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The Wachowskis and the Hacker as a progressive archetype

Hacker culture and politics in postmodern fact and fiction

Autumn 2023
(Warning! This text may spoil the following movies: The Matrix, Pi and Fight Club.)

We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals.

- The Mentor, The Hacker Manifesto

Setting the scene

In popular culture, a hacker is nearly always depicted as a person who, using an alias, breaks into computer systems - which is also true of many famous real world hackers. The breaking in is usually illegal but morally defensible within the framework of the story, or in the case of famous real world hacker heroes, within the political narrative used to rationalize their actions. But hacking can also mean programming in general. Hackers of the latter variety usually become heroes because of their contributions to the advancement of computer technology: Steve Wozniak and Ken Thompson, for example. These are all examples of good hackers.

There are of course bad hackers, too. In fiction, bad hackers often exist merely as a shallow source of conflict, an obstacle for the hero hacker to outwit and overcome. Outside fiction, bad hackers are increasingly described as operatives of foreign governments or dangerous extremist organizations. These bad hackers are rarely portrayed as being part of hacker culture - especially not in real life, where this particular distinction is needed to identify heroes in order to successfully craft or affirm political narratives of various kinds.

To serve the positive connotation, hacker culture needs to be fairly broadly defined. It usually encompasses various in-group markers and qualities that the bad hackers lack - most often a set of morally pure values with a countercultural, often progressive twist. Early real world political markers of hacker culture were distrust of the (deep) state, safeguarding personal privacy, free speech advocacy and an opposition to predatory capitalism - a heritage from the counterculture prevalent at the time and place of its birth, the US in the late 1960:s. This has since been echoed in many a hacker tract, factual as well as fictional. WarGames (1983) pits a mischievous boy next door against the hubris and excess of the military-industrial complex. Sneakers (1992) features a group of aging hippies doing battle with foreign as well as domestic political actors, and The Lone Gunmen (2001, originally from The X-Files) are at constant odds with both megacorps and US intelligence agencies.

Through the increased ubiquity of networked computers and the gradual reframing of hackers from criminals to freedom fighters, the connotation of the word hacker itself has gone from largely negative to largely positive. In the word hack's capacity of describing a clever solution to a problem, it's even trickled outside the realm of technology and blessed us with life hacks in general and specific ones like kitchen hacks in particular. Hence, new words must be constructed: bad hackers are now instead cyber terrorists or cyber criminals.

Fact becomes fiction becomes fact

During the last few decades the hacker has, both in popular culture and public perception, become something of a figurehead for what's commonly called the progressive movement. Perhaps due to the very nature of being at the forefront of technology, hackers have often been depicted as liberal, libertarian or progressive. There are some fairly apolitical hackers in fiction, but in general, you'll be hard pressed to find a conservative one.

The best example of the progressive hacker is, without a shadow of a doubt, found in the production of filmmaker siblings the Wachowskis. The original three movies in their The Matrix (1999) franchise are, as we will see, seminal works in creating a framework for the hacker as a post modern, progressive archetype. Its latest motion picture installment Resurrections (2021) and the Wachowski TV series Sense8 (2015-2018) build on top of this. Both works feature the archetype: The Matrix most notably in the the form of Neo - a hacker messiah - and Sense8 in the form of Nomi - a transgender hacker hero.

Other examples of the hacker archetype in a more down to earth, but still decidedly progressive setting can be seen in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy of books (and subsequent film adaptations). Here, we're presented with tough-as-nails female hacker Lisbeth Salander, fighting both her inner demons and their origins: a society corrupted by patriarchal conspiracy.

Another Wachowski movie, V for Vendetta (2005) has leaked back into real world hacker culture: so-called hacktivists (hacker + activist) have co-opted the movie's Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol. This phenomenon in turn trickled back into pop culture when Mr Robot (2015-2019) portrayed a hacktivist group using similar face masks in their video messages to the general public. Then again, the face mask ploy has appeared before in real world hacker culture: A 1987 TV signal hijacking was dubbed "the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion incident" after one of the (still unidentified) perpetrators, hidden behind an eponymous Max Headroom mask. This is another example of how hacker fact and fiction blends together to form an indistinct mythology.

