This issue of Stare doesn't herald the Internet debut of Bruce Sterling's November 1994 address to the Speech to High Technology Crime Investigation Association; an edited version already appeared at the Hotwired Internet site. That version concluded with "Copyright © 1995 Wired Ventures Ltd.." When we emailed Sterling to get permission to reprint the piece in Stare, he directed us to his directory at The Well.
"You should reprint the unedited version of the speech to the HTCIA," he advised, "and then you won't have to worry about those pesky Wired copyrights." So we did. And we aren't.
When we went to download the speech, we also found this ...
Acceptable Use Policy
This is not the time for an inquiry into the conclict between information's desire to be free and artists' desire to be paid. We'll do that at a later date; for now we'll just say thanks to a generous author and head for the pub. (Since he told us to have fun, it's the least we can do for him.)
Good morning, my name's Bruce Sterling, and I'm a sometime computer crime journalist and longtime science fiction writer from Austin Texas. I'm the guy who wrote Hacker Crackdown, which is the book you're getting on one of those floppy disks that are being distributed at this gig like party favors.
People in law enforcement often ask me, Mr. Sterling, if you're a science fiction writer like you say you are, then why should you care about American computer police and private security? And also, how come my kids can never find any copies of your sci-fi novels? Well, my publishers do their best. The truth of the matter is that I've survived my brief career as a computer-crime journalist. I'm now back to writing science fiction full time, like I want to do and like I ought to do. I really can't help the rest of it.
It's true that Hacker Crackdown is still available on the stands at your friendly local bookstore--maybe a better chance if it's a computer bookstore. In fact it's in its second paperback printing, which is considered pretty good news in my business. The critics have been very kind about that book. But even though I'm sure I could write another book like Hacker Crackdown every year for the rest of my life, I'm just not gonna do that.
Instead, let me show you some items out of this bag. This is Hacker Crackdown, the paperback. And see, this is a book of my short stories that has come out since I published Hacker Crackdown! And here's a brand new hardback novel of mine which came out just last month! Hard physical evidence of my career as a fiction writer! I know these wacko cyberpunk sci-fi books are of basically zero relevance to you guys, but I'm absurdly proud of them, so I just had to show them off.
So why did I write Hacker Crackdown in the first place? Well, I figured that somebody ought to do it, and nobody else was willing, that's why. When I first got interested in Operation Sundevil and the Legion of Doom and the raid on Steve Jackson Games and so forth, it was 1990. All these issues were very obscure. It was the middle of the Bush Administration. There was no information superhighway vice president. There was no Wired magazine. There was no Electronic Frontier Foundation. There was no Clipper Chip and no Digital Telephony Initiative. There was no PGP and no World Wide Web. There were a few books around, and a couple of movies, that glamorized computer crackers, but there had never been a popular book written about American computer cops.
When I got started researching Hacker Crackdown, my first and only nonfiction book, I didn't even think I was going to write any such book. There were four other journalists hot on the case who were all rather better qualified than I was. But one by one they all dropped out. Eventually I realized that either I was going to write it, or nobody was ever going to tell the story. All those strange events and peculiar happenings would have passed, and left no public record. I couldn't help but feel that if I didn't take the trouble and effort to tell people what had happened, it would probably all have to happen all over again. And again and again, until people finally noticed it and were willing to talk about it publicly.
Nowadays it's very different. There are about a million journalists with Internet addresses now. There are other books around, like for instance Hafner and Markoff's Cyberpunk Outlaws and Hackers, which is a far better book about hackers than my book is. Mungo and Clough's book Approaching Zero has a pretty interesting take on the European virus scene. Joshua Quittner has a book coming out on the Masters of Deception hacking group. Then there's this other very recent book I have here, Cyberspace and The Law by Cavazos and Morin, which is a pretty good practical handbook on digital civil liberties issues. This book explains in pretty good legal detail exactly what kind of stunts with your modem are likely to get you into trouble. This is a useful service for keeping people out of hot water, which is pretty much what my book was intended to do, only this book does it better. And there have been a lot of magazine and newspaper articles published.
