When Hacking was Cool: Sneakers and the Computer Era

A man wearing a helmet with flood light on the head. The helmet has 2 stickers (described in next image).

Sneakers (1992) would never be made today.

Close-up of last image. 2 stickers: cartoon American flag waving with 'UNION' in the same red as the red stripes of the flag. #2: 'LIVE BETTER | WORK UNION'. The left is in red and the right is in blue, both with white text.

No movie made today could ever be pro-union, even in an offhand prop. Even though Hollywood is one of the only American bastions of unions.

I am also struck by the attitude toward hacking in this era. Around the 80s-00s, we have: TRON
The Matrix

All of them look to the computer age with wonder and hope, in their own way.

The computer geek was an archetype in this era. Usually in high school or fresh out of it, he (almost always a man) never got good grades but excelled with computers. That put him on the bad side of the law, which sometimes dangles freedom in exchange for working for the Man.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and its 1984 predecessor were passed literally in response to WarGames (1983). Hacking went from teenage indiscretion to ruin-your-life felony.

I’m probably over-simplifying here, I’m not well versed on the topic.

In some of these movies, the Hacker beats The Man at his own game. The heroes of Sneakers and Hackers out-hack The Man and liberate information and money for all. In The Matrix, a techno-dystopia, Neo is a programmer. He is raised in the world of machines yet able to change their simulation for the better and save the world.

These films and probably others build up to the first dotcom bubble - already by 1995 (Hackers), the villain is a security expert hacker. He lives the high life, the audience intrigued by the contradiction of a thief’s life with a white hat’s legality.

And this is what our world became, 25 years later. Computers, the Net, and the World Wide Web (different concepts now merged into what we think of as “the Internet”) are dominated by the most evil motherfuckers who mostly obey the letter of the law.

Some of them have used computers to gain so much money and power that they now attempt to break the law. We will never know the depths of their depravity, but we know that Jeff Bezos and his Amazon cronies illegally crushed Diapers.com.

It’s a fascinating case study - rather than change the world, computers merely conformed to the world as it already existed. If Bezos and Amazon violated the law, it was an antitrust act.

“Antitrust” comes from the “trusts” that had a stranglehold on American life in the 1900s. If Amazon existed in 1900, it would have been a trust. Antitrust enforcement has been weak since the 00s. (Again, not an expert.)

See: the breakup of AT&T in the 80s vs. the government’s insignificant settlement with Microsoft in the 00s.

I would be interested in seeing how many dotcom companies were truly terrible, vs. how many were simply 20 years ahead of their time. COVID accelerated the switch even faster, with many of us doing more things online.

People have seen this digitization coming for decades, and they don’t like it. At the end of the 90s we get the DMCA, which makes plenty of mundane and otherwise legal activities illegal, because they take place on a computer.

Encryption and DRM have gone from premium add-ons, trivially circumvented, to military grade on all but the cheapest devices. Circumvention relies on faulty implementation, because the math is impossibly strong. Breaking these locks is technically illegal, even if you just want to do something like change the hard drive in your DVR or watch a DVD on your computer.

As Lessig points out, the more digital we become, the more control we cede under the law.

And as security experts continuously tell us, the more digital we are, the more we can be spied on and controlled. If your Twitter is set to “Home” and not chronological, whether you saw this post on Twitter at all was up to a black-box function living inside Twitter HQ.

Almost everyone carries around a microphone and video camera in their pocket. The only thing stopping them from recording 24/7 is a pinkie promise from the manufacturer that they won’t, and their “best” effort to prevent others from breaking in and doing it anyway.

If high-value targets can get hacked, I don’t know what hope the rest of us have.

Back to those movies. They saw what we know now: everything is a computer. Everything is vulnerable. They saw what was coming, and dared to wonder: “What if this changes who is in charge? What if this changes how we live? What if this changes what we care about?”

Sneakers mocks “internet dating”, something now enjoyed by 30% of Americans (pre-COVID). Change came.

But in other ways, it didn’t. Sears and America Online both failed to adapt to new technology. But in practice, all that means is that we know Jeff Bezos’s name and not Steve Case’s (AOL).

When a business has the ability to force its workers to pee in bottles, not talk, leave their phones at the door, not sit down, etc., this is a sign that the business is too powerful. And that’s a tale as old as capitalism.

Sneakers and Hackers see hacking as a moral duty. A way to stick it to The Man. The problem is, The Man fought back. Most of the hacks today are for money, not political goals.

Some people are willing to die or go to jail for their beliefs, but not many. The only thing that makes people take that risk is cash, in the form of cryptocurrency and spam-botnets.

At multiple points in Sneakers, the heroes take money from Republican accounts and put them in charities like Amnesty International.

This was another shocking thing to me - in 1992, Republicans were still the bad guys. Today, those same Republicans get speaking jobs at the DNC and on MSNBC.

What does it mean when money is numbers on a computer? What does it mean when Jeff Bezos’s account is worth 0x174876e800 and most people’s are worth 0x1388? Would he notice if the values flipped, and even if he did, would we care?

This is where bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and NFTs come out of the slime. Cryptocurrency is a great idea marred by growing pains, bad choices, and existing capitalistic interests choking out regular people. Just like computers.

Crypto hasn’t rescued Africa from poverty. As long as the US, Europe, China, and Russia are the geopolitical hegemony, I don’t see how numbers on a computer change anything.

The money in a crypto scheme has to come from somewhere, and most people aren’t interested in making Africa rich at their expense. (They are quite happy, on the other hand, to do the reverse, and have been for 500 years.) Instead what we get is that same story on repeat: capitalism found a way to replicate existing class divisions in a new space.

What I love about these movies is their moments of brilliance. Where the problem is not a black box that breaks encryption, but the US government owning that black box.

Where files on a computer can be copied freely, forever, giving information and art to the entire world.

I’ve written about this in the past, but the hacker ethos has almost died out completely. If you listen to tech company recruiters, a “hacker” is someone who works 12 hour days, downloads node.js, and follows a tutorial that one of the biggest corporations on Earth wrote.

Hacking used to mean something, and it can mean something again. It would be wise to abandon the label and work covertly, but with the fiery spirit of a true Hacker.

This is the spirit that brought us BitTorrent and Napster. New ways of organizing and distributing information that The Man tried to shut down and co-opt.

Hacking means not asking permission, not obeying the EULA, and not making it harder to pirate stuff. It means pissing off Amazon when you host information on how to hack Kindles and remove their ads.

Computers used to be LEGO and now they’re molded plastic. Most people’s primary computer isn’t a laptop that can run anything, but a phone. Android phones require enabling a setting to escape the walled garden. Some Androids don’t even let you. Like Apple phones, you can only install your own programs if you hack them. We aren’t training the next generation of hackers because the last generation of hackers stole the ladder that had been there for 50 years.

I want my first decade with the Internet, 2000-2009, to be repeated every decade. Dominant players should not exist. Free information, hosted by smalltime hobbyists and quirky small companies. New technologies to make sharing easier than ever before.

Computers get faster every year and all we do with them is make flashier ads.