Reflections on the Movie Hackers
Writer from Haifa, Israel.
My favorite movie is Iain Softley’s “Hackers”
, but this story is not about it. Instead, it is the story of a young man in great distress, who finds solace in a world very reminiscent of the one portrayed by the movie. It is the story of me, whether I like it or not.
I once thought I like the movie because it had to do with computers. But I’ve come to realize that’s not the real reason it had stayed with me for over twenty years as my favorite one. As I got older and tried my luck in the computer industry (and failed), a creeping feeling made its way from the back of my mind to a sobering understanding: what I really loved about the movie was its spirit of youthful rebellion, of camaraderie among like-minded individuals, its fashion and soundtrack and above all the fact that it reminds me of my younger self.
Having a bunch of close friends like the ones the movie revolves around is a rare commodity these days, especially for introverts who seek their solitude like myself on most days. Having such a tight-knit group of friends also endows you with a sense of belonging, a concept which has become quite foreign in my own personal world. Belonging is hard: it makes you doubt your decision of joining a given group and in worse cases, it even makes you suspicious and unable to trust other members of that group. I guess being a team player is an acquired taste. However, the friends portrayed in the movie, despite describing themselves as individuals first and foremost, are banded together in an effort to bring down The Plague. Even their skills seem to complement each other’s, as one is better at rigging phone lines while another is able to recall the most minute details of his everyday experiences, the third is a master at cracking hidden codes and so on.
And they’re all young and beautiful and hate authority figures! Three traits, so I’ve learned, very typical of the punk subculture, which I now identify myself with from afar, as I am still a lone wolf. An innate disgust of authority has made me unable to be a part of large scale social systems, a fact which lends itself to perpetual aloofness, a moderate amount of loneliness, and an general ineffable feeling of cruising through life like an untethered balloon trying to find its path among what seems like a vast, empty space. Nevertheless, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do and I can do no other: I try to shy away from places which put one man above another, and whenever I force myself to take part in such systems I become entrenched in self-pity.
I realize the costumes, makeup, accessories, and hairstyles in “Hackers” have all been designed by professionals but it is my enduring hope that they are based on actual, daily dress habits of those who proudly call themselves Punks. I also realize the punk movement revolves around punk music, which I have not taken a liking to. Despite that, I remain tightly clung to my (erroneous?) notions that the ideology conveyed by punk supersedes my somewhat skewed way of looking at punks and that the fashion and looks which I instinctively attach to punk are true to their cause of romanticizing the movement, albeit not necessarily true to its actual real-life appearance.
But the movie is just a movie, right? No real people experience adventures the likes of which are portrayed in it. Actual hacking can be quite dull: it consists of sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end while NOT attending partly dim night clubs full of cyberpunk paraphernalia. Once again, I find myself entangled by the false romanticism of the movie. Or do I? Upon much retrospection, I have concluded that I actually did experience something akin to what the movie presents. It all happened during a very dark time of my life but what happened was a ray of light which (it took me years to realize this) was one of the best experiences I have ever experienced. This essay is an attempt at describing my own personal “Hackers” movie: real-life events very closely resembling the movie’s attitude and spirit.
The group I can somehow call my own had four members. I say ‘somehow’ because what’s now left of it are just dim memories of wonderful friends who helped shine a light in a very dark world. This was 20 years ago when I was in the 9th grade. My friends were Zvika, Ran and Avi. I used to call myself by the handle “The Cyborg” and Avi’s handle was Warhead, Zvika’s board was The Lighthouse, and Ran called himself Cyberhead.
These were the last days of the BBS era. We used to hang out during school breaks and sometimes after school and talk about what magnificent BBSs we logged on to or how great Zvika’s board was. I probably went on and on about whatever programming project I had going on of which the main one was the nIRC (more on that later). Sometimes we met at a local basketball court and shot some hoops (I don’t think I’ve played basketball since then). But mostly we listened to Zvika and stared at him as if he was the BBS/Computer demigod.
There were four of us, and I’ll use the original Hackers roster to assign each of us to a character from the movie: Zvika would, of course, be zero cool, for he was the wisest and most knowledgeable among us. He was also a bit detached, running his own board and not always paying attention to us lowly beginners, and I say that with the utmost fondness. Ran (Cyberhead) could be described as Lord Nikon, for he was the most loveable among us - everyone liked him and got along with him. To my understanding, this goes on to this day. I would affectionately describe Avi (Warhead) as Joey, for he was always trying out the new stuff the others had taught him with great enthusiasm and good-hearted fun. Lastly, for reasons which are to become apparent - I shall describe myself as Cereal Killer. I always had projects which did not always interest the others, much like the movie character being a Phreak, and of course, I would have been happy to crash at someone else’s place, other than my own.
Zero cool had his own BBS. It was one that had existed for a while prior to the formation of our group, and he had already established connections with other boards and started trading warez, which were pirated programs cracked and distributed (mostly) free of charge among BBSs. He had knowledge of other BBSs, their operators and their handles, which he would sometimes blurt out to us in a long list. This usually left Warhead and I amazed and smitten. Zvika was the one who came by my house and helped me fix the computer my dad had just bought for me (I had accidentally erased the autoexec.bat and config.sys files). To this day I get the chills whenever I think of what he must have seen there and am thankful that he did not just run away the moment he stepped into the apartment. Later on, Zvika loaned me a hard drive to install in my computer. When my dad found out about me tinkering with it, he smashed the hard drive and left me to come up with an excuse why I cannot return it. I told Zvika it slipped my hand and fell because I was utterly embarrassed to tell him the truth. He said it was OK and that I shouldn’t worry about it. That’s just the kind of nice guy he was. Zvika is a Naturopath today and lives with wife and son not far from where we grew up.