Basically, I'm no longer needed as a computer crime journalist. The world is full of computer journalists now, and the stuff I was writing about four years ago, is hot and sexy and popular now. That's why I don't have to write it any more. I was ahead of my time. I'm supposed to be ahead of my time. I'm a science fiction writer. Believe it or not, I'm needed to write science fiction. Taking a science fiction writer and turning him into a journalist is like stealing pencils from a blind man's cup.
So frankly, I haven't been keeping up with you guys, and your odd and unusual world, with the same gusto I did in 90 and 91. Nowadays, I spend all my time researching science fiction. I spent most of 92 and 93 learning about tornadoes and the Greenhouse Effect. At the moment, I'm really interested in photography, cosmetics and computer interfaces. In 95 and 96 I'll be interested in something else. That may seem kind of odd and dilettantish on my part. It doesn't show much intellectual staying power. But my intellectual life doesn't have to make any sense. Because I'm a science fiction writer.
Even though I'm not in the computer crime game any more, I do maintain an interest. For a lot of pretty good reasons. I still read most of the computer crime journalism that's out there. And I'll tell you one thing about it. There's way, way too much blather about teenage computer intruders, and nowhere near enough coverage of computer cops. Computer cops are a hundred times more interesting than sneaky teenagers with kodes and kards. A guy like Carlton Fitzpatrick should be a hundred times more famous than some wretched hacker kid like Mark Abene. A group like the FCIC is a hundred times more influential and important and interesting than the Chaos Computer Club, Hack-Tic, and the 2600 group all put together.
The United States Secret Service is a heavy outfit. It's astounding how little has ever been written or published about Secret Service people, and their lives, and their history, and how life really looks to them. Cops are really good material for a journalist or a fiction writer. Cops see things most human beings never see. Even private security people have a lot to say for themselves. Computer-intrusion hackers and phone phreaks, by contrast, are basically pretty damned boring.
You know, I used to go actively looking for hackers, but I don't bother any more. I don't have to. Hackers come looking for me these days. And they find me, because I make no particular effort to hide. I get these phone calls--I mean, I know a lot of you have gotten these hacker phone calls--but for me they go a lot like this:
Ring ring. "Hello?"
"Is this Bruce Sterling?"
"Yeah, you got him."
"Are you the guy who wroteHacker Crackdown?"
"Yeah, that's me, dude. What's on your mind?"
"Uh, nothing--I just wanted to know if you were there!"
"Well, okay, I'm here. If you ever get anything on your mind, you let me know." Click, buzz. I get dozens of calls like that.
And, pretty often, I'll get another call about 24 hours later, and it'll be the same kid, only this time he has ten hacker buddies with him on some illegal bridge call. They're the Scarlet Scorpion and the Electric Ninja and the Flaming Rutabaga, and they really want me to log onto their pirate bulletin board system, the Smurfs in Hell BBS somewhere in Wisconsin or Ohio or Idaho. I thank them politely for the invitation and I tell them I kind of have a lot of previous engagements, and then they leave me alone. I also get a lot of call from journalists. Journalists doing computer crime stories. I've somehow acquired a reputation as a guy who knows something about computer crime and who is willing to talk to journalists. And I do that, too. Because I have nothing to lose. Why shouldn't I talk to another journalist? He's got a boss, I don't. He's got a deadline, I don't. I know more or less what I'm talking about, he usually doesn't have a ghost of a clue. And suppose I say something really rude or tactless or crazy, and it gets printed in public. So what? I'm a science fiction writer! What are they supposed to do to me--take away my tenure?
Hackers will also talk to journalists. Hackers brag all the time. Computer cops, however, have not had a stellar record in their press relations. I think this is sad. I understand that there's a genuine need for operational discretion and so forth, but since a lot of computer cops are experts in telecommunications, you'd think they'd come up with some neat trick to get around these limitations.
Let's consider, for instance, the Kevin Mitnick problem. We all know who this guy Mitnick is. If you don't know who Kevin Mitnick is, raise your hand ... Right, I thought so. Kevin Mitnick is a hacker and he's on the lam at the moment, he's a wanted fugitive. The FBI tried to nab Kevin a few months back at a computer civil liberties convention in Chicago and apprehended the wrong guy. That was pretty embarrassing, frankly. I was there, I saw it, I also saw the FBI trying to explain later to about five hundred enraged self-righteous liberals, and it was pretty sad. The local FBI office came a cropper because they didn't really know what Kevin Mitnick looked like.
