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Touching Earth

I used to hate travel for work. I’d be stuck in the pressure cooker of modern air travel with people with whom as often as not the only thing I had in common was a job. Can you imagine, long spans of either awkward silence or endlessly rehashing work? For those jobs of the past, the purpose of any given trip was likely to involve some customer glad handing, a chore under the best of circumstances. The destinations were always uniformly nondescript, beige, corporate, even industrial.

The first weeks of the job I took a little over three and a half years ago gave me reason to reconsider. I went to my first conference in several years specifically for work, the Personal Democracy Forum. Many of the talks were life changing, electrifying, provocative. I got to spend time with colleagues with whom I’d only ever interacted online. I had many conversations with a friend who I still see but rarely, our time together as much a function of our respective travel schedules as anything.

Right after that conference, I got to take my very first trip to Europe. Ever. In my life, then almost forty years long.

I spent a week in a reclaimed, run down space in an urban neighborhood in Budapest. A bunch of local makers had made it their home and were hosting another bunch of makers, who travelled from all around the globe. We formed teams and worked during the day on building something, in my team’s case a smart and social door, to present at the end of the week. When we weren’t working, we ate where the working people of the city did, in open air courtyards. We were very lucky to have an almost native guide who helped us form a very authentic impression of the city. We didn’t see any kind of tourist place until the very end of the week, when we walked to the Open University, by the river, for some plenaries.

Unfortunately, after that first year, I made a choice to accept responsibilities I thought the organization needed me to fill at the time. If I encountered an opportunity to travel or to speak, more often than not, I delegated to one of my staff, to give them opportunities to grow professionally and personally. At the time, it didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice. There were tons of other demands on my time dealing with strategy, staffing, budgeting, and managing. I grew in my own way in response to those demands on my abilities and characteristics.

I made a decision recently, to leave my job. I do not yet have something else lined up though I am working almost full time on doing so. My co-workers know of this decision, I was asked to share it just a couple of days after I spoke to my bosses. I have no idea how much more widely it has been communicated and to be honest, two weeks on from my decision, I am not concerned if this is news to the wider world.

A large part of my thinking was that I need to touch earth. I actually didn’t know the origin of this expression and had to look it up, finding it even more apt than I realized. When the man who was to become Buddha was in the midst of his trials before enlightenment, he was set upon by a demon. He touched his hand to the earth, in response the earth roared, causing the demon to back down. There is a gesture, a mudra, that is apparently common in depictions of the Buddha, that demonstrates this act, a renewal of resolve.

For me, it is how the earth is touched as much as it is that renewal. I realized I had been cutting myself off from those things that best charge my resolve–writing, speaking, making, and even travel. Arguably, my intentions were right but I put myself in a position that was untenable in the long run. The more I needed to touch earth, the more it felt like other responsibilities were dragging me away from doing so. In retrospect, my own trial by demon I suppose. Right or wrong I felt that in order to make the opportunity to renew my own resolve I had to introduce a concrete break.

Since my decision, I have written more, coded more, and as a consequence felt a greater resolve than I have felt in a long while. I am also about travel more, definitely in the short term and hopefully more ongoing, for both personal and professional reasons. I have touched earth and am optimistic at my prospects, that the opportunities I am now pursuing will allow me to maintain these very critical connections, for my own well being.

The most promising opportunity on which I am working will allow me to re-connect with the world, in addition to focusing so much more on making and sharing, to once again wear off a little shoe leather touching earth in some of the greatest cities on the planet. I didn’t realize how important that was to me until this chance came along, unrelated to my decision, unrelated to anything other than the voice I have cultivated here, on this site, and through my podcast. However my next steps play out, I am glad of my decision and the renewed resolve I already feel.

Posted in General.

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Ohio Linux Fest 2014

I have only been to a couple of Linux fests and I have enjoyed every single one. Ohio Linux Fest was my first, three years ago. I was very privileged to meet a few long time listeners there, make some new friends, and meet some of the Hacker Public Radio crew for the first time. I am finally going back to Ohio Linux Fest in a couple of weeks and am very much looking forward to it, especially if it is at all like that first time.