A handle on reality

Hacker fiction and hacker reality has, for a long time, fed off each other in this intricate symbiosis. Take, for example, the alias or handle: a way to stay anonymous from the law while still being able to retain bragging rights for a hack. Early phreakers (landline phone hackers) are now the stuff of legend - perhaps in part thanks to fanciful monikers such as Captain Crunch and The Cheshire Catalyst. The first software cracks (removal of early DRM/copy protection schemes), from as early as 1980, were performed by the likes of copy/cat, Mr. Z, The Pirate and The Bandit.

The concept of hacker aliases soon found their way into popular culture. Blind phreaker and audio expert Whistler in Sneakers is a good example, no doubt inspired by previously mentioned ur-phreaker Captain Crunch. In the movie Hackers (1995), junior hacker Joey Pardella frustratedly exclaims, "I need a handle!" Neal Stephenson's character Hiro Protagonist from his novel Snow Crash (1992) is another example. Stephenson went so far as to suggest that in the future, everyone's who's hip has a handle - not just hackers. In a sense, he was right: Plenty of people are now better known by their Twitter or Twitch usernames rather than their given names. In the Wachowski's Matrix universe, given names almost carry the connotation of slave names: when freed from the Matrix, everyone goes by their hacker alias.

Real hackers, in turn, have often picked their handles from movies and literature, with a preference for fantasy and science fiction: there are many various Striders, Bilbos and Gandalfs among early game crackers. When hacker related popular culture started appearing in earnest, the circle swiftly closed. After the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and the rest of his sprawl trilogy, the handles Case and Count Zero became popular, and WarGames gave birth to several Joshuas.

Apart from handles, Gibson's writing has enjoyed great influence in shaping hacker mythology. He helped popularize many concepts and aesthetics used in the Wachowskis' works, including the idea of "jacking in" to a network using sensorially immersive brain/computer interface, and cyberspace - the online world - as a visually striking virtual reality governed by hackable code. The now cliché goth aesthetics of the female hacker (including Lisbeth Salander and The Matrix' Trinity) was if not created, then surely deeply influenced by Gibson's Molly Millions (who is strictly speaking not a hacker), and later Esther "Invisigoth" Nairn in The X-Files episode Kill Switch, co-written by Gibson in 1998.

Hacktivism, Inc.

Mistrust authority - promote decentralization

- The third hacker tenet, Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

The previously mentioned Guy Fawkes mask is used by a movement called Anonymous, which seems to be more of a loosely co-optable name used to attribute various kinds of activism online as well as offline, as opposed to for example the strictly enforced membership structure among software piracy groups. Anonymous is of particular interest in the context of the progressive hacker: It originated in the early 2000:s on 4chan, an online forum that's since become closely associated with the so called Alt Right movement - a stark contrast to later Anonymous-attributed efforts supporting progressive causes such as Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood.

Having traditionally picked targets either out of mere curisoity, or for being perceived as establishment actors - overreaching government agencies, large corporations, predatory religious cults - hacking is now just as likely to align with and enforce the hegemonic narrative espoused by state actors, mainstream pundits and megacorps. The doxxing of Canadian "Freedom Convoy" donors (and similar recent hacks) makes apparent that hacktivism and contemporary hero hackers don't shy away from exposing ordinary citizens, even those protesting the very same institutions many hackers have traditionally shunned.

The same realignment towards establishment consensus can be seen in 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. Both 2600 editorials and reader letters have during recent years often echoed establishment sentiments regarding for example COVID-19 measures - even if they arguably imply centralization of power, information control, severely decreased personal freedom, uncritically trusting authorities, and heavily increased surveillance of individual citizens.

This change in the framework used to rationalize illicit hacking is a notable, interesting step away from a previously countercultural hacker ethos. Megacorps and government agencies turn into beneficiaries, willing or not, when the goal of such hacking turns from sticking it to the man into sticking it to the little man.

