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The Hacker Hero

This essay is adapted from the podcast episode originally published on 2010-01-27.

Is the Hacker a Trickster?

It is easy to look at the hacker as merely a trickster. I was inspired to dig into the mythology of Enki, inspired by Snow Crash, and in doing so realized comparison is inaccurate at best. While one of his attributes was mischief, much more of his myth is wrapped up in technology and the exercise of craft. From the Wikipedia entry on Enki:

“In character Enki is not a jester or trickster god, he is never a cheat, and although fooled, he is not a fool. Enki uses his magic for the good of others when called upon to help either a deity or a human. Enki is always true to his own essence as a masculine nurturer. He is fundamentally a trouble-shooter god, and avoids or disarms those who bring conflict and death to the world. He is the mediator whose compassion and sense of humour breaks and disarms the wrath of his stern half-brother, Enlil, king of the gods. He is the Challenger who tests the limits of Inanna in the myth Enki and Inanna and the Me and then concedes graciously his defeat by the young goddess of Love and War, by strengthening the bonds between Eridu and her city of Uruk. So he becomes the Empowerer of Inanna.”

Think about Prometheus, too, for a moment. He is a character that catalyzed change, so much so that he has become a metaphor for change, usually change that produces forward progress. The ensuing chaos is most disruptive to the established powers that be rather than entirely indiscriminate. Humans are made better off by Prometheus’ actions, by an act of transgressing the established order. The established powers, the gods, are the ones to chain him down, as merciless punishment for upsetting their preferred order. Like Enki, though, the core motive for Prometheus seems to be restoring balance. The ensuing disruption is a side effect of him doing so, or may be an obscure part of his method.

It is difficult to divorce the hacker archetype from social values. A theme threaded throughout the Vandermeer’s Steampunk anthology is how characters who could fairly be labeled hacker work to enable a different social agenda or at least respond disruptively to the established one. The introductory essay, by Jess Nevins, on the roots of steampunk starts with the Edisonades, stories of the mad cap inventor. These are an interesting counterpoint as their protagonists typically act more in service of the status quo, at the time the imperial or colonial urge. Almost certainly this peeks through in the works on Wells, maybe even Verne. As Nevins traces the genre forward, he charts the reaction to this almost gleeful, naive embrace of an inequitable social system. I wouldn’t go as far as laying the roots of the social injustice at the hacker’s feet. I would be more charitable and suggest that the zeal for invention clouds any further considerations. In later, more literary stories, like diFilippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, such implications are eventually more directly explored.

diFilippo is also most certainly informed by the reaction to the Edisonades. In later steampunk, issues of class and social justice are more consistently and directly addressed. The tropes of the promethean archetype are also much more frequently in evidence in the form of technology and its inventors acting to redress socio-political imbalance. I think the stories in the handful of issue of Steampunk Magazine do the best job of exploring this theme. Because of my recent reading, steampunk just seems to be top of mind. That and technology is so central to the sub-genre. As Nevins points out about the Edisonades the inventor is also often pulled into the foreground. I am sure there are good examples from other genres of fiction.

Interacting with Systems

Cyberpunk is an excellent genre for exploring the experience of understanding and altering systems. This is a huge motivation for real world hackers, often cited as a core part of the definition–understanding rule governed systems in order, often by exceeding those rules. On consideration, it overlaps with the mythic trickster or accurately the trouble shooter deity. Knowledge begets culture, change, even progress. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is often what invites the chaos that earns many such mythic characters their reputation as tricksters. It doesn’t change their first hand experience of grokking a system, in order to change it in some usually profound way.

Stephenson is a very accessible author working in this vein. Snow Crash among other things was about a massive, simulated world, the metaverse, and neuro linguistic hacking, or re-progamming a person’s will by means of very specific spoke word incantations. He does an excellent job of imparting that thrill of understanding a complex system. I read this book years ago but its ability to inspire this essay speak to his staying power when spreading big ideas. Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem each in turn increased the scale of the systems explored. I would argue that the conclusion of Anathem, with spoiling it, is the logical extrapolation of this theme in the rest of his books.

Not surprisingly, Stephenson’s hackers have to traverse a morally ambiguous world. They often evince their own strong personal ethos, often as simple as valuing knowledge of the system and that sharing of that knowledge is its own reward. Another of his novel, The Diamond Age, confronts that on multiple levels. A father wants to care for his daughter. A society wants to care for an entire generation of its daughters. Unequal factions realize that information is key to leveling the playing field.

Rudy Rucker is another cyber punk author who conveys the thrill of knowing. Many of his stories revolve around unlocking some secret knowledge and unpacking the consequences of doing so. In none of his stories are the hacker characters wholly good or wholly bad. In some ways, Rucker leads the reader naturally through narrative through to an intriguing point. Even thinking of the original “hack” in terms of good and bad isn’t accurate enough, so he has to expand how we think about it. Many of his books dwell at length on exploring changes in systems as they unfold. He does a good job, for the most part, in tying these into the personal narrative but he also paints a broader mural, almost a travelogue of what some key change would wreak on the world at large.

