Cyberpunk as Counterculture

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Is Cyberpunk the Counterculture of the 1990's?

The Red Light District of the Virtual Community

As that amorphous zone called cyberspace comes into being, it is clear that
its terrain is not what many of its advocates would like to claim. The
shape of cyberspace was meant to be antiseptic, hierarchical, clean and
seamless, like a Pentagon war room; for, after all. the ARPANet (today's
Internet) was meant to make the automation of warfare more efficient... and
when the brains of NSFNet got to work with it, they imparted their seal of
possession - with their preferred model being the hermetically sealed
scientific laboratory, the ivory tower of pure, untrammeled research and
uninterrupted discourse. These two models, the war room and the science
lab, were the early basis for computer networks. And then along came the
first party crashers. Their model was a different one - Chiba City from
William Gibson's Neuromancer. A town of taverns known for being fast,
dangerous, exotic, and wild.

"Virtual community" enthusiasts saw many possibilities for the new
networking technologies. People's could link up around common interests and
concerns and unite in ways that geography normally would prevent. The net
could unite technologists, artists, poets, philosophers, and activists in
new projects for transforming society. But they still had a somewhat
antiseptic vision. Their vision had no room for pranks, commerce, conflict,
braggadocio, propaganda, or adventure. Their communities, if created, would
look too much like the planned communities of suburban life - you know, the
ones walled off from the rest of the world with perfectly trimmed
landscapes and ostentatious porticoes. But the new uninvited guests were
children of the inner city. At least, the inner city of the imagination, if
not that of 'realspace.'

By the mid-1980s, it was apparent that cyberspace had a lot of frontier
zones where all kinds of highwaymen and con artists plyed their trade.
These people were not all shiny, happy riders of the Great Information
SuperHighway. Some had a downright attitude. They wanted to screw the
system, to throw a monkey wrench in the churning corporate gears of the
telecom companies. They had had predecessors: the 'hackers' of MIT who
considered no locked door or password to be an obstacle; the 'phreaks' of
the 70s who 'blue boxed' their way into 20-way conference calls; and the
'pirates' who thought no software protection system should be left
uncracked. These were the problem children of Operation Sundevil. They read
a particular kind of sci fi genre which offered a dystopian,
techno-entropic future. The name of this genre was cyberpunk.

Hacking the Old Counterculture

It has long been a truism of American political thought that there is a
30-year cycle of American politics, alternating between conservatism and
experimentation. America had just come out of a conservative decade in the
1980s, and everyone was expecting that something like the 1960s would be
coming again in the 1990s. To meet this retroexpectation, fashion designers
eagerly complied, recycling all kinds of things from earth shoes to Nehru
jackets. No one knew what the 90s would bring - people talked about a new
fiscal sensibility, a new stay-at-home attitude (cocooning), and maybe a
new simplicity. Nothing that really looked like a counterculture; just a
cultural retrenchment. And then Time magazine, that great barometer of
American life, told us who the counterculture would be: the cyberpunk. A
new youth explosion was underway - but this was a Generation Xplosion,
which meant taking to the airwaves instead of the streets.

People quickly found out this new counterculture was not quite like the old
one. They preferred the rave, with its hyperaccelerated remixed digital
music, to simple acoustic folk songs; their drug of choice was Ecstasy, not
pot. These were not New Age flower children looking for "peace and love";
instead they were New Edge hiphoppers out for "tech and cred." Rather than
having some kind of 'back to nature' romanticism, these folks preferred the
urban disorder of the city, and they saw technology as their weapon of
choice, not the enemy. Their heroes were not the Hippies of Peoples' Park -
instead they looked to the pioneers of pirate radio as their icons. Not
surprisingly, old countercultural types like Timothy Leary, John Perry
Barlow, and Robert Anton Wilson quickly joined their ranks, proclaiming
cyberpunk was the next wave of struggle against the System and all it stood
for.

Their were superficial similarities, of course. The cyberpunks had a
curious enthusiasm for neurochemicals, especially ones that they claimed
increased energy, intelligence, or memory, although they rejected the idea
that drugs might lead to some kind of peace or mystical harmony. They
eschewed political activism, civil disobedience, and protest marches.
Intead, they preferred a more essential form of the guerilla strike - one
that used the phone lines rather than the picket line. There was no point
in asking the Man for anything. Simply pick up your keyboard and take what
you want from him, 'cause he won't give it to you.