Postmodern computing

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

- John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace

When considering their works, the fact that the Wachowskis are both transgender is hardly surprising. The dissolution of the gender binary espoused by the contemporary progressive movement is heavily influenced by postmodern (or, more specifically, poststructural) theory.

Poststructuralism, though not entirely uninteresting, is at times extremely fuzzy and abstract and hard to summarize in a meaningful way. An attempt is necessary, though: from this school of thought, two dominant concepts have been translated into our contemporary, hands-on progressive ideology. One is that discourses (and thus, by extension, language) creates and maintains truth (and, ultimately, reality) within a given system of knowledge. The other is the desired dissolution of the supposedly inherent value system in binary opposites such as male and female. This is what forms the basis of, for example, Queer Studies.

Curiously, these concepts also transfer easily to computers, which are perfectly binary at their core. Everything is either a one or a zero, on or off. Rigid sets of rules define how most people interact with their machines - you either have access permissions, or you don't. You either follow the rules of the system, or you won't get anything done. A hacker, on the other hand, rises above these restrictions and does so by using language: Through the discourse of program code, the hacker becomes master of binary opposites and can repurpose them to form new realities, new truths and new rules.

Transition and transcendence

In one life, you're Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a Social Security number, you pay your taxes, and you help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you go by the hacker alias Neo and are guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for.

- Agent Smith to Neo, The Matrix

Before and during this reshaping of digital reality, the hacker goes through two distinct but related phases. The first one is transition. By logging on to a computer system and assuming an alias, the hacker transitions from their offline identity (Mr. Anderson) and becomes their online self (Neo). This online self is their true postmodern identity, a persona they themselves create solely through language - whether it's English in a chat room, or a programming language used to control the computer. The Matrix offers a turbocharged version of this, thanks to its immersive nature.

By successfully creating an online persona and controlling the computer used to express - to live - it, the hacker reaches the second phase: transcendence. They are now above the confines of the physical world and can assume whatever gender, body or even species they fancy. The better they are with words (whether prose or code), the truer this persona becomes. Change a word and reality changes: a pronoun here, a Boolean operator there. The hacker has now mastered the world of opposing binaries by the power of language alone, becoming the author of their own legend about themselves.

The hacker's handle serves as a signifier of this crafted persona, a single word that defines and represents them - not unlike how a progressive activist might define themselves through the use of personal pronouns. The handle not only presents but also acts as a shield: Doxxing a hacker not only exposes them to law enforcement agencies, it also irrevocably taints their carefully crafted online persona with the mundane reminder that we're all still beings of flesh and blood. Like deadnaming - calling a trans person by their birth name - this is an unforgivable sin.

With their particular digital abilities, it's not hard to see why hackers are the subject of infatuation in both progressive fiction and real world progressive activism. A properly conducted computer hack is definitive: as long as you're skilled enough, transition will always lead to transcendence. In an increasingly computerized society, the hacker's skills can also be employed to control parts of the physical world: everything from corporate security to advanced infrastructure relies on digital technology. With the right knowledge, words in computers can thus shape the even the physical world to some extent - a powerful ability indeed.

The biological world can be hacked, too - but so far without the elegance and effectiveness of a computer hack. The hacker archetype and its associated activities is a symbol of unattainable purity: Software hacks can be perfectly reversed and the hacker can transition back to their offline persona at will. The configuration of our flesh, meanwhile, seems impossible to overcome completely and serves as a harsh reminder of our imperfection. In the analog world, we can transition, but lack the ability to fully transcend.

Hence, silence is violence: analog reality reprogramming must be constantly affirmed by continuous incantations, lest the discourse breaks down and the code stops working. A computer program, on the other hand, can be started with a single command. If left alone it will keep on running, changing digital reality in perpetuity.

Singular Utopianism

We must therefore concentrate on producing a single equalized environment; and this clearly should be one as favourable as possible to the expression of the genetic qualities that we think desirable.

- Julian Huxley, Man in the Modern World

One supposed route to progressive utopia is through the path staked out by transhumanism - the transcendence of humans above the confines of biology through application of advanced technology and medicine. Though many transhumanists focus on cognition and aging, the process of gender transitioning decidedly fits within this scope. If modern technology can give blind people their eyesight back, is it impossible that other perceived flaws of biology can't one day also be overcome?