The first day of my first OLF, I of course immediately scoped out the local beer scene. I staked out a stool at the bar of the brew pub across the street from the Columbus Convention Center. As I sipped on my first beer, waiting for my lunch order to arrive, I heard someone at the end of the bar recommending my podcast to someone else. I recognized the voice from audio comments I had received. More immodestly than I would have done if it was a complete stranger, I interrupted and introduced myself. It remains one of the more humbling and surreal moments made possible by my podcast.

I hung out with that listener a lot that weekend. We accumulated a couple of new friends, as well, who often joined us as I continued to explore the beer scene. Downtown Columbus is…well, bare may be a bit strong but right at the convention center, that brewpub is a bit of an oasis. I hope it is still there. Despite that scarcity of obvious points of interest, we found a handful of respectable beer spots.

Later in the weekend, I was wandering the small but excellent exhibit area. One table was run by a musician who had CDs out as well as some headphones to sample his wares. I was immediately struck by the sound and the story I heard when I put the headphones one. I started chatting with the artist, int 0x80 as it happens, part of the amazing rap duo, Dual Core. The song was “Painting Pictures” which tells the tale of a fan of the pair who was deaf from birth. As the song progresses, int 0x80’s rap tells the story of, as he puts it, “an amazing little girl” who through the internet makes connections she never would have otherwise and ultimately ends up researching cochlear implants. With the support of her family, the first song she finally hears is one of Dual Core’s. The track still moves me.

I interviewed int 0x80 shortly after meeting him. When I was at DEFCON this year, I happened to run into him. I was surprised because I didn’t think to look for him. I wasn’t really surprised as so much of his early work with c64 is about playing hacker conferences, just like DEFCON. He remembered me and catching up with him was one of my favorite parts of my first, and so far only, DEFCON.

I am sure these experiences set unrealistic expectations. The quality of the programming means it doesn’t matter. I will have a good time attending the talks. Even though my podcast has been a bit quiet lately, I trust I will still bump into people I recognize. Better yet, I hope to meet some new people, make some new friends. If going to Linux fests has taught me anything, it is to be entirely open to that.

Posted in Events.

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Little Acorns

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked in from the Metro to work, an album to which I was listening brought me to tears. The stresses I have been feeling for the past year had reached a crescendo pitch. Music has become a key part of how I cope. I started playing guitar back in January, inspired by my older son’s intense musicality and some of the fondest memories of my dad when I was growing up.

Almost two years ago my older son asked me if could spend some of his starter savings account on a short scale bass. I remain stunned at how deeply he has taken to making music. My wife has always encouraged both boys, making music and the means to make it always available since they were small. My older son’s passion has far outstripped what even an enriched environment might suggest. He practices for hours on end, picking up techniques effortlessly. In conversation he can rattle off scales and chords like a second language. Bass guitar was just the start, he now has a couple of electric guitars, an electronic keyboard, and is now talking about multi-track recording and mastering. More than once, I have poked my head into his room, asking who or what he was playing to be deeply impressed when he simply replies it was something he wrote.

I remember my dad showing a similar effortless musicality when I was a little younger than my sons are now. I quietly would sit in a room with my dad as he just simply would play. I was in awe of his guitar–polished wood, gleaming metal, and intricate machinery from saddle to tuning pegs. Most summers at that same age, my parents threw wonderful, sprawling parties with all their friends. All of the kids would roam freely around the pool and the yard. My favorite parties were the ones that had a soundtrack of  my dad and his friends playing together at volume, especially covering Summer songs like The Doobie Brothers, “Listen to the Music.”

Just as my dad shared his music with us, I have discovered more music this past year through sharing with my own sons, including the album that brought me to tears. That sharing even spans all three generations. Back in February I got a welcome break from the recent stresses, visiting with my family for the occasion of my brother’s wedding. The day after the beautiful ceremony and epic throw down of a reception, we all recovered at the beach hosted by my dad. My older son, my dad, and I joked about high end, plutonium stringed bass guitars. We talked about guitarists whose playing we particular liked and why. My dad showed us the picks he keeps on him, sharing that deep wish every guitarist holds close, of being called up on stage to jam.

