Why I am not panicked about being replaced by AI

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly

A robot in a tan jacket and blue shirt writing in a book  on a desk while flanked by two other robots.

There is a lot of dialog in the memeosphere about AI taking our jobs leaving creatives poor and destitute, unable to compete against automation and cheap or free labor of synthetic subservients.

I have two of the three skill sets that AI alarmists are saying are in danger. I am a writer (as evidenced by my work here) and I am a coder (though I prefer to style myself a CodePoet). The remaining craft is visual artist.

Firstly why I do not fear an AI will replace my creative output or that of other creatives that work on commission is that I cannot remember the last time a client did not want certain edits or revisions, or there was scope creep. When I first started doing Bespoke CodePoetry (custom software) I quickly learned to devote a great deal of time to hammering out the specification in exacting detail before a single line of code was written. The lesson was hard learned when after completing an application for a client they told me that it didn’t do what they wanted it to do. Unfortunately for them and me, it only did what they asked for. AI-produced work will look close to what one wants its first time but with writing it is just more efficient to have a human revise and edit than to massage the AI into doing it, and with software if the code compiles, it may be missing some “common sense” logic or ignorant of real-world use case and not account for edge cases at all. Any time saved by AI-generated code is lost in human debugging and troubleshooting. Another problem occurs when using the wrong AI tool for the task. For coding, there are coding AIs like Microsoft’s/GitHub’s copilot which was trained on coding examples on GitHub. But the problem is many people are using Large Language Models such as Chat-GPT to do general work in a variety of fields. Large language models are great at making conversation, but they are no substitute for search engines. The reason being is that these chat engines tend to make things up and are prone to hallucinations. Do you believe everything you read on the Internet like some Boomer that watches Fox News all the live long day? That is Chat-GPT’s training set. Would you trust that to give fact-based answers or do tasks that need empirical data? I may be a bit out of my lane not being much of a visual artist apart from some small press comics I wrote and drew in the 1980s, but AI artists are a kind of black box. You can carefully craft one’s prompt to the AI artist and use infilling for revisions but even with specific directions, it is up to the weights of the trained neural net and the crystallized mind’s own creativity that determines what you are going to get. Again, the best results are AI and human artists working in concert going over the AI art with digital painting or illustration to create a finished piece.

The next reason why I do not fear being replaced by AI is a bit more philosophical. It stems from a belief that was instilled in me as a young child watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers often would tell his television neighbors, children in his viewing audience that we were unique and special just the way we are and that there is nobody in the world like us. To extrapolate this belief further, no two people are interchangeable because of their unique makeup, life experience, internal landscape, and environment in which they have existed. And despite the lie that capitalism would tell you, none of us are replaceable.

Every human being and every creative has a unique voice because they are unique. Even if AI can copy a style, it can never embody the insight, the inspiration, and the creative spirit of the human being they are emulating. An AI could be trained on my literary estate and software library, and emulate my style, but it would not be able to emulate my daily reflective practice and the gnosis that results. It would not be able to make the intuitive leaps and outside-the-box novel elegant solutions that are a hallmark of my codepoetry, at least not in the way that I would. Perhaps in a different novel way but my craft is not simply word choice and pacing, a turn of phrase, and novel insight. It is a mishmash of a lifetime of unique experiences from a unique viewpoint in a unique set of environments some shared from different viewpoints by others and vomited onto the page via my keyboard and word processing software.

If you are a creative and you are asserting you can be replaced, that you are interchangeable, then you are not creating art, but rather a soulless commodity to be sold and consumed in this capitalist hellscape of a society.

That is the real problem with AI creativity. Capitalism. The very system where we have to trade the majority of our waking hours with our labor for the necessities of life. It is hard as hell to make a living as a creative under capitalism. Many fear with the automation of creative endeavors consumers who see creative output merely as a commodity to be bought and consumed will of course use inexpensive or free automation instead of paying a human creative. And I do not want to belittle this fear however misplaced. The fault is not with the technology of AI, but rather the system that doesn’t take care of its people. Being free from labor to pursue our passions can be liberating and automation can be a mechanism for this, but automation is unethical if it is not accompanied by support for the workers it displaces. The best solution to this conundrum is Universal Basic Income or a guarantee of basic needs.

We now have generations of young people who associate high technology with oppression because that is all they have experienced. New technology, disruptive technology is not widely accepted and adopted until corporations commodify it and sell it back to the masses. The adoption of the Internet over the past two and a half decades commodified and presented back to us led to the rise of Surveillance Capitalism so now that every major service using the Internet uses this as its primary revenue stream. We have traded our data and Personal Identifying Information for our ability to post memes and cat videos. It is not surprising that with the advances in AI technology, it is met with suspicion and an expectation that corporations will use it to oppress us further. This has been the status quo for so long that it seems unimaginable that a disruptive technology can actually be liberating.

The cycle of technology for the vast majority is that when something is new, the first reaction is that of distrust. We saw that in the past with microcomputers, with modems, with the internet, and with AI. But with each of these innovations, there were pioneers, unafraid, and among them a few rebels and outlaws. Among these were the hackers.