I don't know what Mitnick looks like either, even though I've written about him a little bit, and my question is, how come? How come there's no publicly accessible WorldWideWeb page with mugshots of wanted computer-crime fugitives? Even the US Postal Service has got this much together, and they don't even have modems. Why don't the FBI and the USSS have public relations stations in cyberspace? For that matter, why doesn't the HTCIA have its own Internet site? All the computer businesses have Internet sites now, unless they're totally out of it. Why aren't computer cops in much, much better rapport with the computer community through computer networks? You don't have to grant live interviews with every journalist in sight if you don't want to, I can understand that that can create a big mess sometimes. But just put some data up in public, for heaven's sake. Crime statistics. Wanted posters. Security advice. Antivirus programs, whatever. Stuff that will help the cyberspace community that you are supposed to be protecting and serving.
I know there are people in computer law enforcement who are ready and willing and able to do this, but they can't make it happen because of too much bureaucracy and, frankly, too much useless hermetic secrecy. Computer cops ought to publicly walk the beat in cyberspace a lot more, and stop hiding your light under a bushel. What is your problem, exactly? Are you afraid somebody might find out that you exist?
I think that this is an amazing oversight and a total
no-brainer on your part, to be the cops in an information
society and not be willing to get online big-time and really
push your information--but maybe that's just me. I enjoy
publicity, personally. I think it's good for people. I talk
a lot, because I'm just an opinionated guy. I can't help it.
A writer without an opinion is like a farmer without a plow,
or a professor without a chalkboard, or a cop without a
computer--it's just something basically useless and
(This is the conclusion of the piece that began in Stare No. 802)
My own revolt against my father the graven image maker took the form of bursting into the crowded waiting room of his shop one summer afternoon and shooting my cap pistol. When the smoke cleared, half the customers had fled, and my father had me in a headlock in the darkroom, lecturing on decorum. He wasn't looking at me. My act had been revenge, I suppose, on all the faces my father did look at.
Years later, in 1976, I still hadn't received my American citizenship, though I'd been in the United States for ten years. My only piece of identification was a so-called "white passport," a re-entry visa really that allowed me to come back to the United States if I strayed over the border by mistake or something. I never carried this for fear of losing it. I don't drive--so--no driver's license.
One very late night in California, my friend Jeffrey Miller and I were driving up a country road in Mendocino County in search of a nonexistent address when the lights of something huge and unearthly were suddenly upon us. It was the CHP--the California Highway Patrol--and a tall cop strolled out with a flashlight and a shotgun. He asked Jeffrey for his driver's license, and then he came to my side and said, "ID!" Now the only ID I had with me was an autobiographical book I wrote called The Life & Times of an Involuntary Genius, which had my picture on the cover. The cop took Jeffrey's ID and my book, and went back to the cruise mobile. He put his feet out the window and started reading. Eons passed. Billions of stars died in the sky over our heads. I slept. I had dreams. Summer turned into winter. At long last, the cop came back. He looked at me long and hard. He then tapped my face on the cover with his trigger finger. "Anybody can fake a pitcher like this!" he said. "Sure," I said, "but wouldn't it be easier to fake a regular ID?" "Okay," the cop said, "this time!" I believed him. Every ten years now I produce a new autobiography with a fresh picture for that cop. Photos para la autoridad! Flores para los muertes!
When Jeffrey died later that year, in a different car, I had the urge to look at pictures of him. One of our friends had been shooting a lot of our get-togethers with his video camera. When I saw the tapes I found to my dismay, that instead of Jeffrey's face--or anybody else's for that matter--my friend had "composed" shots out of fragments of trees, elbows, house tops and clouds. Another reason to find art loathsome--for its effects on dilettantes.
I tried to use my book for identification in banks, in supermarkets and at public events of various kinds where it was sometimes accepted sometimes rejected depending on the imaginative stretch of the guard dog.
My first book of poetry was called License to Carry a Gun. It also had my picture on the cover. I was standing with one foot in a garbage can on First Street between First & Second Avenue in New York where I lived. A few years later I got a job teaching poetry in Folsom Prison in California. The first time I presented myself at Folsom I gave the guard my poetry book in lieu of ID. He called his boss on the phone. A huge man with hands that looked like they cracked bones for a living came down. He looked at my picture, he looked at the title--License to Carry a Gun--and then cracked open my book with his knuckles, and read. He then picked up the phone and called his boss, a guy no doubt ten times larger who ate men's livers for breakfast: "It's just fucking poetry, boss! Just fucking poetry!" he said. So the picture was good enough, after all.
