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Current issue : #30 | Release date : 1989-12-24 | Editor : Taran King
Phrack Inc. XXX IndexKnight Lightning & Taran King
Network Miscellany IIITaran King
Hacking & TymnetSynthecide
Hacking VM/CMSGoe
The DECWRL Mail GatewayDedicated Link
Decnet Hackola : Remote Turist TTY (RTT)Hobbit
VAX/VMS Fake MailJack T. Tab
Consensual Realities in CyberspacePaul Saffo
The Truth About Lie DetectorsRazor's Edge
Western Union Telex, TWX, and Time ServicePhone Phanatic
Phrack World News XXX Part 1Knight Lightning
Phrack World News XXX Part 2Knight Lightning
Title : Consensual Realities in Cyberspace
Author : Paul Saffo
                                ==Phrack Inc.==

                     Volume Three, Issue 30, File #8 of 12

        <<                                                           >>
        <<            Consensual Realities In Cyberspace             >>
        <<                                                           >>
        <<                       by Paul Saffo                       >>
        <<                Personal Computing Magazine                >>
        <<                                                           >>
        << Copyright 1989 by the Association for Computing Machinery >>
        <<                                                           >>

More often than we realize, reality conspires to imitate art.  In the case of
the computer virus reality, the art is "cyberpunk," a strangely compelling
genre of science fiction that has gained a cult following among hackers
operating on both sides of the law.  Books with titles like "True Names,"
"Shockwave Rider," "Neuromancer," "Hard-wired," "Wetware," and "Mona Lisa
Overdrive," are shaping the realities of many would-be viral adepts.  Anyone
trying to make sense of the social culture surrounding viruses should add the
books to their reading list as well.

Cyberpunk got its name only a few years ago, but the genre can be traced back
to publication of John Brunner's "Shockwave Rider" in 1975.  Inspired by Alvin
Toffler's 1970 best-seller "Future Shock," Brunner paints a distopian world of
the early 21st Century in which Toffler's most pessimistic visions have come to
pass.  Crime, pollution and poverty are rampant in overpopulated urban
arcologies.  An inconclusive nuclear exchange at the turn of the century has
turned the arms race into a brain race.  The novel's hero, Nickie Haflinger, is
rescued from a poor and parentless childhood and enrolled in a top secret
government think tank charged with training geniuses to work for a
military-industrial Big Brother locked in a struggle for global political

It is also a world certain to fulfill the wildest fantasies of a 1970s phone
"phreak."  A massive computerized data-net blankets North America, an
electronic super highway leading to every computer and every last bit of data
on every citizen and corporation in the country.  Privacy is a thing of the
past, and one's power and status is determined by his or her level of identity
code.  Haflinger turns out to be the ultimate phone phreak:  he discovers the
immorality of his governmental employers and escapes into society, relying on
virtuoso computer skills (and a stolen transcendental access code) to rewrite
his identity at will.  After six years on the run and on the verge of a
breakdown from input overload, he discovers a lost band of academic
techno-libertarians who shelter him in their ecologically sound California
commune and... well, you can guess the rest.

Brunner's book became a best-seller and remains in print.  It inspired a whole
generation of hackers including, apparently, Robert Morris, Jr. of Cornell
virus fame.  The Los Angeles Times reported that Morris' mother identified
"Shockwave Rider" as "her teen-age son's primer on computer viruses and one of
the most tattered books in young Morris' room."  Though "Shockwave Rider" does
not use the term "virus," Haflinger's key skill was the ability to write
"tapeworms" -- autonomous programs capable of infiltrating systems and
surviving eradication attempts by reassembling themselves from viral bits of
code hidden about in larger programs.  Parallels between Morris' reality and
Brunner's art is not lost on fans of cyberpunk:  one junior high student I
spoke with has both a dog-eared copy of the book, and a picture of Morris taped
next to his computer.  For him, Morris is at once something of a folk hero and
a role model.

In "Shockwave Rider," computer/human interactions occurred much as they do
today:  One logged in and relied on some combination of keyboard and screen to
interact with the machines.  In contrast, second generation cyberpunk offers
more exotic and direct forms of interaction.  Vernor Vinge's "True Names" was
the first novel to hint at something deeper.  In his story, and small band of
hackers manage to transcend the limitations of keyboard and screen, and
actually meet as presences in the network system.  Vinge's work found an
enthusiastic audience (including Marvin Minsky who wrote the afterword), but
never achieved the sort of circulation enjoyed by Brunner.  It would be another
author, a virtual computer illiterate, who would put cyberpunk on the map.