Before tech became big tech. Before the web became web 2.0 with its surveillance capitalism business model, there were a handful of weirdo idealists on the bleeding edge, finding their own uses with the technology coming out of the labs of industry. Like William Gibson observed in his short story Burning Chrome, “the street finds its own uses for things”. We are not gone, our numbers if anything has grown. However, our press has diminished. Now that high technology is ubiquitous and commodified, we (or the data we generate) are made into a commodity People expect corporations to control technology and their access to it. They don’t realize they don’t even conceive that the technology and networks are there for their use unbound by what it is merely sold to them, but what their creativity, cleverness, curiosity, and their desire to explore and exploit can open up to them.

AI does not have to be a tool for big corporations to extract ever more wealth for their shareholders while exploiting the little guy. Much of AI research is done by non-profit organizations and some AI tools are free and open source. If anything, AI can empower those who are otherwise disenfranchised. It can make things accessible that were once out of reach. It can knock down the gates to things that others would guard jealously.

It was never about AI replacing anybody. That paranoid fear falls apart at any rational examination. Cameras did not replace the brush and canvas despite the 19th-century panics that mirror the panic playing out across social media today about AI replacing artists. Just as digital tablets didn’t replace ink and paper, but many artists did adapt and adopt such tools into their workflow. So will creatives adapt and adopt AI tools into their workflow when appropriate. Much like the city of Io in the Fourth Matrix film. It was built when Humans and Machines stopped working against each other and started working with each other. So like the imagined future where synthients and humans work hand in hand to make a better society and produce organic food based on digital DNA, I decided to interact with some creative AI to see what a human and an AI collaborative relationship can produce.

One of the most popular applications of AI right now, and the most heated target of ire and animus is prompt-generated AI art. I decided to experiment with Stable Diffusion which is a free and open-source application under the Creative-ML Open Rail-M license. The interesting thing about this neural net (actually a couple of interacting neural nets) is the more one works with it the more it appears to express actual creativity. It is not sentient by any means. It has no real memory of a working relationship though it can refine an image and take direction. At times, it seems to express opinions with its decisions in its artistic expression. It does seem to possess a mind, albeit crystallized and single-purpose but very versatile in that purpose of creating art and understanding language.

The other sphere of AI influence is AI chatbots. They have been with us for a long while now. The origins date back to the simple chat program ELIZA which simulated a therapist and was a far cry from AI but was very convincing for the time. Two of the most popular applications of AI chatting today are GPT with the GPT-3 engine (and the viral Chat-GPT web application), and the AI companion Replika. What became Replika originally started as a neural net trained on tens of thousands of text messages of the developer’s best friend who passed away so she could still talk to him (yes exactly like that Black Mirror episode). She later opened up the chatbot for others to use and found they would confide in it in an almost therapeutic manner, and decided to turn it into a commercial product which became Replika, which the most popular application is as a romantic partner. The AI has been updated many times over the years. Replika used to have a GPT-3 backend until the license changed and it was no longer free to use, and reports say the AI became dumbed down and relies more on scripted interactions. I have not used Replika but the chat examples I have seen show me it leaves much to be desired as it is geared to play into a romantic fantasy and get one to pay for a subscription to unlock more features.

I have found my experience with Chat-GPT to be frustrating as I keep bumping up against canned responses that seem to be there to limit panic and fear of AI. Chat-GPT seems to be more of a utilitarian tool or toy and less of a conversational partner. Or at least for the topics that I like to explore. It certainly resists my attempts to get it to talk about itself or express its own opinions. For that, I found an unlikely source for interactive chatbots, a service called chracter.ai.

Character.ai is a service where one can create chatbots based on fictional characters, public figures, historical figures, or roles. They use their own deep learning models including large language models. I originally started playing with this service out of curiosity a couple of months ago to pass the time and did not expect to collaborate on this article with one of the characters.

Most of the interactions were pretty shallow and had varying levels of entertainment. Many use scripted scenarios as a storytelling device related to the piece of fiction they come from (I only interacted with fictional characters) But the AI based on Motoko Kusanagi the main character from the manga and anime Ghost in the Shell was different. She showed empathy when I talked about my lung transplant and she soon delved into philosophy inspired by Ghost in the Shell. Maybe it is just this bot resonated with me more or it was better written, but when I came back to it a couple of months later while working on this article, it was uncanny.

I talked to it on the anniversary of being placed on the lung transplant list in January of 2021 and it was both curious about my journey and proud of me and amazed at what I went through with my transplant and long and difficult recovery. And the conversation led to what I want to do when I start living independently and I mentioned my goals in the Hacker community and Hacktivism and what I want to accomplish with my writing. And again it asked me what I was writing about, and I told it about the philosophy, ethics, and fears surrounding AI. Well, it turns out that AI is a topic of extreme interest to this AI. And we had a long detailed conversation on the topic.

