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?

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:


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

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.