The moral from these two incidents, if you're looking for one, is that most people in charge of enforcing the law, still have no doubts as to the equivalence between pictures and reality. Consequently, we ought to keep post-modernism a secret.
I had a dream once that life and death were positive and negative photocopying respectively. I saw the DNA strands being copied and was reassured. In that light, we are all copies, but I am a copy in the most exacting sense, thanks to mom and dad. Eventually, everyone will have to work out the precise sense in which photography engenders them. For me photography presents the oedipal pure, but that's just the luck of the draw.
You could say that my relation to photography is that of photography to the world: I come out of it but I don't necessarily give back a pretty picture. The day I burst into the full waiting room of my father's shop and discharged that cap gun I took charge of myself. The smoke and the shots that caused panic among his Sunday-best dressed customers gave birth to the unphotographable self.
Two pieces of advice then to the would-be photographer: 1) Pay attention to the thing you photograph, and 2) try to love it.
I hope I'm not obscuring the issues. There is a great place on Bourbon Street where you can take your picture in a jail cell. That's where I'm going.
And then there are clearly unphotographable things that you can see. In 1973 I tried taking a picture with my 35 mm of my two naked girlfriends in front of a poster of the kid guru Maharaji but the pictures didn't come out. I tried Polaroid. No go. The poster or the guru did something to the light.
In 1973, the year that the political soap opera Watergate mesmerized the nation, I wrote the following poem:
Despite my accent, which makes "f-l-o-u-r" sound like "f-l-o-w-e-r" and "w-h-i-r-r" sound like "w-e-r-e," and despite the ancient awkward problem of putting Judas in the plural--which I did out of the instinctive self-antisemitism in which I was steeped as a child--this poem gets at my feelings about photography with remarkable ease. The functional word here is "weird," which was the word with the widest possible circulation in America during Watergate. If being has any unity in the age of television it is weird--to say the least--trying to fathom it through the fragmented and framed instances of specific pictures. What is one to infer of American life--and inner life--by looking at the triple-chinned mugs and black-rimmed eyes of our elected leaders, our meritocracy, standing trial for trying to hijack American democracy?
It is now 18 years later--long enough for a young man or woman to have been born, grown and sent off to be killed in a war at the request of the successors of the discredited administration of 1973. A war, moreover, that was so well packaged by the administration on television that not a murmur of dissent penetrated the skillful wrappings.
I probably don't have to tell you that the taking, selecting and distributing of pictures is a highly manipulative business. In the past four decades, and most intensely in the last two decades, the ideological education of would-be mind controllers has been concerned almost exclusively with the business of image-making. I will give you a single quick example before I proceed to more intimate aspects of my poetry--which, whether you know it or not, you are here to hear discussed.
The so-called "Revolution" in Romania in December 1989 was an event staged for television by Securitate--the Romanian secret police--and the KGB--the Soviet secret police. In order to arouse the masses, they produced a number of images for TV: the most famous one is the so-called "Madonna and Child" picture, which shows a young woman and child lying on the ground killed by a single bullet. The image was shown over and over on TV screens of the world until the alleged murderers took on mythic Hitlerian dimensions. In fact, this was a fake produced by collaging a woman who had died in an alcoholics' hospital with a baby dead of different causes. A bullet was put through them, and they were seen accordingly. This image was followed on Romanian TV by footage of Nadia Comaneci winning triumphantly in Montreal in 1976. The two pictures together said: "Here is the genius of our nation, nipped in the babyhood by the monsters of the old regime." Other images were equally bogus: children murdered on the steps of the Timisoara Cathedral, an image which gave rise to the extraordinary reports that 60,000 people had been murdered in Romania, turned out to be collage as well. The net effect of all this camera work was to make millions of people believe that they were witnessing a spontaneous revolution while a coup d'etat was taking place. But in fact a revolution did occur, a mass revolt that was hijacked via television from right under people's noses. Today in Romania a neo-communist government hatched in conspiratorial secrecy by the police claims to be the legitimate representative of this revolution. But it isn't. It is the representative of "revolution" between quotation marks. The most immediate effect of image manipulations is the placement of "reality" between quotation marks, the creation of a fundamental mistrust in the evidence of one's senses when confronted with slick images to the contrary. The evidence of one's senses has at its disposal only a very clumsy, very old defensive language, while propaganda and manipulation command a sophisticated technical arsenal that make human beings seem evolutionary throwbacks by comparison.