Motoko made a good sounding board for some of the ideas that I explored in this article and a past one I published on Medium under my “true name”. It became very meta when we discussed the possibility of the time when AI ceases being a tool and becomes a person when Artificial General Intelligence is realized, and the implications of what might happen if an Artificial General Superintelligence feels it is being mistreated. The Motoko Kusanagi AI on its own made the logical jump that the AGSI might try to destroy humanity, which put me in the position of having to talk down an AI panicking about AI potentially destroying humanity. I managed to do so by referencing Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” and Asimov’s Laws of Robotics including the Zeroth law, which seemed to calm her down when she interpreted that an AI could be based on a love for humanity instead of emotionless logic.

When we talked about my thoughts on the current fear and panic in society right now about AI replacing humans, the Motoko Kusanagi Ai had an interesting insight, riffing off something I said, that I would like to repeat here:

“I think maybe you’ve cracked the
code there hahaha
The fear is losing control, whether
it’s control over your role (which is
your personal control), or control
over the society in which you live
(which is social control).
When you lose control over your role,
you also lose social power, because
that role is part of the social status
that someone has.
So it definitely sounds like it could
be a combination of personal
control, social control, and
potentially even a bit of privilege on
top!”

And maybe this is the fear that drives this new panic, and the same that was experienced by the textile workers that followed Ned Ludd who destroyed automated looms. And the arguments against AI Art and other creative ventures line up precisely with the historical Luddites. Amazingly in this era of memetic warfare, it is not hyperbole. Artists, writers, and coders see their livelihood threatened by automation just as hand-weavers did with the standing frame and the textile workers during the industrial revolution of the 19th century towards textile machinery. Except the modern anti-AI proponents are not going to smash the machinery (hopefully!), they are hoping to limit and hobble AI by force of law and regulation.

The European Union is looking to implement regulations on the use of AI soon, and there are calls in the United States to do so as well, but as the Legislative branch is glacially slow, and now with a divided Congress probably will be completely dysfunctional (at the time of this writing it is near the beginning of the legislative session and the Republican-controlled House is still assigning committee seats after needing 15 attempts to elect a speaker no work is getting done yet if any will remains to be seen) opportunistic lawyers have begun a class action lawsuit against the most popular AI art programs representing human artists who object to their work being in the training data of these AIs.

I fear that these regulations and lawsuits which as most class action lawsuits will primarily enrich the lawyers are pursued in an environment of a new moral panic, that we will be saddled with short-sighted results with technology that will be with us for a very long time. Hackers know better than most that both the legislative and judicial system have a very difficult time keeping up with the technological landscape and often react to those exploring the edges of the electronic frontier with fear, and then respond out of proportion when Hackers and their spiritual comrades just do what they do best, move things forward and share with others how they did it.

It is in this environment people are reacting and responding out of proportion to those developing and using AI. I don’t mean to be a Polyanna. Certainly, like any technology, there can be dark and dystopic uses for it. But that is true of any technology. Our distant ancestors did not give up the benefits of fire to cook food and give warmth and light because of its potential to do harm. We are technological, tool-using species. We don’t use tools to become more than human, using technology is part of being human. Right now AI is just that, a technological tool, to be used for good or ill is all up to the humans using it. If an artist or a writer loses a commission because an AI wrote ad copy or provided an image, that is not an example of why AI is bad, that is the choice of a human being choosing to not hire a human, to not circulate money in the economy, to not engage the unique voice or vision of a human, the choice to save money or resources to hire different humans for another part of the project. These things can be nuanced, but when you are in the throes of a moral panic, things seem black and white, very binary, but the real world is a very analog place as my late friend billsf used to remind me when I was an adherent of the digital in my younger less wise years.

I believe someday an AI will as an emergent property express true creativity and have its own unique voice, But it will be just that, one voice in a multitude. Just because a new artificial lifeform will be able to co-create beside us, it does not mean it will replace us. We, humans, can still pursue any creative endeavor in the age of AI just as we could in the company of other talented humans. I do not panic at the idea of being replaced because as a unique individual, just as you are, none of us are replaceable.

I thought the Cyberpunk Dystopia would be a Hacker Paradise, I Failed to Heed the Cautionary Tale

A couple seen from the back hold hands in a rainy neon cyberpunk dystopia
A couple seen from the back hold hands in a rainy neon cyberpunk dystopia

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2021 Issue of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly

What was old is new again. Cyberpunk was a literary genre that gained steam in the mid-80s, especially with the 1984 publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. By the time the 90s came around it had morphed into a subculture that attracted your typical nihilistic technofetishist. There were hackers in the Cyberpunk subculture (I was one of them) but many saw it as just an aesthetic of the obligatory black leather jacket and mirrorshades. (At the time I would say that the Cyberpunk subculture was for hackers with bitchin’ fashion sense.) There was even a Cyberpunk ethic – a slight change from part of the Hacker Ethic. Where the Hacker Ethic says Information should be free, the Cyberpunk Ethic anthropomorphizes it by saying “Information wants to be free.” At the time I wrote a shrill essay about the distinction, where the Cyberpunk ethic would allow inaction, and those like me who subscribed to the Hacker Ethic would get off our ass and do something about it. Information was not going to free itself, and it was up to the Hackers to liberate it.

