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?

Finished Wizzywig Graphic Novel Finally To Be Released

Long time readers and listeners know I am a tremendous fan of Ed Piskor’s story about a fictional hacker, Kevin “BoingThump” Phenicle, clearly inspired by real life hackers and events that figure largely in modern computer mythology.

I wrote previously about how Ed decided after finishing volume three of a planned four parts to go back and re-work all of the material so far and release a single, more finished volume containing the entire story rather than completing the final installment. He very generously posted his progress as a regular web comic for those unfamiliar with the work at the point or fans, like me, interested in following his progress.

I was thrilled to get an email from Ed the other day.

For the past few years, I’ve been retooling/reediting, and finishing the Wizzywig graphic novel and it’s finally being released this coming July, I’m happy to report.

Originally I had the idea to self publish a 4 volume series to tell the complete story. I was able to self publish 3 volumes on my own. I started to imagine how the complete story would read as a cohesive unit, so instead of doing a 4th volume I decided to work with a publisher, Top Shelf Productions, to make this graphic novel possible.

Now, I’m able to bring the complete work to you, as a handsome, hardcover book, for the same price-point as volume 4 would have been. The printing is top notch. The design is meticulous. AND, I had great editors who helped fix all of my typos, bad commas, nonsensical and redundant phrasing, etc.

The book will be a well produced object, but, of course, you can read the entire story in its unedited form here for free.

You can check out the TopShelf page for the forthcoming book or, for those outside the US, you may be interested in the Amazon page which will probably be a little cheaper.

History of Hackish Metaphor for Brute Force

One of my favorite tidbits of obscure hacker culture is a silly synonym for any given brute force algorithm. The British Museum Algorithm refers to a notional basement at the eponymous institution filled with an infinite number of monkeys randomly typing away at an infinite set of typewriters in the vain hope of producing the works of Shakespeare by blind happenstance.

Esther Inlgis-Arkell at io9 reveals that this particular mental construction dates back a little bit further, in varying forms. In humorous fashion she traces how an idea dating from 1900’s France evolved and shrank in scope to take on the more familiar form. The idea has so much humorous appeal that an unfortunately short-lived project was started a few years ago to build a computerized equivalent of the horde of random simians, The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator Project.

Starting with 100 virtual monkeys typing, and doubling the population every few days, it put together random strings of characters. It then checked them against the archived works of Shakespeare. Before it was scrapped, the site came up with 10^35 number of pages, all typed up. Any matches?

In a turn that will be all too familiar to any naive programmer hoping that even the pseudo-randomness into which we can tap on the average computer might yield something coherent given enough cycles, the results after a few years were both scant and obscure: just 23 characters from one of the Bard’s less known works.

The story of the Monkey Shakespeare Simulator Project, io9

Hackers Don’t Need External Validation but May Appreciate Understanding

Slashdot links to a Techworld piece that summarizes an interesting article from a biweekly publication out of the Vatican. In it, Jesuit priest, Father Antonio Spadaro, demonstrates a surprisingly profound grasp of the hacker ethos. He goes further to draw many parallels between the actions and motivations of hackers and his faith. To advocates of the principle freedoms of Free Software that he finds much in common in the plane of social justice comes as no surprise.

As a rule, hackers don’t seek approval or even validation from formal institutions. This quality may even encourage some of us to dismiss Spadaro’s writing out of hand, which I think would be a mistake. I think there is an intellectually respectable tradition of moral philosophy within the Catholic church, regardless of how you may view the institution as a whole. Seeing that thoughtfully applied to the hacker spirit does present an interesting opportunity for understanding on which it would be useful to expand.

The more people who understand the internal workings of hackers, the less we have to take such great care, as Spadaro has done, to distinguish between hackers and “crackers” or “black hat hackers”. Much of the writing and speaking I do isn’t all that different in some ways from what Spadaro has done, trying to build bridges between hackers and non-hackers of particular stripes.

The Vatican Lauds Hackers, Slashdot

Next Volume of Knuth’s Master Work is in Print

Slashdot has the news, that the next volume in the definitive series by renowned computer scientist, Donald Knuth, is now available in print. Knuth’s books have a somewhat mythic status amongst many hackers. Reading them represents a litmus test for a certain level of programming chops to which few mortals aspire let alone attain.

(I own a boxed set of the first three volumes. You may recognize if from an avatar I use on my various social network profiles. I have started but made made very poor progress on volume 1 to date.)

Volume 4A of Knuth’s TAOCP Finally In Print, Slashdot

Lost Article on HOPE

I regret having never made it to a Hackers on Planet Earth gathering. I either lose track of the time, only noting the conference right after it has passed or when I have advanced noticed I lack the resources to make it up to New York for the weekend. I try to make it up in other ways, following the posting of video of the various talks. One year I even had a listener very generously call in with impressions and experiences from HOPE.

My friend, Quinn Norton, has a beautiful write up of the HOPE from this past Summer, the Next HOPE. She went on behalf of Gizmodo but apparently the article she wrote for them got lost in the shuffle or something. I am glad she was able and decided to share it on her blog.

Goldstein has made the HOPE conferences by far the most European of the American hacker gatherings– a political event, with a worldview that exceeds the technical. American hackers have often taken the mantel of bad guy hooligans much more than their European counterparts, for whom defiance and transgression are seen as more righteous and politically active. European hackers have often swung socialist, the Americans, libertarian. Goldstein tries to be as inclusive as possible. “The idea is to get people to come out of it saying ‘that’s really something different and I had my mind opened,’” says Goldstein.

