1995. Microsoft releases its eponymous Windows 95. Sony brings PlayStation to America. The first-ever computer-animated movie, Toy Story, comes out. One of the greatest movies ever made, Hackers, hits movie theatres across America. Featuring a crew of teenage hackers involved in various capers, Hackers isn’t good because of its plot (it’s a Superman III but with laptops), nor is it good for how it depicts technology (often dubious if not full-on inane). Still, it remains a beloved film among hackers for everything it gets right about the culture of hacking.
If you haven’t seen it, let me catch you up: a hacker-kid, Dade Murphy (aka Zero Cool), is found guilty of hacking and stealing thousands of dollars from a mega-corporation and is banned from using a computer. The movie starts off just after Zero Cool’s 18th birthday when he can once again surf the information superhighway, now under the name Crash Override. Between hacking duels, raves, and some light rollerblading, he and his hacker friends (some of them former enemies, naturally), unearth a sinister plot: a malicious hacker seeks to sow chaos by unleashing a computer virus—a “worm.” The problem is that the Secret Service thinks Zero Cool is behind the plot, so he and his ragtag crew of hacker friends have to hack yet another mega-corporation to prove their innocence.
Okay, all a bit ludicrous, but let’s get to what Hackers got right. As the gang works to expose the malicious plot, we spend a lot of time “behind the hack,” seeing how each is able to use their specific skills to pull off a righteous hack. My favorite example of this is the scene when the hackers blind reverse engineer the partially downloaded ransomware. Reverse engineering is the process of taking a machine-readable binary program and turning it into something that a human can understand again. The scene starts with the crew—exhausted after working non-stop over the last day—tagging in the newly arrived Dade. An overnight montage ensues, featuring the others goofing off next to kitschy, period-appropriate hacking paraphernalia, hex-filled printouts, jolt cola, boxes of pizza—all while Dade types furiously. Once Dade knows enough about the worm, he gathers the rest of the crew and they start to do that thing that has kept me hooked on software engineering, hacking, and computers: the “puzzling,” that figuring-it-all-out-together part, after having spent way too long in the stumped territory. As the hackers walk and talk through the little corners of the binary that each one understands, they build out a roomier, fuller picture of the problem.
No matter how good any individual might be, hacking is a team sport. Every time I watch Hackers, when I get to 1:08:23 (in the original movie), I can’t help but think back to every time I sat on a friend’s living room floor, eating day-old takeout, trying to coax some arcane code into cooperating. I think of nights spent troubleshooting some broken hardware until 4 am; or of drinking Club Mate (a hacker drink of choice) at dusk with some friends in a backyard in Germany, patching features into the operating system we all run. I think of friendship. I think of all we’ve done and all we will do.