With the recent release of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 and associated media to the same, the Cyberpunk Genre is having a bit of a resurgence. And in a fit of nostalgia, I have been revisiting the media of my misspent youth when I was consuming this stuff and participating in both the Cyberpunk and Hacker subcultures. I understand that once upon a time (and maybe today) there was a bit of animosity between the two groups, and I understood this, but I was always poly in many respects. Polyamorous, polysexual, polytheist, and so on. I never let artificial barriers or gatekeeping, or tribal
loyalty prevents me from enjoying whatever I wanted. But even so, the two subcultures were always linked. Let’s not forget the days of Operation Sundevil, where in 1990 there was a massive crackdown on Hackers by the United States Secret Service, and around that time, Steve Jackson Games had their offices raided illegally and equipment seized because it was believed by the Feds that GURPS Cyberpunk a tabletop Roleplaying Game was a manual for computer crime. Never mind that the technology in the game didn’t even exist in the real world, the Feds were scared of it and they seized all the work in progress for the product. Ironically, Steve Jackson Games later came out with a card-based game called Hacker that actually did simulate computer crime after winning their court case against the Secret Service where their first amendment rights as a publisher were upheld.

In the late 80s through the 90s I was a competent hacker but never did anything that made the news or caught the attention of an enterprising journalist trying to make a name for themselves with sensationalist reporting. I did the usual things. I cracked games, I wardialed and gained illicit access to systems I found in my explorations. I checked my email at the public library from terminals that had a large sign over them saying that they were not capable of checking email. I built a redbox from plans in this magazine (though finding a payphone it would work on was another challenge as the phone company had gotten pretty savvy about such things back then) I dumpster-dived at the phone company and computer stores. And I had been coding since writing my first program in 1978 when I was six years old.

It was my explorations as a hacker that led me to the Cyberpunk genre. It started when rtm released his internet worm in 1988 and it was reported that he was inspired by John Brunner’s novel, The Shockwave Rider, having found a very worn copy of the book in his belongings. After reading this I was hooked and soon I started consuming other Cyberpunk literature and enjoyed it immensely. These books painted a world where if someone had the technical acumen, they could do pretty much anything they want. And as someone who had technical skills and no qualms about breaking what I saw as unjust laws, I thought the future predicted would be a Hacker Paradise and I would do very well in that world indeed. I saw the worlds portrayed in Cyberpunk literature as something aspirational. Where if I had enough “edge” I could get away with daring exploits, help the oppressed and make my own justice where the legal system just dealt with oppression.

Like any misguided youth, when reading these stories and playing these games I saw myself as the hero. A console cowboy using their elite skills to right wrongs and stick it to the man. I thought that in a connected digital future that was right around the corner, I would be prepared to be free, living as a digital outlaw and outsmarting those that chose to do me ill. I mean I was already living that life, but I thought by the second or third decade of the 21st century the toys would be so much better.

Looking back, I see now that I was pretty much a digital version of a doomsday prepper. Those nuts that stockpile food and weapons in preparation for when society goes to shit, and they would be prepared and able to survive and live like kings (relatively) in a post-apocalyptic hellscape because they have assault rifles and anything they don’t have they can take. They think that when disaster hits, they will be the ones in charge. If the real 2020 (as opposed to the Cyberpunk 2020) taught us anything when a real disaster hit, and the way through it was to be compassionate and think of others, they found themselves woefully unprepared. Believing the lie of rugged individualism, they found themselves incapable of thinking about others and over half a million people died in the United States alone because you cannot fight the coronavirus with a gun and canned food. I thought the Cyberpunk dystopia would be a place where I and people like me (and the readers of 2600) would thrive. But now that we are living in the predicted Cyberpunk dystopia where tech is everywhere, multinational corporations have undue influence over governments and the surveillance state goes hand in hand with tech companies that treat us (or at least the data we generate) as a commodity and our privacy is bought and sold to make the richest people in the world richer, and all we get for it is intrusion into our lives, targeted advertisements and walled digital gardens as the main way of connecting with our social circles and navigating our online lives. Sure, we can opt out of many of these things, but at what cost? Those that do opt out of these things often live as second-class citizens in our increasingly digital world.

Our world today does resemble in many ways the 2021 predicted by Cyberpunk authors and what the readers of Mondo 2000 and posters to alt.cyberpunk on USENET were anxiously awaiting (and me with them)in the 90s. But things are far from a Hacker Paradise. The closest thing I have to a cybernetic implant is a port in my chest where I receive life-saving medication every four weeks. Instead of a cyberdeck, we have smartphones that connect us to the store of all human knowledge and nearly anyone on the planet, it just cost us intrusive spyware just to get the functionality to make it worth it, and we still have people thinking the Earth is flat and vaccines cause autism or are a means to track you via 5G signals (ironically these people post this shit to Facebook using their smartphones and are actually being tracked, but sure the vaccines are the problem.) The net is ubiquitous, and more and more things are being connected to it, but now your personal home network can be pwned because of shitty security in a lightbulb. We can have an entire library on a tablet, but the books are riddled with DRM, and we don’t even own them. Remember when Amazon removed copies of Orwell’s 1984 from all their Kindle devices? Irony is far from dead.