Challenges to the Norms of the Emerging Information Order

In order for cyberpunk to be a counterculture, there had to have been a
culture it was rebelling against. And sure enough there was. It was the
culture of the multinational corporation, which viewed information as
proprietary; the culture of the new information and service economy, which
offered rebellious underachivers only McJobs or McData Processing
positions; and the culture of the Computer Establishment, which made lots
of dumb rules about where one could and could not go in cyberspace. The
slogan of the old counterculture was "Make love, not war." How nice. But
the slogan of the new counterculture was less romantic, and more matter of
fact. "Information wants to be free."

The rebelliousness of that slogan does not seem evident at first glance.
But when you think about it, it is as dangerous as any other manifesto.
They meant all kinds of information. How to eavesdrop on people. How to rig
vending machines and pay phones. How to bootleg music concert tapes. How to
snatch classified information from the government. How to write viruses.
How to write logic bombs which paralyze computer systems. How to break into
corporate voice mail. How to get satellite or cable TV for free. How to
make pipe bombs and homebrew your own LSD. How to sabotage the workplace.
How to break into databases. Even how to get information about other people
- things we might consider a matter of privacy - and how to use it against
them.

In a multinational Information Order, where publishers of movies, software,
books, and other forms of information (genome sequences? indigenous
knowledge?) are increasingly trying to establish a monopoly standard of
intellectual property (through treaties such as GATT) so no one else will
grab their cash cow (especially somebody in the Third World), and other
corporations are zealously seeking to guard their proprietary 'trade
secrets' from industrial espionage, the slogan "information wants to be
free" is a ticking time bomb. The multinational corporation wants complete
control over information, to hoard the data that monitors their market
penetration and investment opportunities. Information is the lifeblood of
the multinational corporation, which must always be watching the stock
market in several time zones. If someone is sitting there messing with the
pipeline, the CEOs understandably get a little nervous.

Wielding Power in a Cybernetic Age

It is somewhat of a truism that as computers control more aspects of
society, the people who can control those computers also have more power.
Computers route our transportation systems, manage our commerce, enable us
to communicate with one another, automate many aspects of our lives, and
maintain a great deal of information on each and every one of us. They do
the business of the State and the Corporation. Thus they are prime targets
for the discontent of the disaffected. Don't like your boss? Reroute all
his incoming phone calls to a sex chat line. Don't like your teacher? Hack
into the school and "fix" your grades. Don't like your friend? Just
"adjust" their credit rating. Pissed off at society? Retime the downtown
traffic lights. Mad at the government? Blitz every fax machine on Capitol
Hill with drawings of Zippy the Pinhead.

So many people depend on computers for their lives, that any group which
can take control over computers have a lot of power. The cyberpunks know
this. They often proclaim that there is a higher social mission to their
misdeeds. By crashing the phone system, they want to prove that the phone
system is unsuitable. By penetrating a security system, they claim, they
want to show how laughable society's reliance on technology for security
is. By reading your email, they want you to come to realize that the
government is probably reading it too, and you should protect yourself with
encryption.

Virus/logic bomb/Trojan writers see themselves as the vanguard of the
movement - they are the Weather Underground of the cyberpunks. Computers
control too many aspects of our lives - there's no point in hacking into
the System here or there. Let's just shut 'em down. Infecting the
government's computers with a virus is not just a prank. It's political
terrorism. Imagine what would have happened if someone was able during the
Persian Gulf War to infect the military C3I system with a virus and
paralyze the U.S.' force coordination ability. That would have stopped the
war a lot sooner than any "give peace a chance" sit-in. In the cybernetic
age, 'direct action' has taken on a new meaning.

The "Social Organization" of the Computer Underground?

Gordon Meyer wrote a paper a few years ago by this very name. Basically, he
chose to look at the computer underground as a loose confederation of
criminal organizations. This is generally how the Secret Service views the
matter, although cyberpunk partisans protest there is an important social
and political importance to their actions; so say their manifestoes,
anyway. However, if cyberpunk really were some sort of countercultural
movement, one might expect to see some sort of solidarity or cooperation.
Cyberpunk apparently fails in this regard, because their seem to be no
united "goals" for the movement. There are people hacking over here,
hacking over there, but no common coordination, goals, or structures to be
found. Cyberpunks are notorious for ratting on each other and turning each
other in. And they are famous for backstabbing each other in every way
possible. Hacker paranoia is legendary - they don't trust anybody, and
since most of them use "social engineering" to trick people, they expect
others to try and trick them.