This idea isn't necessarily any more far-fetched than that of the technological singularity, where a massive computer engulfing the sun - a Matrioshka brain - might bring about a final merger of humanity and technology. Into such a computer we could - hypothetically - upload our minds and leave our flawed biological husks behind. From the perspective of a poststructural progressive, this version of the singularity could well be the ultimate solution and goal: a reality (of sorts) that can, completely and definitively, be shaped by language alone.

Transhumanism was popularized by one Julian Huxley, whose brother Aldous famously busied himself with writing dystopian warnings about rigid class societies replenished by genetically engineered test tube babies. Julian, however, promoted eugenics and proposed that humanity would benefit from "preventing the deterioration of quality of racial stock." - I'm sure their family dinners were a blast. After World War II, Julian Huxley became the first director of UNESCO and helped formulate their statement on "The Race Question", which includes the following lines:

The biological fact of race and the myth of 'race' should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes 'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.

Apart from an early example of the now prevalent progressive concept of describing something as a social construct, this was no doubt an effort from Huxley to whitewash his previous eugenics advocacy, an effort he continued in his autobiography.

This is interesting not because Huxley's views on eugenics were unique in any way, but because it mirrors how hacktivism has turned on the founding ideals of hacker culture. Huxley may have changed his mind in earnest, but he was also part of the societal elite and of course wanted to keep his social status and lucrative slice of the establishment pie. Anyone who wants to retain or achieve such a position will have a much easier time if they adjust their official views accordingly, regardless of whether they opt for activism, punditry or art.

The same psychology and incentives are of course applicable to contemporary hackers seeking validation and status in our current societal power structures: hackerish persons acting in accordance with prevailing establishment opinions are more likely to be rewarded with leeway, status and praise. In an increasingly polarized political climate and an economy with harsher prospects for middle class mobility (which is what we're currently experiencing), it's not unthinkable that even illicit hackers may find it easier to align with the mainstream narrative - even if it means abandoning coveted ideals of yore.

Acceleration

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

- Isaac Newton, Principia

Even so, not all hackers - past or present - subscribe to progressive ideals. For example, Republican politician and avid Trump supporter Tony Krvaric once founded the still active and well known software piracy group Fairlight - but we don't have to venture into decades-old cracking to identify prominent hackers with a plurality of views.

From left to right we find radical progressives like Coraline Ada Ehmke, wizened hippies like Richard Stallman, establishment progressives such as Mark Zuckerberg, mainstream neocon figures like Mark Andreessen and Brendan Eich, and radical (or perhaps more aptly, reactionary) right wing figures like Curtis Yarvin.

Because of the previously discussed broad definition of hacker culture, any of these can in a No True Scotsman way of reasoning be placed inside or outside of hackerdom, depending on what purpose needs to be served. There is no doubt, however, that all of them began their careers by shaping computational realities to their liking through programming - I.E., by hacking.

Yarvin's views are decidedly outside the mainstream of western establishment politics, constituting an elaborate framework of ideas commonly described as neo-reactionary or "Dark Enlightenment". The latter term was conceived by philosopher Nick Land, a former member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). During the 1990:s, Land helped shape the accelerationist movement - deeply influenced, just like The Matrix, by William Gibson's Neuromancer.

The CCRU is interesting because from it comes simultaneously similar and different approaches to accelerationism. Another former member is Sadie Plant, whose writing helped shape cyberfeminism, which is fairly easily identifiable as a step on the ladder leading to contemporary progressivism. Cyberfeminism has now grown to incorporate all the aspects about the progressive hacker archetype discussed in this text, including the notion of a poststructural, genderless online presence as a liberating and empowering force.