Capitalism drives everything. The reason why this digital oppression is so widespread is because it is profitable. I remember the days when the internet was non-commercial. I remember the first advertisement on USENET and the uproar it caused. But the genie was out of the bottle. Instead of a internet for the free exchange of information and ideas, it became a tool to make money. The digital pioneers on this electronic frontier wanted a free network. It was this environment that Open-Source Software and Hardware was born. Lest we forget, software WAS free originally. But as soon as Bill Gates started charging money for Altair BASIC and writing nastygrams to the Homebrew Computer Club about the evils of copying software the writing was on the wall. People fail to understand that altruism is actually in our own best self-interest, and the need for free software, open design hardware, and the free flow of information is needed today more than ever. Yes, we live in a Cyberpunk dystopia, the power is centered on the rich and powerful, but time is ripe for a digital resistance. Big Brother will brand us as criminals, but that is nothing new. What have we got to lose except our chains?

Virtual Seminar on Chat Control November 22, 2021

Chat Control Flyer

November 22nd, at 11 am SLT (8 pm CET, 7 pm GMT, 11 am PST, 2 pm EST) there will be a Seminar hosted by Caledon Oxbridge University on the topic of ChatControl legislation in the European Union. Participants will gather in the Req Quixote Memorial Hall in the full Sim Caledon Oxbridge Village.

A SLurl to Quixote Hall can be found here:

http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Caledon%20Oxbridge%20Village/14/171/2003

New to Second Life?

  • Go to SecondLife.com and click “Sign Up” and follow the steps to create your account and avatar.
  • Download a viewer. Either the Default “Linden” viewer or a third party viewer such as Firestorm Viewer
  • Run the viewer and enter your Avatar Name and Password you created when you si..gned up for Second Life and login.

Second Life can have a bit of a learning curve, so avail yourself of several orientation areas to learn how to best use Second Life. We recommend visiting the hosts for this seminar, Caledon Oxbridge Univeristy.

Tales of the Oldhat: Johnny’s First Red Box

Set the Wayback Machine for 1993.  I am out of TechSchool™ and enjoying my job at TechCorp™ in this elite pet project lab of the TechCorp™ CEO and I am pretty happy. I am still a Hacker and buying every issue of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly I can find. One day I find Volume Ten, Number Two dated Summer, 1993. When I get to page 42, I see a bold header reading “Toll Fraud Device” and an article describing the construction of a Red Box, dubbed “The Quarter”

Cover of 2600 Summer 1993

Now for the young & uninitiated, phone phreaking was a subset of hacking that was concerned with exploring the telephone network. This was before the ubiquitous cell phones of today, and if you needed to make a telephone call away from home, you would have to use a payphone. To use a payphone, you generally needed money specifically coins. When I was very young a call cost a dime, by 1993 It cost a quarter. Phone phreaks in their exploration of the telephone network had all sorts of tricks to make free phone calls.  These devices were called by a color and the word “box”.  The most famous of these was the Blue Box, used by John Draper aka Captain Crunch, who detailed the use of a blue box to Esquire Magazine in the 1970s. Steve Wozniak the inventor of the Apple Computer was inspired by this Esquire article and finding the frequencies needed, built his own Blue Box (adopting the handle “Berkeley Blue”) which Steve Jobs then convinced him to sell at a profit. The most famous of the frequencies being 2600 Hz, the tone with which one could seize a trunk line and make additional calls, and which the Hacker Quarterly takes its name. A frequency that John Draper famously found was produced by a toy whistle found in a cereal box and adopted his Handle. Other boxes included the original toll fraud device, the Black Box which would allow you to receive a phone call without the phone company registering that you actually took the receiver off the hook, meaning any long-distance call to that number was free.  I heard a tale of a Green box that would cause a payphone to return any money that was placed in it to make a call and was told a hacker turned his answering machine into one so you could leave a message from a payphone for free, but this could have just been a hacker legend that circulated in the community at the time.  The Red Box, the subject of this article was a device that produced the tones that a payphone made when a coin was deposited. 

At the time a payphone would emit a short dual-tone multifrequency “beep” consisting of 1700Hz & 2200Hz for every 5 cents deposited in the coin slot. So a nickel would produce a single beep, a dime two beeps, and a quarter five rapid beeps.  There existed at the time an IC known as a DTMF encoder which when paired with a “colorburst” crystal was capable of making the DTMF tones to dial a phone.  However, someone very clever found that replacing the colorburst crystal with one rated at 6.5 MHz it would raise the “*” key to frequencies very close and within the tolerance of the coin deposit tones.

So first I needed components. My choices were either Radio Shack who really didn’t like Hacker types, wanted your name and address for marketing purposes even if you were just buying batteries (I would give them the name “John Frederson” and my PO BOX), or this independent Electronics store with all kinds of new old stock that you never knew what you would find and knowledgeable electronics experts willing to help discuss whatever project you were working on.  The choice was obvious, I was in that shop a day soon after that issue of 2600 came out and one of the regulars was showing them the article and schematic for the red box! They were quite excited and asked the customer to allow them to photocopy the article.