(Goldstein refers to Emmanuel Goldstein, the pseudonymous creator of HOPE and also co-founder of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly and host of the Off the Hook radio program.)

Calling attention to aspects of HOPE like its European flavor, it shouldn’t surprise you that this has to be one of my favorite write ups of a conference. Bonus points for it being HOPE. She also deftly maneuvers through the WikiLeaks/Manning/Lamo drama that coincided with the conference this year.

What I really enjoy is how Quinn groks the scene. No doubt her observations have been honed by years of covering hacker gatherings and goings on. I don’t feel quite so bad for missing HOPE this year with such an immersive re-telling of how it unfolded, not just in the speakers, events, and other particulars, but also the visceral feel.

You can’t really get the feel of the event without talking about the Club Mate, a vile German caffeine drink based on the South American yerba maté plant. The drink became popular with American hackers after being imported at the Last Hope by 2600. It’s everywhere, and people refer to it constantly. “Have you had your Club Mate?” Speakers admonish their audiences. It’s thrust into my hands by a conference organizer. I thrust it into someone else’s hand. It may be hacker vitamins, but it tastes like sucking on a pill. I’d rather have a meth habit. Even the brewer, Loscher, acknowledges that it’s an acquired taste. The 2600 store ships it around the country, “supplying various hacker spaces with pallets of the stuff” according to the website.

I think she’s cured me of any curiosity towards Club Mate. But she has fueled my determination to pay closer attention to HOPE planning, to husband my resources, and some day make it out for myself.

HOPE: the lost article, Quinn Said

TCLP 2010-09-26 News

This is news cast 225, an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

In the intro, thanks to Steve for his latest donation which also means he gets the signed copies of Wizzywig 1 & 2. Also, an announcement of audio and feed changes to go in effect on October 3rd.

This week’s security alert is a more in-depth look at the Stuxnet worm.

In this week’s news Intel to use DRM to charge for processor features and why that is problematic, an Ubuntu designer shares his thoughts on a context aware UI, a course on the anthropology of hackers (one I wish UMD’s MITH would offer), and the FCC finalizes rules for white space devices (including details on those rules) prompting one commissioner to speculate we no longer need net neutrality rules.

Following up this week the MPAA wants to know if it can use ACTA to block WikiLeaks and one judge quashes a US Copyright Group subpoena.


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

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

TCLP 2010-09-22 Interview: Ed Piskor

This is a feature cast, an episode of The Command Line Podcast.

In the intro, a heads up that changes are coming on two to three weeks as I complete the migration of my podcast production to Linux. A will announce a firm date once I have one and give a better run down of the potential impacts to the listener, hopefully minimal. Also, a clarification on the giveaway of the CD Randy gave me. All you need to do is email me between now and the end of the month and say you’d like the CD. If I get more than one response, I’ll pick one at random. Lastly, I have signed copies of the first two volumes of Ed’s graphic novel, WIZZYWIG. The next person to qualify for a custom nerd merit badge, whether they have one already or not, gets the books.

There is no new hacker word of the week this week.

The feature this week is the interview I recorded with Ed Piskor at the Small Press Expo. In the interview we mention Nedroid (that’s the beartato), 2600, Off the Hook, Ed’s talk at HOPE, the documentary “Freedom Downtime“, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, and Tommy Blacha creator and write of Metalocalypse.


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

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

First Chapter of Rewritten Hacker Graphic Novel Complete

I enjoyed the original three volumes of Ed Piskor’s well researched and lovingly crafted graphic novel, Wizzywig. When I read a few months ago that instead of producing the conclusion as originally planned, Piskor was going to re-work those volumes improving the art and story telling then release everything as a single printed book, I was far from dismayed. I very much respect the courage it took for him to respond to constructive criticism in such a positive way. I’ll happily add the completed story to my book shelf next to the original version.

As part of the re-work, Ed has been posting a couple of the updated pages a week as a web comic. That’s a very savvy move as he’s more likely to attract new readers and hence potential buyers for the final book when its complete. He also just collected the first quarter of the story into a convenient download, in either CBR or PDF version. I think that is another clever move, giving potential readers more ways to enjoy the work how they want and hopefully then follow along for the rest of the story as he re-vamps and finishes it. I am especially pleased that both the new web site for the pages as web comic and the collected first chapter are now under a Creative Commons license enabling fans, like me, to more easily share Ed’s work.

Oh, and if you are curious about Ed, he’s posted a ton of video material lately that informed Wizzywig and his talk from HOPE about his experience working on the book. I am also planning on interviewing him early in September as he’ll be in town for the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD.

Chapter 1 is Complete, Wizzywig Comics by Ed Piskor

Full Talk List for the Next HOPE

Cory at Boing Boing has the news, that the full talk schedule for the Next HOPE is up. The list is as diverse and intriguing as always with talks ranging from security exploits through hacker history and culture to maker projects. HOPE really is the place to be if you are a hacker or maker and can make it to New York in July.

I wish I had the funds to be able to make it up to New York next month. If anyone going wants to call in with a convention report, please email me at I have decided to forego some of my usual science fiction conventions next year in order to attend more technically focused events. HOPE is on my list for 2011 since I’ve always wanted to go and it is just a half day train ride away, hopefully I’ll finally be able to swing it.