A Note on Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown

Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992) is a book that I should have read back when it was first published. In fact, I’m rather let down with myself that I did not know about this book back it was published at the same time that I was beginning high school and transitioning from an Amiga user to a PC/DOS enthusiast (if you can imagine such an animal).

Sterling’s journalistic account of the Hacker Crackdown of 1990 and its immediate aftermath is as enlightening as it is enjoyable to read. He chronicles the passage of the BellSouth E911 document, the targeting of the Legion of Doom, the criminal case against the publisher of Phrack magazine, the  hentanglement of Steve Jackson Games (creator of GURPS Cyberpunk), and the launch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Sterling had my attention from the get-go, but I was really jazzed when he writes about FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center) and my hometown, Brunswick, GA. He visited FLETC to speak with Carlton Fitzpatrick about computer crime.

Around that same time, I was delivering auto parts to the FLETC repair shop. I was out there at least every few days–virtually free to roam the facility in my Toyota pickup truck emblazoned with “Ellis Auto Parts” on its sides. Sterling might have been touring the facility when I was dropping off distributor points or a new starter.

Also, around that  time, I was learning about DOS, Windows 3.1, and PC gaming. I had a Commodore Amiga 2000, but I was the only person besides my cousins who owned an Amiga. Of course the Amiga was a more advanced and capable computer than most IBM-compatibles, but I knew many more people with PCs and PC software. So, for a time, I indulged a hobby in PC computers (at least until I discovered the Apple Macintosh SE/30 and the computing universe that represented in Mrs. Ragland’s drafting class).

Had I read this book back then, who knows what I might have done? I imagine myself taking a detour on one of my delivery missions to the auto shop–and its interior office walls emblazoned with centerfold girls–to drop in to meet Mr. Fitzpatrick. A detour taken while driving and learning a little bit more about computers and computer security could have taken my life on its own detour from where it is now.

Had I seen computers and networks as an end in themselves–more than I did building, optimizing, and fixing them–my life would have been detoured.

As it happens, my life detoured in other, unexpected, and interesting ways. At the time, I was focused on learning about plasma physics, and in my off time, the physics of consciousness. I wound up at Georgia Tech, but I quickly learned that I was better at writing about science than doing it full time. During that time, I fell in love with science fiction–especially the New Wave and cyberpunk. I studied how to make art with new media online with HTML and Adobe Flash, and for performance with video production. I worked with James Warbington on two 48-Hour Film Festivals, and I made DVDs for Poetry at Tech (Georgia Tech).

It is own weird way, the detour comes back around so that I study the relationship between computers and the human brain, science fiction and computers, and writing pedagogy and digital media.

While things have worked out remarkably well for me despite the weird turns on my life’s road, I still consider the “what ifs,” and sometimes, I try out the “what ifs” by incorporating the “what ifs” into my daily practices. One way besides creating what I tentatively call City Tech’s Retrocomputing Lab in my humble 64 sq. ft. of office space, I decided to take my enthusiasm with computers into the Linux realm. I’ve used different distros in the past on separate partitions or in virtual machines, but this time I wanted to go all-in–perhaps after getting riled up from reading Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, which isn’t a story about Linux, but it is in large part about the margins and despite Linux’s successes, it is still on the margins when it comes to the personal computer desktop.

To follow through on this, I took Uber rides back and forth from Microcenter in Brooklyn (my first Uber rides–necessitated by the heat more than the distance–when the weather’s nice, I enjoy walking to Microcenter from where I live). I had discovered they had a Dell XPS 12 marked down from about $1000 to $450. I purchased one, created a backup of the Windows 8 installer (yes, it had Windows 8, not 8.1 installed), and nuked-and-paved it with Ubutu 14.04 LTS Trusty Tahr (now that I’ve fixed my cursor jumping problem initially encountered by simply turning off touchpad taps/clicks, I might venture into one of the newer versions).

Of course, I am no more a hacker than I am a neurosurgeon (this latter point, my dissertation director Mack Hassler enjoyed reminding me of despite the subject matter of my neuroscience-focused literary dissertation), but I enjoy exploring, learning, and playing. Occasionally, I do hack things together. I make things–albeit, usually simple things put together with Deckmate screws and duct tape–and I would like to make things using the computer in ways that I have not really done before. Sure, I’ve taken programming classes before, but I created what I was told to make instead of what I wanted to make. This was a lack of imagination and inspiration on my part, and I do not want to continue making that mistake. So, here we go!

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in City Tech, Computers, New Media, Technology
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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