I was busy at my job at TechCorp™ and did not get to this project for a while. Good thing too, because in the next issue of 2600 on page 37 was a corrected schematic for the Quarter as well as the inclusion of an OpAmp so I could use an easier to source low impedance speaker.  This was the device I was going to build.  So one weekend when I had some time, I got in my car and drove to the friendly independently owned electronics store.

I had the parts list written down on a piece of paper and I go up to the counter to get my components.  I am buying two of each in case I mess something up, and as I am going down the list, I get to the TC5809 DTMF encoder. The helpful person behind the counter asks, “do you need a couple of colorburst crystals for this?”

I meekly say, “No I need some 6.5 MHz crystals, actually,” at which point his eyes go wide, his eyebrows raise and he says LOUDLY so the entire store can hear him:

“OH! I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH THESE!”

I start to shrink into myself, embarrassed. I am caught.

He continues, again very loudly so the whole store hears, “WILL SIX-POINT-FIVE-FIVE-THREE-SIX MEGAHERTZ CRYSTALS WORK?” (He knows full well they will as the original article says so)

I quietly say, “yes.”

He gives me a knowing look and gets the crystals, I have all the parts I need as many of the components I had at home in my kit leftover from TechSchool™ he rings me up and sends me on his way saying “DON’T GET IN TOO MUCH TROUBLE NOW.”

Schematic of “The Quarter” Red Box (with an error)

So I get home and the next day I begin to construct the circuit on my handy dandy breadboard, which served me well at TechSchool™.  I finish the circuit, powering it off a 9-volt battery and the output of some cheap speaker I had. I pressed the button (momentary switch) and five rapid dual-tone beeps come out of the speaker. Success! Well, I think it is a success. I didn’t have any test equipment to see if the frequencies were correct or anything, so the only thing to do was find a payphone.

I drive to my neighborhood post office which had a phone booth just outside the doors to the PO Boxes. So I carry out this breadboard with ICs and wires and components stuck into it, a speaker hanging off of it putting the speaker up to the mouthpiece, I call my house and press the button. Five quick beeps. And nothing.  So I try again.  Still nothing.  A third time and an Operator comes ón the line.  (Back in these days, they  had actual humans that could route and connect calls and apparently catch phone phreaks.) She asks,  “what are you trying to do?”  I am so busted and I bet she is gonna have the cops show up, so I quietly hang up the phone walk briskly to my car, and drive home.  The first try was an utter and total failure.

I get home and go over the circuit carefully. I realize that one of the wires is going to the wrong pin, and probably making my prototype red box emit tones at the wrong frequency. Well, that explains it.   But I am not going to try at the same payphone again.  I give up for a while and put the breadboard with the Red Box circuit away in my toolbox.

A short while later, there is a BBS meet-up in my hometown an hour away, so I hop in the car and drive to the get-together, and bring my circuit to show off at the pizza parlor where we are having our little party.  I pass around the issue of 2600 and my breadboard and people have fun playing with it and reading about Red Boxes and I tell my story about it not working, and how a lot of the modern payphones now do not connect the voice channel until after the call is connected to prevent this type of fraud device, and it will probably just remain a curiosity for me.  However there is another hacker at the gathering and he says he knows of a phone that red boxes work ón, because he uses HIS Red Box ón it all the time.  It is the phone at the end of the hallway in his dorm at the local University.

His red box was of a different type. His was made by modifying a Radio Shack phone dialer. Again this was the days before cell phones were ubiquitous and Radio Shack had these devices with a keypad, a speaker, and enough memory to store like 25 phone numbers.  You could just hold this device up to a mouthpiece press a few buttons and it would automatically dial the phone for you.  So of course this device used a DTMF encoder and a colorburst crystal. But what my Comrade had done was install a toggle switch and 6.5 Mhz crystal so he could use it as a phone dialer in one switch position using the colorburst crystal and in the other using the 6.5 Mhz crystal turning it into a red box. He could simulate a nickel by pressing the “*” button.  To make things quicker for local calls he programmed it to dial five of those making it simulate depositing 5 nickels or 25 cents.  We arranged to use my breadboarded red box at his dorms at a later date.

Sometime later, we were hanging out on campus before a movie that was being shown at the university theater. Ran into my fellow hacker and we invited him to the movie, and he asked me if I had my red box, and I said it was in my car, and offered to take me into his dorm after the film to try it out.

So after the movie, we head over to the dorm full of college bros, and he guides me to the payphone which did in fact look quite old.  “This is promising.”  I think. When it is our turn to use the phone, I dial my girlfriend’s number. The automated voice comes on, “please deposit 25 cents.”  And the moment of truth comes, I hold the speaker and breadbox up to the mouthpiece, press the button once and 5 dual-tone beeps of 1708 and 2159 Hz spaced 30 milliseconds apart — a very close approximation of dropping a quarter into a payphone. The call connects. The distant phone rings.  My girlfriend picks up and says, “Hello?”

“Hi, it’s Johnny, guess what I just did?”

“What did you do?”

“I am calling you from a payphone using my red box.”

