“You can’t arrange them by penis”: Sysadmins as Hackers.

Hackers are often depicted as lone explorers of complicated technical infrastructures, racing against the clock, thinking on their toes, and feeling the thrill of illicit transgression. But a 2021 academic study reported that even hackers can find their work tedious: “…romantic notions of those involved in cybercrime ignore the often mundane, rote, and supportive aspects of the work which have proliferated in the online illicit economies around hacking and the infrastructures on which they rely.” Although they look only at the criminal side of hacker life, it is nonetheless an uncomfortable truth that much of hacking—whether programming, security work, or patching up systems—is not glamorous, but boring, repetitive, and annoying.

Which is to say, many hackers can find themselves in the role of the “sysadmin”—a figure that is only occasionally accorded respect as a hacker, but who possesses the same skills, curiosity, and knowledge, often put to work in a thankless position of “support” for a wide range of endeavors, from corporate organization to crime. Despite the mundane title, sysadmins have incredible power and access—they see the internet from the inside out, configuring the servers you visit, deploying the software you use, even reading your email if they so choose. Far from aligning with the glorified characters of most media portrayals, the narrative of the under-appreciated and rote day-to-day of the support staff is still common enough that it has sparked its own genre, from the r/TalesFromTechSupport subreddit, to routines on Silicon Valley and The Office.

No single video captures the experience of the sysadmin quite as well as The Website is Down created in 2009 by Joshua Weinberg. In this manic 10-minute video, “Web Dude” (the sysadmin) manages to dramatize dozens of sysadmin tropes as he answers a call from “Sales Guy” that leads to a cascade of hilarious antics. We watch the narrator’s screen flip from a game of Halo, to Skype calls, to a command-line in a terminal, to Windows Remote Desktop, in a veritable 21st-century updating of the physical comedy of a Buster Keaton or Abbott and Costello routine.

Sysadmins have the keys to the kingdom but they get no respect. The sysadmin is a classic jester figure: a figure who has the ear of the sovereign and the power to change the world, but who also has no official standing in the court, no influence, no fancy title. Sales Guy treats Web Dude with utter disdain, demanding that he immediately fix his problems: “The website is down,” he claims, unable to distinguish between the internet and the company website. In the video, this power comes across clearest when Web Dude decides to reboot the webserver, pointlessly he knows, at the request of Sales Guy. But the decision leads to trouble, which brings a call from his boss who chastises him for not reading the email prohibiting him from shutting down the server. In a rapid-fire sequence, Web Dude logs into the central mail-server, deletes the outgoing email from his boss’s account, and then feigns ignorance about the whole thing, effectively erasing culpability for his own mistake and gaslighting his boss at the same time.

Web Dude’s attitude captures the sysadmin’s mundane dilemma well: how can you support these people who do not respect you, and who you, in turn, do not respect either? Most people’s experience of computer support is a mix of helplessness and vulnerability mixed with gratitude: they know what to do and you do not, and so you are at their mercy if you want to get anything done. But the sysadmin is also vulnerable in this relationship because of the ignorance of the user. So much is clear in the sequence where Web Dude tries to help Sales Guy clean up his desktop, but ends up causing more (hilarious) problems in the process.

As the academic paper points out, even in cases where the product is criminal infrastructure like a botnet (an army of zombie computers) or a setup for hammering a site with traffic (a distributed denial of service attack), Sales Guy and Web Dude play out their standard drama: the former berating the latter for something he doesn’t understand and the latter hating the former for the tedious work of supporting an ignoramus.

What’s more, this is often also a story of hierarchy with a glaringly masculine touch. Service work (often feminized) and discussions of it can be toxic and demeaning, rather than respected or rewarded. The association of drudgery with the work of supporting others a part of a story that plays out across the worlds of IT, and beyond, in the that way work is organized, divided among heroic and unheroic work. Maybe the greatest laugh-line in the video is true in more than one sense: you can’t, or you shouldn’t, arrange it by penis.

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