One result of that sharing and deeper appreciation of music is a song I keep coming back to, “Little Acorns” from the album “Elephant” by the White Stripes.

The reason is right there in the lyrics.

But Janet not only survived but she worked her way out of despondency and now she says life is good again. She told me that late one autumn day when she was at her lowest, she saw a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter. One at a time, he would take them to the nest. And she thought, if that squirrel can take care of himself with a harsh winter coming on, so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time.

The voice over intro calms me. I smile every time I hear it come up when I shuffle through my music collection. I think it mentally primed me for a bit of blogging advice Anil Dash shared recently, too. After fifteen years, he has a ton of practical, simple advice most of which really boils down to simply keeping at your creative endeavors. In his case that is a blog; in mine both a blog but also my poor podcast which I’ve been neglecting for months.

Anil’s last point, in particular, reminded me of the squirrel.

Leave them wanting more. One sure way to trigger writer’s block when blogging is to think, “I have to capture all my thoughts on this idea and write it about it definitively once and for all.” If you assume that folks are smart and curious and will return, you can work around the edges of an idea over days and weeks and months and really come to understand it. It’s this process that blogging does better than pretty much any other medium, and it’s sharing that process with you that’s been the greatest privilege of writing here for the last decade and a half.

Every week that passed since I decided I couldn’t keep up a weekly pace with either my podast or my blog, the instinct to only share fully realized ideas became more paralyzing. Anil’s advice, like the squirrel and its acorns in The White Stripes song, reminded me it is OK to tear down how I approach writing for whatever end into smaller, less paralyzing pieces. I already have a few more acorns I will try to share this week.

Anil also reminded me that “the scroll is your friend.” Many short pieces, even if some are less formed, a bit rough around the edges still, will feel more alive in both the writing and the reading than the longer, more finished I have expected of myself but been unable to finish.

Posted in General.

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An Unused Resource in the Struggle for Greater Diversity in Tech?

As a technology manager, there is a resource I often ignore that I just realized could be incredibly value in the growing conversation about how we improve diversity in the world of technology work. I did a little searching to see if someone else had this same epiphany. If they have, they haven’t talked about it widely enough to show up after a few cursory web searches.

I am a cisgender, heterosexual, white male who manages a staff of only cisgender, heterosexual white men. I rightly am scrutinized by the rest of my organization, which is at least more gender diverse, in my recruiting and hiring practices. I listen and read a lot as a consequence and struggle to do better. We now include a diversity statement in all of job postings. We constantly think about where we circulate job postings to get them into more places visible to a greater diversity of candidates. We increasingly pay more attention to word choice to make our descriptions as accessible and attractive as possible. We are always thinking of what more we can do.

At the same time, my organization is growing. We have an ever increasing amount of work to get done and the funding to bring on more people to do it. In the past week or so, I posted three job openings for which I am actively recruiting (one for a less experienced candidate, one for a more experienced one, and one that isn’t necessarily a technologist.) I am just as closely scrutinized for recruiting more staff so that we can support our growing commitments.

The first set of candidates we have received are discouraging in terms of diversity. Only one or two are in any way diverse and definitely not along gender lines. We have selected two to pursue, neither of whom change the overall composition of my staff. I feel like a partial failure, that in moving ahead in terms of staff capacity I am falling that much further behind on improving the diversity of my staff. Worse, even if both of these candidates succeed and result in hires, I am still under pressure to hire one more, continuing the tension between capacity and diversity.

That pressure has me re-thinking a resource of which I am often skeptical: professional recruiters.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had good experiences with recruiters, both as a candidate and as a hiring manager. Those experiences have been in the minority however. Those recruiters are the ones who get that the best results are found through cultivating relationships, not about quantity of placements. Identifying the good recruiters unfolds through conversation and trust building which takes more time and effort. That investment hasn’t seemed worth it before this most recent up turn in the number of openings.

Regardless of how I feel about them, recruiters still contact me out of the blue all of the time. When you are easily identifiable as a hiring manager, it goes with the territory. Usually I just delete such contacts or send them to voice mail. As we have struggled even to get a decent pool of non-diverse candidates, I have been re-thinking that policy.