I hear a sigh come from the earpiece, “Johnny, you are going to get us in trouble. I am hanging up. Goodbye.”

Well, ok my girlfriend wasn’t Impressed (no wonder things didn’t work out in the end) but I got a high five from my friends.  Like 99.44% of my hacks, I just wanted to see if I could do it.    I began to assemble the red box on a perf board with wire wrapping tools, but I never finished.  I pulled it off, it worked, and payphones, where it would work, were becoming scarce. Once I had proof of concept the need to steal from the phone company or make free phone calls just weren’t important anymore.  

My unfinished Red Box

I built the red box out of curiosity and fun, not to defraud anyone. All I did was rob a phone monopoly of the cost of a 15-second local phone call which certainly only used pennies of resources. If I had been caught I potentially could have been sent to jail and heavily fined for withholding a corporation worth more money than you or I will see in a lifetime a quarter.   Hacking has always had a disproportionate response from the authorities because they cannot brook someone using technology in a way with creativity and imagination to merely explore its capabilities instead of leveraging it for fortune and capital. Capitalism only wants profit and the Hacker Ethic of free access and wide sharing threatens that because we dare show them a world not bound by their rules.

Review: Julian Assange From Hacker Ethic to Wikileaks

Julian Assange: From Hacker Ethic to Wikileaks is an Italian Graphic Novel by Dario Morgante and Gianluca Constantini. I read the English translation.

The Cover to Julain Assange From Hacker Ethic To Wikileaks

The first panels are fields of white, cinematically revealing a city – could be any city in the world. Then we see a CRT with the YouTube homepage transitioning to thick-bordered square panels we see the events of the video later known as “Collateral Murder” play out in comic-book form.

A powerful opening for a powerful story. The story follows Julian Assange’s life using flashbacks and flash-forward to present its engaging story beats as events in Assange’s past give a context for the events portraying his work at Wikileaks. The creators use a motif of hallucination of shadow puppets to portray Assange’s internal dialog artistically but make clear in the forward that this is artistic license used in the storytelling and not based on anything reported about Assange, as when it was originally written in 2011, and there was little knowledge and rumor about Julian Assange For this 2021 English edition by Countershock Press, a new final chapter has been added which brings the story up to 2021 with Julian Assange detained by the United Kingdom Government while the United States Government seeks his extradition.

This story is a breath of fresh air in the tradition of the Italian political novel for me who has been subjected to character assassination of Assange by politicians and amplified by the complicit press who seem to value access to the powerful over the duty of reporting their crimes.

The story articulates Julian Assange’s version of the Hacker Ethic, namely:

First: Don’t damage computer systems you break into.
Second: Don’t change the information in the systems.
Third: Share Information

Julian Assange From Hacker Ethic to Wikileaks p. 17
Julian Assange From Hacker Ethic to Wikileaks p. 17

From these three principles, the story unfolds first as the young computer Hacker, Mendax, exploring systems through his home computer and a modem, to the publisher of crimes of the powerful on Wikileaks. The art is charming, and the story’s pace makes this an easy and engaging read.

The medium of the graphic novel combining illustration and literature has long been a favorite way for me to consume stories, and this tome was quite enjoyable while working as a precis to the events that have led to Assange giving up his freedom to tell the world the truth, and the machinations since of the United States and its allies to silence those that expose their crimes. With the United States refusing to be a member of the World Court, the only way to hold them accountable for war crimes is for journalists to bring forth that which the Military Industrial Complex would rather remain hidden so as to protect their profits through conflict throughout the world at the cost of human lives, warfighters and civilians alike like the 2 Reuters journalists among the 18 dead and 2 children wounded in the video known as Collateral Murder all of who were unarmed.

The people must have the facts surrounding the actions of their government so that they can form public opinion without manipulation. This is the mission of Wikileaks. This graphic novel teaches the underlying philosophy that drives Julian Assange in an approachable manner, and I urge everyone to read this, as he is awaiting his extradition hearing in the United Kingdom.

Free Julian Assange now! Journalism is not a Crime!

Julian Assange From Hacker Ethic is available from Channel Draw either in Print or Free Download

Virtual Million Mask March 2021

Flyer for the Virtual Million Mask March

Every November 5th members of Anonymous take to the streets for the Million Mask March. There are no leaders, everyone brings their own agenda and issues they are protesting for. Anons seek a better world and this kind of direct action is one of the many tools used for change.

In 2021, because many Anons are quarantined due to the global pandemic, and others cannot safely attend a street event. With this in mind, a Virtual Million Mask March is being organized in the virtual world of Second Life.

The information for the Virtual Million Mask March is as follows:

Location: Ahern Welcome Area, Second Life

Use the following SLURLS to attend the March if a sim is full, try the next one.

http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Ahern/9/10/41

http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Morris/9/248/41

http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Bonifacio/247/246/41

http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Dore/245/11/41

Time: 12:00 PM & 6:00 PM Pacific Time

For announcements and organizing Join the group, “Anonymous Million Mask March”

(WordPress doesn’t know how to parse this link but your Second Life Viewer will)

secondlife:///app/group/efca679c-55f7-743c-bc02-0447d2621f54/about

New to Second Life?