Accelerationism is too sprawling to summarize here, but in Land's current rendition it simultaneously embraces both populist movements and elitist reactionary ideals within a framework of eugenics, transhumanism and poststructuralism. Land is patently unafraid of controversial views and in his hardline reasoning, accelerationist means to an end trump their mainstream palatability. The question of racism, for example, is treated as a moot point - or perhaps stepping stone - in his predictions about the seemingly inevitable dissolution of humanity. In his lengthy essay The Dark Enlightenment (2013), he writes:

There is no essential difference between learning what we really are and re-defining ourselves as technological contingencies, or technoplastic beings, susceptible to precise, scientifically-informed transformations. ‘Humanity’ becomes intelligible as it is subsumed into the technosphere, where information processing of the genome – for instance — brings reading and editing into perfect coincidence. (...) Miscegenation doesn’t get close to the issue. Think face tentacles. (...) When seen from the bionic horizon, whatever emerges from the dialectics of racial terror remains trapped in trivialities. It’s time to move on.

For those seeking an alternative to modern progressivism, Land is likely to come off as just as esoteric and extreme as the most radical of left wing poststructuralists, and like his CCRU counterpart Sadie Plant, he lacks any traditional coder cred. It would be hard, however, to claim they're not both interesting contributors to the previously mentioned loop of cultural interplay between hackerdom fact and fiction.

Back to the movies

Though less quotable than Fight Club (1999), The Matrix along with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings (2001) belongs to a cinematic trio that helped define the first decades of our current digital millennium. One ironical example of this is that online opponents of progressive liberalism call themselves "redpilled", meaning someone who has figuratively taken the red pill - as offered to Neo by Morpheus to escape the Matrix - and can thus see what they consider to be the truth about the current establishment zeitgeist.

Peter Jackson's movie trilogy may have taken liberties with Tolkien's books, but his rendition still carries the original warning about technology and aptly showcases Saruman's industrial brutality against nature. In The Matrix, however, it's quite apparent that no Ents or Elves came to rescue humanity. Despite this, it's not a tale of digital caution: The dystopian scorched earth hellscape and dominion of AI over man serves more as a framework for exploring philosophy than as a warning against the techno-utopianism of the dotcom bubble that coincided with the movie's release.

Instead, the film ends with Neo stating his intention to show people inside the Matrix "A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible." It's not hard to interpret this as a different way of life inside the Matrix, as opposed to leaving it for the harsh reality of Zion and a diet of synthetic protein gloop. Instead, the Matrix serves as a functional approximation of uploading one's mind to a Matrioshka brain. The two retrofitted sequels reaffirm this, as does the fourth installment of the series. In the end, man and machine must coexist, thus allowing people to transcend at will.

Fight Club, in turn, asks questions about modern masculinity, consumerism, social atomization and, interestingly, brings a working class perspective into the mix. Quoth protagonist Tyler Durden: "The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. (...) Do not fuck with us." This is notable, because the working class hasn't, for a very long time, been as politically and culturally ill-represented as it presently is. In our progressive times, western political and cultural projects seem to be mostly about appealing to a growing number of college educated professionals, a group into which the hacker archetype naturally falls[1].

Unsurprisingly, Fight Club is not as popular in progressive circles as The Matrix, and not just because it's a film about macho men from the wrong social strata. Though the Durden/narrator duality can be seen as opposing binaries to be transcended or dissolved, the dynamic is a bad fit for the progressive movement. The personality of Durden isn't created by choice, but rather thrust upon the narrator unknowingly, as a mental breakdown brought on by modernity.

Discourse isn't given much room, either. A duvet is just a blanket and, of course, "You do not talk about Fight Club." Durden's desires aren't made manifest by language, but by action and action alone. In this sense, he's the antithesis of the hacker archetype: he wants to destroy everything that the progressive professional requires to thrive. In Project Mayhem's collapse-as-utopia, where New York's Manhattan is returned to nature and humanity to hunter-gatherers, the chances of landing a nice desk job - not to mention the prospects of self-realization for someone genderqueer - appear rather slim.

Fight Club feels like a long time ago, and twenty-odd years is indeed an eon in our current eventful times. Even the first three Matrix movies serve as a historical testament to the speed of progressive evolution, and hardly seem very "woke" by today's standards. When they first meet, Neo is surprised that Trinity is a woman - but in Sense8, Nomi's old hacker buddy, Bug, is surprised that his old accomplice Mike is now a "total fox" going by the name of Nomi.

