Written by Matt Bowes
Recent revelations about the NSA’s domestic spying program, PRISM, Canada’s move towards a similar system with the Conservative Government’s Bill C-13, and China’s secretive People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398 have revived interest in cryptography and computer hacking amongst people who don’t like having the government (or anyone else for that matter) interfering in their personal data.
With this in mind, and in the pulp’s continued attempt to prepare you for the future, here’s a look at selected hackers in pop culture, from the prescient to the hilarious.
Cryptography is the school of thought that devises ways to keep information secure from adversaries; a.k.a., “black hat” hackers (“white hats,” true to Hollywood cowboy iconography, are ethical hackers whose goal is to improve system security through rigorous testing). Even though we don’t always think about it, we all engage in this secret war each day, from the passwords found on our email and Facebook accounts, to peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. You might even go further, to the delightful world of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and, my personal favourite, Dogecoin.
With this in mind, and in the pulp’s continued attempt to prepare you for the future, here’s a look at selected hackers in pop culture, from the prescient to the hilarious. I tried to avoid the obvious here, so no WarGames, The Matrix or Hackers-era Angelina Jolie. Remember, forewarned is forearmed!
Oracle, better known as Barbara Gordon, is probably the most beloved hacker in pop culture, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Neo from The Matrix and Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels and the attendant Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. Before the complete reboot of the DC Universe a couple of years ago with the “New 52” initiative, Barbara Gordon mastered the art of computer warfare under her nom de guerre Oracle. She assumed this role after her career as the original Batgirl was brought short by the Joker’s gun in the Alan Moore-Brian Bolland graphic novel, The Killing Joke.
With the anonymity afforded her by the Internet, Oracle formed the female-centric crime fighting team known as the Birds of Prey, alongside her friends Black Canary and the Huntress. You might remember this team from the short-lived live action TV series, or from their delightful appearance on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, written by Barbara Gordon’s most identifiable ardent supporter, Gail Simone.
Oracle also became far more powerful and helpful to heroes across the DC Universe than she ever could have as Batgirl, acting as tech support and delivering villain bios to her allies. Barbara-as-Oracle was so beloved by the fans, that with the New 52 “fixing” her paralysis and getting her back under the Batgirl cowl, there was a huge backlash.
Drawing heavily from the works of William Gibson, especially his seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, Netrunner is a two player collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield, who’s better known for also designing the perennial favourite, Magic: The Gathering. In this game, which was recently re-released to great fanfare by Fantasy Flight, one player takes the role of the titular “runner,” assembling a computer rig and a legion of code-breaking programs before taking them on all-or-nothing runs into cyberspace, while the other player plays the Corporation, relying on superior organization, vast resources and the element of surprise to keep their secrets safe.
Netrunner is a two player collectible card game designed by Richard Garfield, who’s better known for also designing the perennial favourite, Magic: The Gathering.
The game is fast-paced, and replicates the tropes of cyberpunk fiction very faithfully, with flavourful data entries on each hacking program and instance of corporate malfeasance creating a believably dark future. To me, the true genius in the design comes from the fact that while the runner must have their “icebreakers,” rig, and everything else currently in use face up on the table, the monolithic Corporation player places their network infrastructure face-down, making every run against them a nail-biter as you really have no idea what’s under there.
Snow Crash, For the Win, and Halting State
This is a bit of a cheat, but I’m lumping these three novels together as they share thematic and aesthetic relevance. Where William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) was one of the primary forces behind the cyberpunk literary movement, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is equally important for kicking off “post-cyberpunk.” In Snow Crash, the gritty, hardboiled dialogue and desolate wasteland setting found in Gibson’s Sprawl books are parodied and amped up beyond belief (by way of example: one of the antagonists of the book has literally given himself the nuclear option in every scenario by hooking a bomb to his body via dead man switch). The titular “Snow Crash” is a combination disease/computer virus that attacks the nervous system of people it encounters in the persistent online world known as the “Metaverse,” which to us nowadays resembles the game worlds of World of Warcraft, or EVE Online. If you’ve ever referred to your online persona in one of these places as an “avatar,” you’ve unconsciously been referring to this fantastically entertaining and influential book.
In a similar vein, Cory Doctorow’s For the Win and Charles Stross’ Halting State take the idea of a game world overlain on top of the real world one step further, with massive robberies of in-game currency in both of these books leading to adventures and social change. While this idea might seem a little far-fetched, consider the real-world implications of space battles in EVE Online right now, some of which have caused thousands of dollars in “property” damage.
Saints Row: The Third and IV
While many video games make computer hacking a big part of their gameplay (other notables include the Deus Ex series, BioShock 1 and 2, and the brand-new at press time Watch_Dogs), for my money, the most entertaining depiction of hacking comes in the last two Saints Row games. Saints Row, which started off as just another generic clone of Grand Theft Auto, has since grown into an anarchic, silly and surprisingly gender/sexuality diverse series. In Saints Row: The Third, the player finds themselves in opposition to the Deckers, a gang of cyberpunks led by the squeamish nerd, Matt Miller. To finally defeat them, the Boss of the Saints must enter the digital world Tron-style and attack the Deckers where it hurts.
Saints Row has since grown into an anarchic, silly and surprisingly gender/sexuality diverse series.
By the time Saints Row IV rolls around, the Boss has now become the President of the United States, at least for a little while, before an alien race known as the Zin blows up the planet. As a special bit of torture, the head of the Zin constructs a computer representation of the Saints’ home of Steelport and forces the President and their cabinet, who at this point number the entirety of the human race, to live out the rest of their days being tortured for losing the planet. What the Zin don’t count on, though, is the Saints’ heroic hacker diva Kenzie Kenzington, who literally hacks the planet and opens up superpowers for herself and the rest of the Saints. Glorious, stupid action ensues.
Did I miss your favourite hackers? Let me know in the comment section below.