As I was considering how to make better use of recruiters and of the conundrum of hiring quickly or hiring diversely, I came up with a simple idea: accept every cold contact from a recruiter but respond with a set of standard questions.

  1. Do you have a diversity policy or statement?
  2. Can you demonstrate of track record of diverse placement?
  3. Are you experienced at placing candidates at non-profits?
  4. Can you place candidates in the greater Washington, DC area?

In my replies, I insist that I require an affirmative answer to all of these questions before talking further. Out of two contacts I’ve had since thinking of this response, it successfully filtered out one and engaged the other in a way that encouraged me. The first two questions took him off guard but he wrote them down with a promise to look into them and email me his firm’s answers.

I have been thinking a lot on those first two questions. (The last two questions are simply logistics of these particular opportunities.) In particular, I am slapping my forehead wondering why I never thought to ask them of every recruiter who contacts me.

Those web searches I mentioned at the outset. Most of what I found were statements from hiring organizations, the majority of them universities, institutions and a few larger corporations. There may be a more specific set of search terms than I was using that would reveal recruiters who specifically value diversity. I expect that if there was a non-trivial number of such firms, it shouldn’t take any particular skill at web searches to find them. I think there is an opportunity to raise the bar for technology recruiters.

From now on, I am going to ask those first two questions of every recruiter who contacts me, at this job or any other. I will ask whether I am currently hiring or not. I would love for as many of you who are reading this to do the same, if you are in an appropriate circumstance to do so.

Recruiting in technology is a huge business. For qualified candidates, placement fees are quite lucrative. Recruiters, even the good ones, are highly competitive. If we can get some fraction of the firms recruiting specifically for technology jobs to prioritize diversity, I suspect it could have a huge impact.

I think making such a change can start with just a couple of questions.

Posted in Technology.


Finding and Losing

If you follow me on any social media, you’ve seen that a friend of mine is dying.

The last part of that sentence was really hard for me to write. I don’t deal well with death. I don’t mean emotional collapse, I mean failure to even find a handle. Just writing such a simple statement, admitting this is happening to someone I have known for the better part of a decade feels surreal.

Several of my friends have written far more compellingly about dealing with P.G. Holyfield’s current situation. Matt “Fucking” Wallace explains why P.G. and his work should be a part of your universe. Chris Miller accepts the blame for the start of P.G.’s amazing creative path that ultimately intersected with so many of my friends and my own.

A new friend, Dave Robison, shared some thoughts on the recent passing of one of his loved ones that has helped give me more of a handle in general. Reading Dave’s advice, I choose to focus on the positive, to think about the quiet and calm P.G. has always radiated, the unexpected way he has brought joy to so many.

I have long been amazed how my modest interest in creating a podcast, just a little over nine years ago, has led me to so many amazing opportunities. The most common and easily appreciated is the making of new friends and acquaintances. The connections I have made specifically through sitting behind a mic and speaking out into the vast void of the Internet have connected me with the closest friends I have had in my entire life and profoundly shifted the trajectory not just of my day job but my entire career.

What I don’t dwell on as often is the loss of these connections. Sometimes it is mundane, the natural drifting apart that so often happens, especially with such a large group of connections held over such a long span of time. A few times, that I can still count on one hand thankfully, the loss is more irrevocable.

It seems trite, but in being open to those new connections, the possibility of loss is part of the deal. It doesn’t lessen the effects they have had on my life, I hope it merely sharpens them.

As I continue to struggle for a handle, not in the least because as I write this my friend is still though none of us can say for how much longer, I choose to believe that, to hope that in embracing the twining of finding and losing, that the good, the cherished, the love will outweigh the pain that is is already creeping in.

Posted in General.


TCLP 2014-06-22 Adventure Time

This is an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

The feature this week is an essay comparing and contrasting Adventure Time with a cartoon from when I was the age my kids are now, Thundarr the Barbarian.

View the detailed show notes online. You can grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License

Posted in Monologue, Podcast.


Heartbreak over Mozilla’s DRM Decision from a Dedicated Firefox User

I saw news last night that, as the headline suggests, broke my heart.

