Can You Jam with the Console Cowboys in Cyberspace?

The first time you hear the iconic challenge spit out by a very, very young Julia Stiles, it comes off as a joke—a throwback, a silly phrase in a monologue jam-packed with mid-90s buzzwords. But then, like so many other kitschy cultural touchstones, it slips under your skin and rattles around, revealing so much more than its creators intended.

Stiles here plays Erica, the editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper, who just bumped poor Tina’s feature story from the front page in order to headline a dramatic report on a hacker—Max Mouse—who has compromised the school’s network to spread a rumor about the principal’s death. Even the faculty advisor admits the story has pizzazz: “The Hurston Herald has never looked so fresh!”

And here’s the thing: the buzzwords and visuals from Ghostwriter all show their age, but the underlying story really is as “fresh” today as when it aired. Stiles’s lines scream “1994-era corny,” but the underlying dynamics are depressingly familiar. Erica plays a classic “gatekeeper,” a hacker-expert nudging Tina out of the inner circle even as she waxes rhapsodic about how open it is to exploration—“a world where curiosity and imagination equals power.” These ideas aren’t unique to Ghostwriter, either; she’s paraphrasing The Hacker Manifesto, a short essay that became popular among hackers after its pseudonymous publication in 1986, providing a community cornerstone and the ethical framework for its sometimes illegal pursuits. Erica’s monologue reflects a vision that much of the hacker world has of itself as a meritocracy, where the strange and marginalized of the “real” world can find a community by embracing their curiosity and developing their knowledge. But it also reflects a tendency of that same world to erect boundaries around itself, to the exclusion of many of the same marginalized people.

“Can you jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace?” Well, can you? Do you even want to?

Gatekeeping is, unfortunately, alive and well in all too many corners of the hacker community. But it’s not a hopeless case! Increasingly many hacker advocates and critics recognize that the disproportionately white and male demographics of its online and offline gatherings are a bug, not a feature, and have taken steps to make the community more welcoming to the curiosity of more kinds of people.

But the longstanding inclination to separate a “true” hacker in-group from everybody else persists. Every appearance of it, every expression of exclusionary argot or feigned surprise at a technical question, boils down to a slightly polished version of jamming in cyberspace. And worse, once you clear the hurdles to become an Erica who can jam with the console cowboys, it can be hard to remember how intimidating it was to be a Tina who just wanted to learn.

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