Hacker Depictions

From Playfare to Warfare: Wargames’ Launches Hacking into the Zeitgeist

Wargames launched hacking into the zeitgeist. The 1983 film about the Cold War and computing was the first to depict an acoustically coupled modem, and it also introduced phreaking, hacking, autonomous weapons, and chiptunes (starting 20 seconds into this clip) to a general audience. While the representations of technically-oriented subcultures alone make Wargames notable, its impacts make it unique.

First, it conscripted proto-hackers: every kid I knew tried to make free phone calls by unscrewing a payphone’s handset mouthpiece and frame-grounding its microphone. (Disassembling an AT&T phone was, at the time, illegal). Second, Wargames triggered a national panic with lasting fallout. Shortly after the playful scene shown in this clip (where high school students dial into their school’s computer to change their grades), the protagonists escalate to (unintentionally) hacking the US military into nearly starting a thermonuclear war (the hackers thought it was the name of a pre-release game). As far as the general public was concerned, this meant any nerd with a TRS-80 might end the world!

The film was screened for Ronald Reagan at Camp David, leading him to call for legislation to prevent “computational trespass and vandalism.” By 1986 this had snowballed into the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a legal regime deemed draconian enough to prevent WWIII—with the added side effect of being usable to criminalize curiosity or activism. Twenty-five years later, the CFAA was invoked against hacker pioneer Aaron Swartz after he engaged in civil disobedience to further open knowledge (by downloading academic papers, en masse, from the JSTOR digital library).

In this scene, set in the bedroom of a high school hacker who could easily pass for a young Swartz, the world’s first pop impression of hacking remains timeless even as the computers have aged. The (male) hacker’s messy bedroom is merely a peripheral of his microcomputer. He has mastered this technology and has already surmounted any compunctions about using his knowledge to asymmetrically improve his standing. More amoral than immoral, he hacks for convenience, for the lolz—and no doubt for the same reasons as his progenitor, phone phreak John “Captain Crunch” Draper, who once declared: “If I do what I do, it is only to explore a system.”

The protagonist’s newbie classmate stands in for the every viewer: new to dial-up, she is shocked that he is using the system to his advantage. When he queries her grades, her “that’s none of your business” is like a first draft of the European privacy legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation  (GDPR). When he changes her grade, she objects and leaves in a judgy huff, sporting the same indignation we wear when Facebook changes its terms of service.

But the next day, she, like us, she has gotten used to the intrusion and is ready for more. Her pyrrhic techno-elation crashes only with the realization that this same technology is about to destroy the entire world.

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