There is no wrath like that of a cyberpunk scorned. They find extravagant
ways of wreaking revenge on others who claim to be better hackers than they
are. This is where cyberpunk fails as a true counterculture. Despite the
slogans and manifestoes, there does not seem to be a unifying ethos. There
are attempts to "hack" out a Hacker Ethic - you should redistribute pirate
software, not sell it yourself for profit, etc. - but no attempts to
enforce it or make it a true standard. Most computer undergrounders really
don't have any sense of a grand social mission for their activities. It's
just a way for them to get things they want for free and to go places where
nasty grownups force them to get expensive accounts for before visiting.

They'll steal some little old lady's phone card number as quickly as
they'll rob WATTS service from some big corporation.

There does not really seem to be a social organization to the computer
underground, because most cyberpunks are loners, working for themselves.
Some hang out in groups like TAP or 2600, but they only do so to share
codez or hacks or other information - there is no real effort to
collaborate on projects. Sociologists really don't know what the demography
of the CU is. Most assume that the average cyberpunk is a white suburban
American male; a socially inept adolescent with poor hygiene. Maybe this is
the demographic average, but no one's really done the studies to figure it
out. This picture hides the growing internationalization of the hacker
trade, as more and more of the Third World starts to resent the information
monopolization of the First World. Outside the U.S., in fact, the political
dimensions of cyberpunk come more into focus, because the motives for
computer theft are true need, not suburban boredom and adolescent
rebelliousness.

CyberPolitics: is there any?

While few cyberpunks are explicitly politically active in the classical
sense (most do not vote), in their discussions with each other, an implicit
politics does emerge. The underlying value system of most cyberpunks is
libertarianism. The government just has no bloody business telling you what
you can and cannot do with your modem, or what information you can acquire
or send, or what you put into your body, or what you do with your money.
For most of them, privacy is an important issue - they're tired of the
government reading their mail and maintaining data on them (who watches the
Watchman, after all?), so they use cryptographic methods to protect their
communications and transactions.

Since data encryption theory and technology is supposed to (in theory) be
under the sole control of the National Security Agency (ciphers are classed
as 'munitions' vis-a-vis foreign export), providing people with public-key
cryptography is also a rebellious act. The CUers who do so are called
"cypherpunks," and they feel that people should use encryption to protect
themselves from the State, and decryption to access the classified
information that it so jealously guards from them. Some "cypherpunks"
believe encryption can ultimately destroy the State - if one enciphers
their monetary transaction, taxation will become impossible. It's not for
no reason that many of them are called "cryptoanarchists."

Cyberpolitics is basically informed by a lot of what's going on in the
general culture. Chaos theory, postmodernism, Dadaism, and Situationism
(especially the latter's use of elaborate pranks and cultural detournement
to savage 'the spectacle') attitude influence the pessimism of much of
cyberpunk politics. The cyberpunk relies on the detritus society casts away
- shredded phone system documents, junked electronics equipment, and dumped
password printouts - for much of his trade. In many ways, his politics is
just one of parasitism. Society is not going to improve very much, but the
cleverest "console cowboys" will be best prepared to exploit the situation
and turn it to their advantage.

Grime and Bamboozlement: Thinking about InfoCrime

If you broke into somebody's house and took nothing of value and locked the
door on the way out, did you commit a crime? What if you rearranged all the
posters on the wall, opened and closed all the drawers, and copied
everything that was in the person's notebooks, but still didn't take
anything of value? Have you committed a crime? What about if you copied
what was in the homeowner's diary, or used their stereo, or broke some of
their glasses? Now it becomes a bit more tricky. So it goes with computer
hacking. Many computer 'intruders' do malicious things - erase data, leave
Trojan horse programs or logic bombs or viruses, read personal mail, or
harass other users. Yet others break into computer systems for the same
reason that people climb Mt' Everest. Because it's there.

If one breaks into a computer, copies information normally publically
available anyway, and doesn't delete or change anything, there might be
little evidence they were ever there. However, many computer network
administrators are trained exactly to watch telltale signs of such computer
'penetration.' The question remains as to the criminality of their
activity. Breaking into a computer, like breaking into a house, is defined
as a crime. But it seems to me that the true criminal activity involves
what you do once you're inside. What if you leave something nice (maybe
some flowers) for the homeowner? How about a note saying something like
"you need better locks"? This is what does seem to be somewhat 'puzzling'
about current computer crime laws. Besides the fact that they are
practically unenforceable.