The author was William Gibson, who wrote "Neuromancer" in 1984 on a 1937 Hermes
portable typewriter.  Gone are keyboards; Gibson's characters jack directly
into Cyberspace, "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of
legitimate operators... a graphic representation of data abstracted from the
banks of every computer in the human system.  Unthinkable complexity.  Lines of
light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of

Just as Brunner offered us a future of the 1970s run riot, Gibson's
"Neuromancer" serves up the 1980s taken to their cultural and technological
extreme.  World power is in the hands of multinational "zaibatsu," battling for
power much as mafia and yakuza gangs struggle for turf today.  It is a world of
organ transplants, biological computers and artificial intelligences.  Like
Brunner, it is a distopian vision of the future, but while Brunner evoked the
hardness of technology, Gibson calls up the gritty decadence evoked in the
movie "Bladerunner," or of the William Burroughs novel, "Naked Lunch" (alleged
similarities between that novel and "Neuromancer" have triggered rumors that
Gibson plagiarized Burroughs).

Gibson's hero, Case, is a "deck cowboy," a freelance corporate thief-for-hire
who projects his disembodied consciousness into the cyberspace matrix,
penetrating corporate systems to steal data for his employers.  It is a world
that Ivan Boesky would understand:  Corporate espionage and double-dealing has
become so much the norm that Case's acts seem less illegal than profoundly

This ambiguity offers an interesting counterpoint to current events.  Much of
the controversy over the Cornell virus swirls around the legal and ethical
ambiguity of Morris' act.  For every computer professional calling for Morris'
head, another can be found praising him.  It is an ambiguity that makes the
very meaning of the word "hacker" a subject of frequent debate.

Morris' apparently innocent error in no way matches the actions of Gibson's
characters, but a whole new generation of aspiring hackers may be learning
their code of ethics from Gibson's novels.  "Neuromancer" won three of science
fiction's most prestigious awards -- the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K.
Dick Memorial Award -- and continues to be a best-seller today.  Unambiguously
illegal and harmful acts of computer piracy such as those alleged against Kevin
Mitnick (arrested after a long and aggressive penetration of DEC's computers)
would fit right into the "Neuromancer" story line.

"Neuromancer" is the first book in a trilogy.  In the second volume, "Count
Zero" -- so-called after the code name of a character -- the cyberspace matrix
becomes sentient.  Typical of Gibson's literary elegance, this becomes apparent
through an artist's version of the Turing test.  Instead of holding an
intelligent conversation with a human, a node of the matrix on an abandoned
orbital factory begins making achingly beautiful and mysterious boxes -- a 21st
Century version of the work of the late artist, Joseph Cornell.  These works of
art begin appearing in the terrestrial marketplace, and a young woman art
dealer is hired by an unknown patron to track down the source.  Her search
intertwines with the fates of other characters, building to a conclusion equal
to the vividness and suspense of "Neuromancer."  The third book, "Mona Lisa
Overdrive" answers many of the questions left hanging in the first book and
further completes the details of the world created by Gibson including an
adoption by the network of the personae of the pantheon of voodoo gods and
goddesses, worshipped by 21st Century Rastafarian hackers.

Hard core science fiction fans are notorious for identifying with the worlds
portrayed in their favorite books.  Visit any science fiction convention and
you can encounter amidst the majority of quite normal participants, small
minority of individuals who seem just a bit, well, strange.  The stereotypes of
individuals living out science fiction fantasies in introverted solitude has
more than a slight basis in fact.  Closet Dr. Whos or Warrior Monks from "Star
Wars" are not uncommon in Silicon Valley; I was once startled to discover over
lunch that a programmer holding a significant position in a prominent company
considered herself to be a wizardess in the literal sense of the term.

Identification with cyberpunk at this sort of level seems to be becoming more
and more common.  Warrior Monks may have trouble conjuring up Imperial
Stormtroopers to do battle with, but aspiring deck jockeys can log into a
variety of computer systems as invited or (if they are good enough) uninvited
guests.  One individual I spoke with explained that viruses held a special
appeal to him because it offered a means of "leaving an active alter ego
presence on the system even when I wasn't logged in."  In short, it was the
first step toward experiencing cyberspace.

Gibson apparently is leaving cyberpunk behind, but the number of books in the
genre continues to grow.  Not mentioned here are a number of other authors such
as Rudy Rucker (considered by many to be the father of cyberpunk) and Walter
John Williams who offer similar visions of a future networked world inhabited
by human/computer symbionts.  In addition, at least one magazine, "Reality
Hackers" (formerly "High Frontiers Magazine" of drug fame) is exploring the
same general territory with a Chinese menu offering of tongue-in-cheek
paranoia, ambient music reviews, cyberdelia (contributor Timothy Leary's term)
and new age philosophy.

The growing body of material is by no means inspiration for every aspiring
digital alchemist.  I am particularly struck by the "generation gap" in the
computer community when it comes to "Neuromancer":  Virtually every teenage
hacker I spoke with has the book, but almost none of my friends over 30 have
picked it up.

Similarly, not every cyberpunk fan is a potential network criminal; plenty of
people read detective thrillers without indulging in the desire to rob banks.
But there is little doubt that a small minority of computer artists are finding
cyberpunk an important inspiration in their efforts to create an exceedingly
strange computer reality.  Anyone seeking to understand how that reality is
likely to come to pass would do well to pick up a cyberpunk novel or two.
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