The hacker archetype, however, is clearly defined already in the first Matrix movie: Hackers trapped within the Matrix are prime recruits for the human resistance because of their innate special abilities. Their minds are already primed for exiting the Matrix, because they've already been practising the transition from their Matrix identities into one of their own making, and they're driven by a desire to transcend - to permanently bend the rules of reality through language and thought. The ones who lack the right stuff - such as the Judas-like Cypher - are no true hackers and, hence, no true progressives: they'd rather betray the resistance and be reinstated into a status quo Matrix as Republican presidents.

Resurrections (the latest Matrix installment), is of course more contemporary and does at times come off as a tract of postmodern phraseology, some of it seemingly crammed in there just for good measure. Though the movie is not without merit, in this particular aspect it's even less subtle than Sense8, and that's saying something. Already in the first Sense8 episode, what's nowadays called a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) is swiftly dismissed as a "Berkeley bitch" for suggesting that transgender hacker protagonist Nomi is "another colonizing male trying to take up any space left to women." This is a very progressive in-fight and probably fairly obscure to, say, most of the guys who haul my trash - even more so back in 2015, when the episode first aired.

Sense8, for those who haven't seen it, features a group of eight people who suddenly realize they're telepathically interconnected. They can share knowledge, skills and sensations with each other, often by superimposing their mind onto the physical body of another member of their group. For example, when Kenyan bus driver Capheus is attacked by thugs, Korean martial arts expert Sun lends her fighting abilities to his body and helps fend them off. This is not wholly unlike when Neo "downloads" Kung Fu skills to his brain in The Matrix, but adds the spice of interpersonal ego blurring - dissolving the binary "me" and "you".

Nomi of course shares this telepathic ability - but as a hero hacker character has little reason to utilize it in order to help other members of the group. As long as it's online, a computer can be hacked from anywhere. This is significant: Nomi hasn't just transitioned in the real world, but is so transcendent in the digital one that the capacity to astral travel anywhere at the speed of light is old news.

Slowed progress

Clear-cut counterexamples to the progressive hacker hero may be harder to find, or at least identify, in popular fiction. Darren Aronofsky's movie Pi (1998) can perhaps be said to fall into this category. In it, troubled mathematician and programmer Max Cohen attempts to hack the very fabric of reality itself by searching for universal mathematical patterns echoed in the stock market. The movie's aesthetic is a wet dream for anyone with the slightest hacker inclination, but the plot is a tale of technological caution. Cohen ultimately finds peace after voluntarily and quite definitively denouncing his apparent hubris, having painstakingly realized there are stones in creation best left unturned by mere humans, no matter how clever they think they are.

Another interesting example is the previously mentioned TV series Mr Robot. It's hard to summarize the 45 episodes in so many words, but several themes running counter to both poststructuralism and the current progressive narrative can be picked up along the way - whether intentional or not. Societally disruptive activist utopias may not turn out as intended, girlbossing may not be all it's made out to be, and psycho-linguistic dissolution of the real/imaginary binary is a debilitating and destructive coping mechanism. Of special note is the antagonist Whiterose, a deceptive and destructive bad hacker whose transsexual inclinations can easily be interpreted as a symbol of the character's sinister duality.

Finally

The hero hacker is a fitting archetypal character for the progressive movement. Hackers are intrinsically poststructural, transitioning between and transcending above binary opposites, all the while shaping truth and their identity merely through the skillful use of language.




[1] Dialectical materialists of today seem to have some problem with categorizing programmers (and thus hackers). Marx himself suggested that the lower rungs of professionals "sink into the proletariat" with the advancement of technology, but in general, programming is still a specialized skill performed in a setting of professionals. Furthermore, the desire to be called software engineers may hint at both the perceived class interests within Marxist theory and the more common colloquial categorization of programmers: middle class, not proletarians. (Freelance developers are easier to categorize according to Marx; they're petite bourgeoisie.)