Click here for Digital Delirium

Hacking Chinatown

Richard Thieme

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Those are the last words of the movie Chinatown, just before the police lieutenant shouts orders to the crowd to clear the streets so the body of an innocent woman, murdered by the Los Angeles police, can be removed.

Chinatown, with Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, is a fine film: it defines an era (the thirties in the United States) and a genre - film noir - that is a unique way to frame reality.

"Film noir" is a vision of a world corrupt to the core in which nevertheless it is still possible, as author Raymond Chandler said of the heroes of the best detective novels, to be "a man of honor. Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid."

"Chinatown" also defines life in the virtual world - that consensual hallucination we have come to call "cyberspace." The virtual world is a simulation of the "real world." The "real world" too is a symbolic construction, a set of nested structures that - as we peel them away in the course of our lives - reveals more and more complexity and ambiguity.

The real world is Chinatown, and computer hackers - properly understood - know this better than anyone.

There are several themes in "Chinatown."

(1) People in power are in seamless collusion. They take care of one another. They don't always play fair. And sooner or later, we discover that "we" are "they."

A veteran police detective told me this about people in power.

"There's one thing they all fear - politicians, industrialists, corporate executives - and that's exposure. They simply do not want anyone to look too closely or shine too bright a light on their activities."

I grew up in Chicago, Illinois, known for its political machine and cash-on-the-counter way of doing business. I earned money for my education working with the powerful Daley political machine. In exchange for patronage jobs - supervising playgrounds, hauling garbage - I worked with a precinct captain and alderman. My job was to do what I was told.

I paid attention to how people behaved in the real world. I learned that nothing is simple, that people act instinctively out of self-interest, and that nobody competes in the arena of real life with clean hands.

I remember sitting in a restaurant in a seedy neighborhood in Chicago, listening to a conversation in the next booth. Two dubious characters were upset that a mutual friend faced a long prison term. They looked and sounded different than the "respectable" people with whom I had grown up in an affluent part of town.

As I grew up, however, I learned how my friends' fathers really made money. Many of their activities were disclosed in the newspaper. They distributed pornography before it was legal, manufactured and sold illegal gambling equipment, distributed vending machines and juke boxes to bars that had to take them or face the consequences. I learned that a real estate tycoon had been a bootlegger during prohibition, and the brother of the man in the penthouse upstairs had died in Miami Beach in a hail of bullets.

For me, it was an awakening: I saw that the members of the power structures in the city - business, government, the religious hierarchy, and the syndicate or mafia - were indistinguishable, a partnership that of necessity included everyone who wanted to do business. Conscious or unconscious, collusion was the price of the ticket that got you into the stadium; whether players on the field or spectators in the stands, we were all players, one way or another.

Chicago is South Africa, South Africa is Chinatown, and Chinatown is the world. There is no moral high ground. We all wear masks, but under that mask is... Chinatown.

(2) You never really know what's going on in Chinatown.

The police in Chinatown, according to Jake Gittes, were told to do "as little as possible" because things that happened on the street were the visible consequences of strings pulled behind the scenes. If you looked too often behind the curtain - as Gittes did - you were taught a painful lesson.

We often don't understand what we're looking at on the Internet. As one hacker recently emailed in response to someone's fears of a virus that did not and could not exist, "No information on the World Wide Web is any good unless you can either verify it yourself or it's backed up by an authority you trust."

The same is true in life.

Disinformation in the virtual world is an art. After an article I wrote for an English magazine about detective work on the Internet appeared, I received a call from a global PR firm in London. They asked if I wanted to conduct "brand defense" for them on the World Wide Web.

What is brand defense?

If one of our clients is attacked, they explained, their Internet squad goes into action. "Sleepers" (spies inserted into a community and told to wait until they receive orders) in usenet groups and listserv lists create distractions, invent controversies; web sites (on both sides of the question) go into high gear, using splashy graphics and clever text to distort the conversation. Persons working for the client pretend to be disinterested so they can spread propaganda.

It reminded me of the time my Democratic Party precinct captain asked if I wanted to be a precinct captain.

Are you retiring? I asked.

Of course not! he laughed. You'd be the Republican precinct captain. Then we'd have all our bases covered.

The illusions of cyberspace are seductive. Every keystroke leaves a luminous track in the melting snow that can be seen with the equivalent of night vision goggles.

Hacking means tracking - and counter-tracking - and covering your tracks - in the virtual world. Hacking means knowing how to follow the flow of electrons to its source and understand on every level of abstraction - from source code to switches and routers to high level words and images - what is really happening.

