Numb3rs’ description of IRC

Simple, old tools remain indispensable to the contemporary hacker. And as kitschy as it may seem, this segment from the TV drama Numb3rs captures this dynamic beautifully. The character Amita describes IRC (Internet Relay Chat) as a “pretty primitive chat program,” even as she points out it’s “how hackers talk when they don’t want to be overheard.” And she’s not wrong; IRC was set up in 1988, just a year before the HTTP protocol behind the web was invented, and it remains in use today. In spite of its age, IRC is still how many hackers and geeks – from Anonymous hacktivists and Wikipedia editors to developers working on the Android operating system or the Tor project – stay in touch. Most IRC channels carry a mix of idle rants and day-to-day coordination around collaborative development. It’s the informal, backstage, mundane communication tool behind most collaborative efforts in the hacker world, so why is IRC not better known to the general public? Not because it’s hard to access, or because it’s super secret. It’s just not on show for public consumption.

IRC itself is modelled on even older tech. It’s called a relay chat because it was modelled on CB (Citizen Band) radio. That’s also why it has #channels and not chatrooms. Radio relays are antennas that repeat transmissions in order to extend the reach of the signal, or syndicate transmissions from other frequencies. CB radio channels would be just slightly different frequencies you could tune in on between 26 and 27 MHz (of roughly 11 meter waves).

Technically, this makes IRC a streaming protocol, and by extension it also means all content is ephemeral: messages are not stored and forwarded, but instead merely broadcasted to those tuned to the right channel. In the video clip this is demonstrated by the metaphor of two ships meeting and exchanging a message, without leaving a trace. “No names, no account, no records of exchange,” as another character puts it. Digital platforms today operate by mining stored user interactions for behaviour data they can sell. In the contemporary technological landscape dominated by surveillance capitalism, IRC as a protocol is not just out of step with the times—the IRC protocol is also fundamentally incompatible with the hegemonic business models of social media monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Later in the segment, Amita talks to a hacker using a terminal emulator — just like the ones found on real hackers’ computers. These interfaces simulate the VT100 video terminal from DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation): a product that was little more than a glorified typewriter (telex machine) used to log in to the giant mainframe computers. Nevertheless, terminals remain crucial to hackers whose skills stem from a decades old alternative engineering tradition — “the old school,” as some call it. Many hackers continue to reject the now-ubiquitous point-and-click GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) based on icons and desktop metaphors, preferring to use language to communicate with computers directly.

So don’t worry, text mode interfaces and Internet Relay Chat are not going away: instead of taking a screenshot, log in here.

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