For months, I’ve been following the story that the Mozilla project was set to add closed source Digital Rights Management technology to its free/open browser Firefox, and today they’ve made the announcement, which I’ve covered in depth for The Guardian. Mozilla made the decision out of fear that the organization would haemorrhage users and become irrelevant if it couldn’t support Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video, and other services that only work in browsers that treat their users as untrustable adversaries.

Like Cory, I have been following the push to install the Encrypted Media Extension as part of the standards that underpin the web. I had not realized Mozilla was seriously considering siding with the W3c. The W3c is the standards body that oversees the constellation of documents that describe the common intersection of what is possible with the web. Their push to adopt EME and, worse, resistance to any calls to reconsider are I think grave mistakes.

The news of Mozilla’s decision to add DRM to Firefox has rapidly spread online. I was a bit surprised at how quickly folks responded to my own expression of frustration on Twitter. Far and away one of the best pieces I’ve seen comes from British journalist, Glyn Moody. He, I think rightly, frames this as far more than a simple choice about technology. This is a question about the very fate of Mozilla begged by the dissonance between their role prior role as the strongest advocate for an open web and this latest development.

I won’t quote a snippet from Moody’s piece but rather encourage you to read the entire thing. It is a compelling and accessible explanation of the situation, why this decision matters, and how we may go forward from here. Ultimately he is optimistic, that the community of technology creators who believe that the freedom to understand, alter and share code and content is paramount will do as they always have done and route around this latest obstacle.

I am sure he is right. We saw it happen with OpenOffice and MySQL though admittedly under rather different circumstances.

I am still incredibly disappointed and upset. I have been a champion of Mozilla’s since before Firefox existed. I used Phoenix, Firebird and continue to use Firefox from the moment that name stuck until now. There exists no doubt in my mind that the shift from a Microsoft dominated Web to the current ecosystem is due entirely to Mozilla’s tireless commitment to open source and open standards. That ecosystem, due to those efforts, includes more openness than just that encapsulated in Firefox’s source code. More astonishing, I don’t think Mozilla ever need to be popular, dominant or relevant to a mainstream audience to be an effective change agent.

I never once considered abandoning my support as I have seen others do. New gimmicks or even claims to best Firefox in terms of speed, size or true functionality have never outweighed for me Mozilla’s dedication to principle. In recent years especially, none of those choices would have come about but for Mozilla. None of them included the same deep commitment to principles I cherish.

Until now.

The decision of Mozilla to include digital rights management, regardless of the technical details, feels like a betrayal of those principles. Worse, it poisons the space for the same reasons Mozilla’s dedication to openness made it an effective change agent. Firefox is an existence proof. Others may not weave openness as deeply into their efforts but they see it is valuable and worth addressing to significant degree.

And now it will go for this counter example. If the staunchest defender of the open web concedes to the pressures to hobble the web with DRM, then why shouldn’t every other last creator of web technologies? Had Mozilla chosen differently, it may not have stopped EME and the inclusion of DRM in other web browsers, but it would have undoubtedly created more space for openness, well beyond its own direct efforts.

Now the question we need to ask, to paraphrase Glyn Moody, is whither the open web?


 

If  you want to know what you can do, read the Free Software Foundation’s criticism of the decision which includes several good calls to action at the end.

Posted in Policy, Technology.


TCLP 2014-01-26 A Failure of Leadership

This is an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

One of the reasons for the long delay was work related, focusing on the 1.0 release of the Commotion wireless project. Also work related and upcoming, I may be able to make it out to either LibrePlanet or RightsCon in March. If you want to hear from me, regardless of the length of pauses between episodes, check out the Libation Liberation Front.

The hacker word of the week is frob.

The feature this week is a consideration on how at least part of the problem with the state of inclusion and diversity in technology is due to a failure in leadership. This draws on some of the discussion following the episode on meritocracy, especially encouragement from Kevin who is working on the documentary, Transgeek. Here is a write up of the problematic demo at Disrupt, Andrea Peterson’s discussion of Dickinson’s Twitter feed, and some food for thought on soft power.

View the detailed show notes online. You can grab the flac encoded audio from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License

Posted in Jargon, Podcast.


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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