Maybe most everybody agrees it's wrong to steal phone card or credit card
numbers from innocent and unsuspecting people, or steal from their ATM
accounts. But what about blue boxing and "borrowing" a little bit of phone
service from AT & T? So you make a $15 phone call for free. It's not like
the phone companies and cable companies and so on aren't sucking people dry
anyway. And while software 'piracy' is defined as a crime, this type of
theft is apparently one of the most common in the world, since there are
very few people who obey the very strict and explict noncopy instructions
in their software license - which grants you the right to use the program
(read the fine print) and not the rights to the program code itself! If the
L.A. Riots were a "rebellion," then maybe some of this computer "crime" is
insurrection also?

And What About the Old "Hackers" and "Punks"?

Steven Levy and others who knew the original Hackers of MIT are hopping
mad. They are mad that these 'hooligans' of the 90s have stolen the name
"hacker." They would rather that these people be called "crackers," because
they do not live up to the noble Hacker Ethic of the MIT hackers - make
technology accessible to people; decentralize information; create
programming code that is understandable rather than elegant. Anything that
got a piece of technology to do something it was not originally designed to
do (probably because it was poorly designed) was a "hack." Levy protests
that the original Hackers tried to disseminate information to the masses,
not hoard it for their own personal gain or power agendas. They were people
who would rather "code than sleep," the ones who launched the Personal
Computer Revolution which liberated America.

Yeah, right. Some people pointed out to Levy that the original Hackers were
not so different after all. Many of them came up with equally elaborate
schemes to steal time from the university mainframe - they were "computer
intruders" too, who also found ways to swipe stuff from the coke machines
and the pay phones. Many cyberpunks suggest the dichotomy (of cracker =
secretive, malicious, dangerous, destructive, etc. versus hacker = open,
socially minded, constructive, honest, etc.) is a false one, and that Levy
is guilty of a good deal of romanticism. After all, didn't Wozniak and Jobs
sell out when Apple patented its system architecture, making it an
effective monopoly? Hackers exceed limitations; crackers simply manipulate
what's already there. Or so we're told.

The original punks have held their own protest against the cyberpunk label,
as well. What's all this business about technique and technical prowess?
The whole thing about punk music was - so what if you don't really know how
to play? Get up there and make some noise anyway! The 70s punks think it
somewhat ironic that these "computer nerds" are using the punk label, as if
wearing all those cool "MainFrame" clothes bought at the mall gave them
some kind of edge. To many of the original punks, cyberpunk is too much
posing, and too little substance. In any case, it's apparently clear that
the names "cyberpunk" and "hacker" are contested domain; and, to a certain
extent, "computer underground" is, too.

Cyberpunks: the new Lumpenproletarians of the Information Age? Or something
more serious?

So we've looked at some ways in which cyberpunk may be a new
counterculture, and some ways in which it may not be. As with any movement,
the question always remains: will they sell out? Will they be co-opted?
Capitalism has, as usual, found various ways to cash in on the trend, with
cyberpunk novels, clothes, video games, gadgets, and so on, completing the
process that Herbert Marcuse describes so well. The fact that many
ex-hackers are now going to work for computer security firms suggests (not
unsurprisingly) that, like the hippies of the 60s, these folks are willing
to cash it all in for a cushy job and a corporate jet.

Are the cyberpunks a more serious challenge to the System than their
predecessors? As suggested above, they definitely have the potential to be
a greater challenge. Imagine the dismay of the Hagen Daz corporate exec
when he finds out that 20,000 cases have been accidentally routed to the
north pole. Imagine the frustration of the government bureaucrat who finds
out that all his files on 'troublemakers' have been scrambled. Imagine the
anger of the Pentagon general who finds that his drone-piloted planes are
actually bombing the Atlantic Ocean instead of Saddam Hussein. Or the media
monopoly executive who finds that his satellite network now seems to be
only carrying "Ren N Stimpy." But for these same reasons, cyberpunks may be
a greater danger to society as a whole, not just to "the Powers That Be."

Instead of just "dropping out" of society, or just parasitically feeding
off of its information monopolies, cyberpunks have the potential to change
it. But to do so they'll have to learn those weary lessons of Movement
history. You know what they are. Study up. Think globally, act locally. And
most importantly, don't mourn, organize . Just think what cyberpunks could
accomplish if they actually learned to cooperate with, talk to, and trust
each other. If instead of pulling pranks on the Man, they actually started
to try and take away some of his power. If instead of sabotaging grassroots
bulletin-board systems, they jammed the signal of propaganda engines like
Voice of America. Then we could say that maybe, at long last, the New
Counterculture has come of age...

Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1)


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