Lord Nikon (Cyberhead) made all schoolwork seem like a walk in the park. He was a straight-A student (which explains his future academic accomplishments) and was very much liked by his teachers and friends. I used to play basketball with him at the court next to his house. He was the one I could talk to the most about the program I had been writing during that period since I don’t seem to remember any of the others being interested in software programming. During school hours we used to exchange knowing glances about little tricks such as finding a back door in the school’s Microsoft Word program which enabled us to access the network’s command prompt, a thing which was strictly forbidden by the school’s computer teacher, let’s call him agent Gill. Cyberhead was the one who helped test the program I’ve written, named Nirc after the popular Internet Relay Chat client mIRC, on the school’s network. It was a chat program designed to allow two users on the same LAN to chat with each other. We tried it on the school network covertly using the loophole we had found in the MS-Word program and I was very proud when I was barely able to talk to Cyberhead on it while he was sitting at a different console.
Agent Gill, the computer teacher who was perceived by us (well, Warhead and myself at least) as the quintessential “bad guy”, used to shout a lot in a high pitched squeaky voice. He was the one who denied us access to various programs we found interesting. We were to stick to the programs we were assigned to during class, he said - which amounted to the mentioned word processor. When Warhead and I later misbehaved, Cyberhead was the one among us who got to go on a school trip to the US. He later got to travel quite a bit and for a long time I resented the school who gave opportunities to those who already had plenty and denied them from those who had the world closed off to them. Cyberhead now lives with his family in a small village. He went on to have a successful military career, undoubtedly making his parents and everyone else around him very proud.
Joey (Warhead) had friends from a wide range of social circles, so what we were doing was probably just one of many endeavors he was involved in. He really liked the world we inhabited and often expressed great interest in learning more about BBSs and the big white clumsy boxes we were playing with. Along with myself he would listen to Zero Cool’s stories of far away (though in the same calling code) boards and enjoy hacking away at agent Gill’s school computer network. Though the memory is dim, I seem to remember that he was with me when we tipped a hot water pot and caused the water to run into the computer room. We were later told the water had evaporated and damaged the computers but I’m pretty sure that it was just a hoax. We ended up not partaking in the aforementioned foreign exchange trip because of that. When we got older Warhead became a religious person and now lives in Israel’s occupied territories. He is involved in various right-wing groups and describes himself as an itinerant lecturer on subjects of right-wing politics.
All of this brings me to Cereal Killer (me). I most fervently sympathize with this character for a number of reasons, not the least of which is him being a punk. Doing business on a shady side street selling pirated music to innocent bypassers. I don’t fancy myself as a salesman but I do identify with the cyberpunk underworld he inhabits. I too have an enduring dislike and disrespect to authority and often find myself at the fringes of society because of it. I do admit that I like Cereal’s attire, too. The notion conveyed by it is one of a spirit marching to the sound of its own drum. Of originality manifested along with total disregard to what society has to offer. Even among his own friends, Cereal is somewhat of an outsider: His domains of expertise lie in a different domain - he is a phone phreak. But as mentioned earlier, the thing about him which attracts me the most is his undetailed family situation. You see, during the time I was a part of this pack of friends I have also been living with an abusive father. I used to get beat up at school and at home. My life outside of the computer world was narrow, pathetic and miserable. I wish I could walk around and crash people’s couches with nothing but a toothbrush but the sad truth was that I was a nonviolent nerd. I used to run away from bullies at school (although I was always bigger than them, why did I do that?) and come home to an empty cold house where I would immediately turn on my computer, either illegally hooking it up to the phone (my dad did not allow it) with a cable I would hide right after, or just sit for hours on end and code various programs in the Pascal programming language, which still holds a soft spot in my heart to this day. I would do that for about 8 hours straight and then go to sleep, without doing any of the excessive self-grooming mandatory of a healthy teenager. Despite being depressed, programming and the knowledge of being a part of a group that appreciated what I was doing kept my spirit from plunging into an abyss. The main programs I remember from that era are the nIRC which I described earlier, a space shooter game and even a Pascal module designed to allow programmers to use the modem in their programs (that one is still online at the SWAG archive at http://swag.outpostbbs.net/COMM/0109.PAS.html).
You can obviously see why this was a dark time for me, and it has certainly affected the rest of my life and the way I see the world. However, my group of friends - my Hackers - were a bright ray of sunshine which has instilled itself in my memory as one of the better experiences I have ever had.
The movie ‘Hackers’ actually came out earlier - in 1995. It had been my favorite movie even before the events described, but only decades later did I realize that some of the fictional events from the movie have also happened to me, albeit in a somewhat less dramatic fashion. Only years later did the thought that we actually had our own group of cyberpunk hackers dawn on me, and I am writing this in appreciation of how great it was that we were all brought together by a common interest.
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