Hackers are unwilling to do as little as possible. Hackers are need-to-know machines driven by a passion to connect disparate data into meaningful patterns. Hackers are the online detectives of the virtual world.

You don't get to be a hacker overnight.

The devil is in the details. Real hackers get good by endless trial and error, failing into success again and again. Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the electric light, invented a hundred filaments that didn't work before he found one that did. He knew that every failure eliminated a possibility and brought him closer to his goal.

Listen to "Rogue Agent" set someone straight on an Internet mailing list:

You want to create hackers? Don't tell them how to do this or that. Show them how to discover it for themselves. Those who have the innate drive will dive in and learn by trial and error. Those who don't, comfortable to stay within the bounds of their safe little lives, fall by the wayside.

There's no knowledge so sweet as that which you've discovered on your own.

In Chinatown, an unsavory character tries to stop Jake Gittes from prying by cutting his nose. He reminds Gittes that "curiosity killed the cat."

Isn't it ironic that curiosity, the defining characteristic of an intelligent organism exploring its environment, has been prohibited by folk wisdom everywhere?

The endless curiosity of hackers is regulated by a higher code that may not even have a name but which defines the human spirit at its best. The Hacker's Code is an affirmation of life itself, life that wants to know, and grow, and extend itself throughout the "space" of the universe. The hackers' refusal to accept conventional wisdom and boundaries is a way to align his energies with the life-giving passion of heretics everywhere. And these days, that's what needed to survive.

Robert Galvin, the grand patriarch of Motorola, maker of cell-phones and semi-conductors, says that "every significant decision that changes the direction of a company is a minority decision. Whatever is the intuitive presumption - where everyone agrees, 'Yeah, that's right' - will almost surely be wrong."

Motorola has succeeded by fostering an environment in which creativity thrives. The company has institutionalized an openness to heresy because they know that wisdom is always arriving at the edge of things, on the horizons of our lives, and when it first shows up - like a comet on the distant edges of the solar system - it is faint and seen by only a few. But those few know where to look.

Allen Hynek, an astronomer connected with the US Air Force investigation of UFOs, was struck by the "strangeness" of UFO reports, the cognitive dissonance that characterizes experiences that don't fit our orthodox belief systems. He pointed out that all the old photographic plates in astronomical observatories had images of Pluto on them, but until Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and said where it was, no one saw it because they didn't know where to look.

The best computer consultants live on the creative edge of things. They are path-finders, guides for those whom have always lived at the orthodox center but who find today that the center is constantly shifting, mandating that they learn new behaviors, new skills in order to be effective. In order to live on the edge.

The edge is the new center. The center of a web is wherever we are.

When I looked out over the audience at DefCon IV, the hackers' convention, I saw an assembly of the most brilliant and most unusual people I had ever seen in one room. It was exhilarating, and I felt as if I had come home. There in that room for a few hours or a few days, we did not have to explain anything. We knew who we were and what drove us in our different ways to want to connect the dots of data into meaningful patterns.

We know we build on quicksand, but building is too much fun to give up. We know we leave tracks, but going is so much more energizing than staying home. We know that curiosity can get your nose slit, but then we'll invent new ways to smell.

Computer programmers write software applications that are doomed to be as obsolete as wire recordings or programs for an IBM XT. The infrastructures built by our engineers are equally doomed. Whether a virtual world of digital bits or a physical world of concrete and steel, our civilization is a Big Toy that we build and use up at the same time. The fun of the game is to know that it is a game, and winning is identical with our willingness to play.

To say that when we engage with one another in cyberspace we are "Hacking Chinatown" is a way to say that asking questions is more important than finding answers. We do not expect to find final answers. But the questions must be asked. We refuse to do as little as possible because we want to know.

Asking questions is how human beings create opportunities for dignity and self-transcendence; asking questions is how we are preparing ourselves to leave this island earth and enter into a trans-galactic web of life more diverse and alien than anything we have encountered.

Asking questions that uncover the truth is our way of refusing to consent to illusions and delusions, our way of insisting that we can do it better if we stay up later, collaborate with each other in networks with no names, and lose ourselves in the quest for knowledge and self-mastery.

This is how proud, lonely men and women, illuminated in the darkness by their glowing monitors, become heroes in their own dramas as they wander the twisting streets of cyberspace and their own lives.

Even in Chinatown, Jake. Even in Chinatown.

Richard Thieme is a writer and speaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He delivered a keynote address at DefCon IV in Las Vegas in 1996 entitled "Hacking as Practice for Trans-planetary Life in the 21st Century." His article, "Stalking the UFO Meme" is published in Digital Delirium, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, eds. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.