Nobody appreciates a good hack anymore. I remember my first BBS adventures... Windows 3.0, with terminal. I would use XModem to download the latest software and play video games. It was black and white. I didn't know about ANSI color yet. And it was on a 2400 bps modem. And I hacked the crap out of it. There was a time where I could whistle the connect so precisely into the phone that the other end would finish the handshake and change to the white noise indicative of the beginning of your session. I thought it was cool. I used to play DOOM with my friends online, who were in different states. Sometimes for free.
Later on, computers got some mainstream attention when the government first started to notice kids like me. There were a few high profile computer crimes, as the world began what to me feels like a long-ago transition into the start of the digital era. Tape decks were still in wide use, and not many people knew what a CDROM was. At that time in my life, I was in the midst of a drawn-out divorce with my parents, and suffered from social isolation from my classmates... it didn't help that I was more intelligent than them. I never got a chance to make friends because I was moved around so much, from house to house. Computers were the constant in my life - its unerring logic and absolute simplicity I found intoxicating when painted against the background of my life of chaos and frustration at a world that, even as a child, seemed to be out of control.
My friends never had names. They were part of a culture with a shared heritage, a background similar to my own. We were the tinkers, the coders, the misfits, the young scientists. We were the ones who sat at the lighting booth for the Drama club and showed the other kids how the fantastically complex equipment could be tuned and programmed. Most of us doodled in class, not caring about our grades, ignoring our classmates who, on the best of days were just a friendly haze, but usually tried to avoid us.
Most of us still remember the thrill of our discovery of the internet. For me, it was when our local BBS in Wisconsin started experimenting with it when they got a T1. Eventually, they shut down the BBS and became an ISP. For me, it was like an inexhaustible BBS - there was so much to do, explore, and play with... it was immediately my new playground. Our local town's ISP had dialup accounts, and a 'guest' account, good for a 20 minute session per day. It was keyed to Caller ID. While I was busy exploring the internet, my life had continued to deteriorate - the school administrators, having fingered me as a hacker, and apparently with the power to cause systems to melt and printers to burst into flame from a payphone, had suspended me from the computer lab. Not to be deterred, I was at the local university shortly after that with a packet sniffer getting new accounts so that I could maintain my connection. About the time I had managed to get my own account, paid for by my parents, the internet had started to show the first signs of commercialization.
It wasn't advertised as such. There were only a handful of ISPs even in metropolitan areas, but a few people had gotten the bright idea that you could make money off of this global network. Maybe even sell things on it. Just five years later, the internet was chock full of advertisements, pop-up ads, and etailors. And a sea of 'normal' people... with their apparently insatiable desire for the most stupid, dumbed down.... "content"... possible. It was disgusting. But I ignored it for the time being, all those idiots just funded more ISPs and modems, and drove the price of computer hardware down.
Somewhere along the line, I believe it was on a thursday, the mainstream public decided to adopt a new approach to these computer "geeks" of which I was a part of. We were contracted in, at princely sums, to drive the new ecommerce engine of our economy. Baby boomers, eager to get rich, poured their life savings into the technology sector... and prices hit outrageous levels. The geek had moved from the garage to the office. With it came a sea of cultural changes.
The first major change I noticed was the complete destruction of the original BBS culture. It was replaced by nothing, briefly. Then came along weblogs like Slashdot and later Kuro5hin. Taking cues from e-mail and usenet, these discussion forums came out of the woodwork in bulk to service specialized groups of people. Computer geeks naturally flocked to them to re-establish part of that community feeling. But within a short time they were overwhelmed with 'IT professionals'... leeches who saw the high rates being paid to regular geeks and attacked the industry en masse. The result was broken software, flaky hardware, sub-standard tech support, and Microsoft. Microsoft exemplified everything that was going wrong in the industry... it was making a huge profit despite of itself. The government seemed to look the other way... as one famous parody said it "the business of america is business", and Microsoft was King Kong in the most popular industry at the time. It could do no wrong. And as more people moved online, and the crunch for qualified workers became more severe, more people who should never have been allowed near a keyboard jacked in and became part of the ecommerce revolution.
The ecommerce revolution crashed as spectacularily as it had started, when the NASDAQ tanked at the tail end of the year 2000. It was fueled by hype and misunderstanding. We all knew it would happen, and weren't suprised. Some of us even looked at it as vindication after years of being ignored. And so we were blamed. A plethora of reasons emerged - it was intellectual property theft, or that we needed new laws. Maybe it was the 'hackers'. It was some kind of global conspiracy, they claimed. Viruses, electronic terrorism.. and so the government stepped in... afterall, it should do something, right? Businesses were bleeding cash left and right, dot coms were falling like dominos, and the tech labor shortage, which never really existed, were all fingered as culprits.
But somewhere from the time I first logged into a BBS to the time I wrote this letter, we as a culture lost something. The internet is now fully commercialized. I feel that the community I was once a part of has gone largely extinct. Amongst the sea of information and advertisements, I feel alone. There's nobody left to share my projects with. The community has fractured into computer programmers and web designers and IT managers and system administrators. But nowhere is the proud title 'Hacker'. Nowhere can I go and just talk BS without needing to feel I have to have the credentials to be there, or wave a business card in the air to get attention.
The computer geeks of today wear khakis and drive RX7s. And they don't give a shit about the technology. They want a big screen TV and a home, just like every other 'normal' person out there. The passion of that community is gone. There is no capacity left to explore... to have fun... it's all about making faster chips, better webpages, and more integrated e-commerce solutions to move clicks-and-mortar businesses towards the paradigm shift present in the new digital economy.
I burned out on computers. It's lonely when there is nobody to just hack with. Just stay up all night playing games, or designing a new circuit, or just getting in a car, cruising out to some little-known corner of the cities, prying open a manhole cover, and armed with a flashlight go searching for interesting things. Nobody has that curiosity anymore. Maybe they're worried they might get their khakis dirty.
In the book The Fountainhead, there wasn an architect who built a building
he considered perfect. When he was finished, the people he built it for decided to make a change to it which made it look absolutely ugly. They ignored the artists pleas and marred the beauty of the building. The artist, filled with grief and anger, burned the building down rather than let its beauty be marred.
I empathize with that artist now... I helped build the technology that I now am watching destroy the community that built it. I watch laws like the DMCA be passed and I weep. This isn't the beginning of a revolution, this is the end of it. So, like the architect, I may very well soon burn my computer, and logout for good. It is too painful to watch... and to sit silently while the world ignores the plainly obvious gift my community gave to them. We gave them the ability to free themselves from a commercialized world and to connect with others like them on a personal level. We gave them what we thought at the time was an unstoppable weapon against censorship and corporate control of our lives. That tool was never used... the wimpering of Napster advocates as their toy died was the closest we ever got to that freedom... and look how intoxicating it was to them. But they never opened themselves to the possibility, and now that door is closing, very probably for good.
It fills me with a sorrow I cannot put into words. What happened? The revolution was televised... it was an infomercial.