a given instead of a threat?