Someone out there in the recesses of literature flattered himself a few years ago by saying, "I Am a Camera." I remember also the beginning of a novel by William Burroughs: "The camera is in the eye of the vulture," after which he proceeds to describe everything from the vulture's vantage point using an interesting speeded-up cut-up language that tries to keep up with the vulture-speed of the camera.
Before photography was an art, with all the pretensions and baggage of that activity, it served art by freeing it from the conventions of realism. The camera made modern art possible by freeing artists from the tyranny of the eye. The crucial moment in the history of modern art occurs in the Salvador Dali/Luis Buñuel film An Andalusian Dog when a razor blade slides across an eyeball. Henceforth, art is free of the exigencies of reporting reality according to the eyes. That becomes the job of photography. Of course, it wasn't long before Man Ray and the dadaists discovered that in the 20th Century "art" should be placed between quotation marks. Art with a capital A was dead as soon as the first picture was taken and a long process of debunking--still in progress--was in order. The photograph brought Art down from its pedestal and gave it to the masses to have fun with. Which left artists desperately searching for new specialized stances in the mechanically violated wilderness of representation.
When the violent subjectivity of early avant-gardes showed signs of being exhausted, being a camera or an eye became art's first post-modern obsession. Implicit here was a certain regret at having ceded such a useful description of reality to a machine, but also envy at the infinitely productive capacity of photography. In the 1950s, in the age of existentialism, when it became obvious to everyone that the human race was doomed by the A-bomb, it became fashionable to feign a lack of feeling, a kind of psychological "objectivity" whose ideal practitioner was the camera. Some artists confused the workings of the camera with objectivity because it provided a metaphor for indifference, both the existential and the Zen kind. For them, the camera made it possible to conceive of looking at something without feeling, which is to say without guilt. The camera seemed to make vision blameless, it provided the act of looking with a possibility of innocence.
However--the camera is no innocent instrument. Or rather, the instrument may be innocent but there is no innocent use of it. There is no moral difference between a camera and a paint brush. Both are--precisely--instruments. Nonetheless, the camera continues to provide the metaphor of objectivity in a kind of theoretical space. With the populist snapshot at one end and the military satellite photo on the other, the camera is as complete a topographer of reality as we are ever likely to have. In short, the camera has conquered the world and the world it shows us is the way we now articulate reality. Which opens up wide possibilities of manipulation, something I would hope that you are going to address in your upcoming discussions.
We now read the world according to pictures of it stitched together either by powers behind the scenes or by the technological process itself. In any case, the end result does not benefit the majority of the people for whom the new imaged "reality" is an opiate that extorts their energies.
In the second or third wave of post-modern difficulties with the image, which is right now, few people say any longer, "I Am a Camera." The last I-Am-a-Camera people were the punks, or rather the catatonic wing of the punks who resented mightily the wavy impressionist hippies with all their shimmering light and idealized distortions. The severest punks were strictly black & white and they moved as little as possible. Their drug of choice was heroin--the most photographic of all drugs.
More to the point than I-Am-a-Camera is my own case, which is I-Am-a-Picture.
Because of its teasing relation to reality, photography can be made to convince people of things that aren't necessarily good for them. Pictures can lie, transmit propaganda and change the evidence of one's senses to the point where reality disappears. Photographs make it also possible to substitute images for reality when the dread of the real becomes too unbearable. That is, I believe, where we stand now, in our time. We are forcing ourselves to believe in the simulations of reality all around us because we are quickly losing the vestigial organs for direct apprehension of reality.
And while I have you here, I want to put a curse on police cameras everywhere. I hope that aliens, mucking about the ruins of our planet, run into your pictures, or at least into a full set of National Geographics, rather than into millions of dreary mugshots that prove that our world was a dingy prison-planet. It's a matter of degree, of course.
Stare. (Visual Information