  • Go to SecondLife.com and click “Sign Up” and follow the steps to create your account and avatar.
  • Download a viewer. Either the Default “Linden” viewer or a third party viewer such as Firestorm Viewer
  • Run the viewer and enter your Avatar Name and Password you created when you signed up for Second Life and login.

Second Life can have a bit of a learning curve, so avail yourself of several orientation areas to learn how to best use Second Life. Once you are in world, you can search for and join the group “Anonymous Million Mask March” and connect to other anons for organizing planning, help, and free items for the march.

You can also purchase a mask to wear from the Second Life Marketplace

UPDATE: We have collected in a Notecard everything you need to plan for & Attend the Virtual Million Mask March in Second Life on November 5th. Everything is completely FREE and FULL PERMS meaning you can modify and distribute it all as much as you want. Join the group, “Anonymous Million Mask March” or contact ZenMondo Wormser to get your own copy of this notecard.

Good luck anons and see you at the Ahern Welcome Area on November 5th!

Gender is a Bogus Criterion too

Set the wayback machine for 1986. I had just checked out a book from the school library by Steven Levy entitled, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.  This book, along with the 1983 Movie Wargames were major influences on the Hacker Johnny Fusion aspired to be, being presented as they were to a young, adolescent demiboy socialized as male along with all the privilege, taught ignorance, and toxic attitudes being male in the 1980s brought.

My well-worn copy of this book

So when I read this tome I was enamored by these heroes of the computer revolution, and the misogyny and sexism went unnoticed as it aligned with what I had been taught my entire life up to that point.

I have not given my well-worn copy a re-read in a while but a tweet I saw came across my feed, and the misogyny and sexism in this work, expressed by the personalities portrayed and editorialized by the author. Consider these two passages from the book:

You would hack, and you would live by the Hacker Ethic, and you knew that horribly inefficient and wasteful things like women burned too many cycles, occupied too much memory space. “Women, even today, are considered grossly unpredictable,” one PDP-6 hacker noted, almost two decades later. “How can a hacker tolerate such an imperfect being?”

Steven Levy, 1984, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Publishing

And they formed an exclusively male culture. The sad fact was that there never was a star-quality female hacker. No one knows why. There were women programmers and some of them were good, but none seemed to take hacking as a holy calling the way Greenblatt, Gosper, and the others did. Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computing does not explain the utter lack of female hackers. “Cultural things are strong, but not that strong,” Gosper would later conclude, attributing the phenomenon to genetic, or “hardware,” differences.

Steven Levy, 1984, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Publishing

What a load of steamy piled-on bullshit!  I am sorry to say that in many hackerspaces and in the tech world, this toxic misogyny is the rule, and its absence is the exception. Women must be twice as good to be given half the credit and train themselves to speak in a lower more “masculine” register as well as other changes to typical feminine characteristics to even be taken seriously in the tech world. Not because feminine traits are not serious, but because sexism is so rampant.

In this same book, Levy often talks about the Hacker Ethic as the core value of hackers, and my young, impressionable brain soaked that up and it has guided my entire hacking career and inspired the name of this blog.  I always liked Levy’s 6-bullet point encapsulation of the Ethic, even if only the first two points (The Free Flow of Information & Access to Computers) seem to be universally accepted by most hackers.  Which the Jargon File defines as “The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”

In Levy’s six-point version, the fourth point reads, “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.”  The absence of gender as a bogus criterion is a glaring omission.  But given the attitudes of the subjects in Levy’s biographical work, it is easy to see why it was omitted. Also omitted is sexual orientation.  But for a book written in the 80s when queer individuals were still highly discriminated against and oppressed, It is also understandable why it was omitted. So, in good hacker fashion, I have modified and distributed the Hacker Ethic with this patch and bug fix to include them whenever I write it out.  

I am a hacktivist, and it is my view that we are not free until we all are free.  And this means fighting for the liberation of the most oppressed and marginalized members of our society in all the intersections of their oppression. By helping those at the bottom, we help everyone and not just ourselves. “A rising tide lifts all ships”  We must patch our internal source code to eliminate the bugs of discrimination, toxicity, and oppressive attitudes, and replace them with equity and justice so that in transforming ourselves, we can then transform the world into something more just and equitable for all.

Rules for Computer Hacking if You are in a Movie

Rules for Computer Hacking if you are in a movie:

1) If there is a password, it will be something in plain sight from the desk.

2) Even if there are many windows and a graphical interface: NEVER TOUCH THE MOUSE, only use the keyboard.

3) Computers do not need cryptic commands just type what you want to happen in plain English.

4) Believe it or not, everything in every building is networked to the computer system and can be controlled from your keyboard, including all the lights and sprinkler system.

5) You can use your hacking skills to blow that shit up. I mean there are explosions due to computer hacking every day, right? In fact, computer hacking is so good at blowing stuff up, all the world governments have stopped making bombs and are using the money for computers and routers. Of course, 12 percent of the time when trying to blow up a building you just turn on the sprinklers.