Super 90s Hacker Video Mash-up
New York based curator Laurel Ptak strung together this mash-up of Hollywood films from the 90s and early 2000s depicting the moment of the hack, that roller coaster ride through the computer’s dark neon tubes in pursuit of some financial system’s collapse, some code to decode, some bad guys to shut down, some nuclear holocaust to thwart.
I interviewed Laurel while she came through town this week. (Look for her upcoming hacker-themed exhibit “Free Kevin” at Bard College if you happen to be in upstate New York this December.)
Why do these images feel so nostalgic to us now?
From our contemporary perspective, these movies depict a certain kind of anxiety towards technology. By now these technologies have become so normalized in contemporary culture, even banalized, it’s hard for us to understand all the weird uncertainty that shaped these narratives and their aesthetics back then.
Except for Wargames these films were all produced from 1992-2001, when venture capital is flowing in, when any kid who graduates from college gets snatched up by Internet start-ups. Of course in the 90s, deregulation and neoliberal capitalism are also running rampant. So it’s no coincidence that the mass media starts to portray these people as a serious threat and dangerous. The earlier generation of hackers were arguably shielded by academic culture in order to develop what computers would become today. They weren’t yet a threat, because there was nothing at stake; they could just fuck around. It wasn’t until investments in the internet as an economic structure that the media started portraying the hacker as a threatening character.
Also, you can see this imagery in relation to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in ’98. The DMCA marks a sharp transition into the information age. The notion that information itself is threatening is absorbed into mainstream culture by the 90s.
Why do you think cyberspace took on this form across so many movies? Where did this imagery originate?
Well Tron is probably the earliest one, so it set the style to a degree, but Wargames is the most influential depiction of the hacker as we came to know it.
I also noticed once I started taking stills from the movies, that they all represent the body in relationship to technology in these cyborgian ways. It seems to reflect a fear that the machine could overtake the body.
And these films take incredible creative liberty in depicting software and cyberspace. They just make up what the operating system looks like. Computer technology didn’t correspond to what technology actually looked like at the time. It’s the hollywood effect.
You don’t see the internet looking like some futuristic galaxy of wires and tubes so much today.
Right. And it shows how a minority of the population used it at that point. It didn’t become a mass-owned phenomenon until around the early 2000s, when computers enter into many Americans’ homes. Back in the 90s, not enough people had access to know the difference.
Another fascinating aspect is that the hackers are always white, upper middle class teenagers in their bedrooms. Their privilege becomes a part of the hacker landscape. Usually we don’t depict white suburban kids as frightening or powerful, but by owning a computer they become a threatening image. Any other Hollywood movie representation of that period (think Home Alone) depicted that demographic differently of course.
It’s that the whole cyberspace notion of a computer dispersing power to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it?
Yeah, and in a couple of the movies the female is a hacker figure. Angelina Jolie in Hackers, Sandra Bullock in The Net. Hollywood was ready to put forth a more gender balanced narrative, but none of my research material or critical texts echoes this. Hacker culture is almost always exclusively depicted as a male culture. But Hollywood was ready to make it something that women participate in. These female depictions are still a minority across all the films, but they’re ahead of the other discourses in terms of gender.
Do you have a personal interest in hacking as a concept?
I’ve come to think of the hacker as a undervalued, underrepresented figure since the past two decades. My project is to recuperate it. The hacker in media is usually either a villainous figure or a super hero. I’m interested in creating a more complicated narrative.
I think we romanticize the ethic and manifesto of the earlier generation of hackers. For some that political ethic was meaningful, but for the majority of people hacking it’s an impulse to have fun, of pranksterism, of defining yourself in relation to authority. I love the idea of every hacker sitting there believing in the manifesto and its ethic, but i’d be surprised if even the last generations of hackers was thinking much about that.
I’m also interested in open source culture in general. And I desperately wish i could be a hacker, but sadly my technical skills underplay that.
How would you define the hacker today?
I’ve been looking at the early history of hackers in university culture, during the days of early computing at MIT, on through its media representations in 90s and early 2000s. Now the dominant mass cultural narrative recedes into cyberterrorism, into Obama’s task force. It’s become much less about teenage boys or individuals who can start nuclear wars and more about governments interacting across large networks.
Is there a contemporary hacker aesthetic we’ll laugh about some day?
We don’t even bother to visualize it much anymore. We know what the internet is, we live intimately with computers, so we don’t have to make some fantastical representation of it all. Part of why these movies were made is because there was so much anxiety about immateriality and invisible forces. In contemporary life we’ve had a decade of participating in a mass way in immateriality and virtuality, and we see it hasn’t ruined society. That’s why the conspiracy theories posited in these movies feel so dated. We’ve become culturally more comfortable with immateriality than we were back then.
This video originally screened on November 21 at Lost + Found in Amsterdam.