I find both Stephenson and Rucker immensely readable at least partly because I find the hacker aspects of their characters so personally relatable. I think Rucker’s pacing and characters are probably a bit more accessible to the non-hacker. This is just the tip of the iceberg, drawing from my personal favorites. Other grand punks of the genre explore these themes, and more, like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

The Post-modern Hacker Hero

In many ways, Charlie Stross exemplifies this latest wrinkle on the archetype. His wonderful essay in The Atrocity Archives describes the tools of the trade and the mentality, that of the hacker using technology to the same ends that other heros use physical strength and more obvious, outward attributes. The change in the world as a system that the Laundry Series addresses is covert. The balance in question is between ignorant mankind and extradimensional beings that technology can invoke, mostly inadvertently but sometimes with a more traditional minded antagonist. The hero of the series, Bob, is called on, even coerced, to use his technical skills in serving to keep these elder horrors at bay. Knowledge is certainly his weapon both directly in the form of “computational demonology” but also knowledge of the balance itself including the rules by which the outer gods have to abide.

Unlike the earlier myths, Bob’s world isn’t always so black and white. Often though he acts for what he thinks is the right balance. Sometimes he is left wondering at the morality of his acts and the motives of his bosses. In a post-modern way, Stross suggests that there may be little difference between the dark elder gods and Howard’s task masters.

Another of Stross’ protagonists, Manfred Mancx in the novel Accelerando, is another disruptor but one that is much more promethean in his role even he literally is not stealing ideas or working against other agents for balance. Rather as an inventor, his ideas cast chaos in their wake. In the third part of the book for instance it isn’t entirely clear that the post humans who emerge as a consequence of Mancx’s earlier work are qualitatively better or more capable than humans. Mancx and his progeny act here more as openers of the way. They enable progress but often accompanied with a healthy dose of disruption. Again, it isn’t always clear that humanity and post-humanity are better off or exactly how so if so. It doesn’t change the nature of the heroes in both these works. They are still troubleshooters, agents of change.

The Disneyfication of the Hacker Hero

In film, a recent example that offers more food for thought is Wall-E. One of criticisms I read misses the point I am trying to make, to demonstrate in the depiction of hacker heros across forms and media. The issue some took was that this trickster or hacker character upset the apple cart and left humanity wholly unable to care for itself. At least they had a stable system before Wall-E came along. I don’t think these critics sat through the end credits, which contain a subtle bolstering of the theme of resetting a system out of balance, not of lapsarian woe.

The larger changes wrought are a key part of the story but not the point as I see it, at least in contemplating the role of the titular bot. More important is that Wall-E is an accidental hero, an inadvertent force for change. He pursues his own internal ethic, his drive to collect interesting things. His curiosity about the world opens him to the possibility of love. Following where that new experience leads him literally causes the rest of the film to unfold. Better yet, unknowingly Wall-E inspires those around him to change. In the case of the robots stuck in the rut of the skewed system of the starliner, he challenges them, prods them to grow beyond their programming. For the humans, his acts prompt them to realize what they lost and re-ignite their own curiosity and drive to pursue it.

Wall-E’s trip is not without consequence. There is an established force with a stake in keeping things the way they are. The demonization of the mega-corporation, Buy-n-Large, and its proxy in the form of the robotic autopilot may be a bit of an over simplification. The whole film may water things down a bit but these agents are present enough to use it as a stepping stone. As a geek dad, I can ask my boys questions about the chaos around Wall-E. I can get them thinking about the role of curiosity and how change is affected.

Where has the Hacker as Hero gone Wrong?

Frankenstein is the easy answer, but was the good doctor a hacker hero? In some re-tellings, he is trying to redress the loss of a loved one. Subjectively, maybe he felt he was working towards some good. Is he working towards a greater balance or selfish gain?

I don’t think he is a hacker hero, maybe he is a hacker villain. The distinction may revolve around his selfish pursuit of curiosity and use of knowledge despite the consequences. Other hacker prototypes certainly seemed more conscious of consequences even if they still ended up acting. Enki and Prometheus both in particular defied consequences of which they seemed to be well aware in order to restore or improve the balance in the world around them. There is some objective measure of progress, some larger group gained.

Frankenstein certainly exposes a risk, the hacker turned too inward, towards selfishness. So maybe he is a related, dark reflection, related with his story then serving a different end. I already mentioned the Edisonades. One possibility when dealing with systems and questions of balance is that the context grows wider. What may have seemed heroic at one stage looks petty, ignorant or imperialistic at another. I think this is forgivable, if it remains inexcusable, in some circumstances. Progress is rarely perfectly choreographed. Discovery is messy, especially in hind sight, but without risking it, far less would be learned.

It is hard to say, though, since a more considered, enlightened progress might be worth it if it allows the avoidance of some of the horrible mistakes in the example of the Edisonades, such as subjugation of native people or using new found technologies for dire, militaristic ends. I think the best we can hope for here is striving for balance in the unfolding of progressive change. The key may be realizing mistakes along the way and more critically learning from them in time to adjust action accordingly.

As Steampunk literature has grown to be more politically sophisticated, as Nevins’ essay suggests, the lesson emerging from that maturity may be the the deeper consideration of the process of progress and how it varies when the rate of change also varies. To my mind, this invites the aspect of the hacker hero that overlaps with the trickster, in narrative form to explore this trade off. Is it better to go slowly with the assumption we can predict all the pitfalls or to explore a bit more brashly but with a receptiveness to the lessons thus invited and hopefully not as easily forgotten? The hacker hero when best depicted asks, who is to say that going more softly down the avenue of progress would make us wiser than accumulating the bumps, scrapes and scars of hard won first hand knowledge of the consequences of even well intentioned disruption?

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Weekend Reads - Christopher T. Miller linked to this post on January 11, 2014

    […] The Hacker Hero – “Is the Hacker a Trickster? It is easy to look at the hacker as merely a trickster. I was inspired to dig into the…” […]

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