Meet the new malcontents. Same as the old malcontents.

The Guardian presents an interesting perspective, that hacktivists are bored teenagers driven by their hatred of government policy.

If that’s the case, it’s nothing new. They’re just able to make bigger messes today than their counterparts could 20 years ago.
I knew some of those types of people, back in my BBSing days. And reading the stuff these groups are posting, it gives me a sense of deja vu.

Those guys didn’t like the government either. They didn’t really like any kind of authority. They didn’t like governments, and they didn’t like phone companies and software companies that were charging more money than they thought they should have to pay for things.

And that’s really the way it was. Back then the stereotype was an awkward teenager with a Commodore computer and a modem and inadequate parental supervision causing trouble. It started with one thing, and led to another. Usually it started with downloading pirated software. And the majority stopped at that, but some chased bigger thrills. They’d start stealing long-distance service so they could call distant bulletin boards to exchange software that wasn’t available yet locally. They’d learn how to bypass tricks in the software that were supposed to be able to prevent you from copying it in the first place. Defeating those schemes sometimes required specialized hardware, which they probably couldn’t afford–the usual excuse for pirating software was that they were too poor to buy it in the first place–so they usually bought it with a stolen credit card number. They bought some things for practical reasons–buying equipment that let them do more things–and they did some things just for the thrill of it, like sending something obscene to someone they knew would be offended by it.

That last part is definitely familiar.

Not every kid with a Commodore and a modem turned into that, of course. In 1989 there must have been a dozen bulletin boards just in St. Louis alone, with hundreds of people calling them, and the overwhelming majority of them never dialed out of the local 314 area code.

I was one of those guys, though I certainly talked with some guys who did a whole lot more than that. At first it was mostly to learn what programming tricks they knew. But along the way they told stories, and the stories interested me. Some of the stories scared me. I was never tempted to become one of them. Staying up all hours of the night uploading and downloading software didn’t appeal to me, and I knew even at age 13 and 14 that I was going to go to college someday. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life exactly–at that age you probably shouldn’t know yet–but I knew I didn’t want to mess it up by doing something stupid.

Maybe that’s what kept me from going down that road. Dad was an effective and relatively successful doctor. His parents were both highly successful doctors. And if you looked up and down the street we lived on, the street was full of professionals. Government cartographer. Dentist. Occupational therapist. Lawyer. Building inspector. Pharmaceutical rep. Police detective. Virtually all of them had college degrees, some had advanced degrees, and though I don’t think all of them were as successful as they necessarily appeared, I still hear some of their names occasionally, even though I now live 14 miles away.

I never talked with any of these guys about their family situations, and they never volunteered any of it. But the guys who got in the most trouble–I’m talking the guys who ended up with criminal records before they turned 18–lived in areas that aren’t known for having streets like mine, if you know what I mean. They talked about not having any money, and they lived in blue-collar, inner-ring suburbs, and they generally had bitter dispositions, so it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Going to college may not have been an option for a lot of them. They had less to lose, and more to escape from than I did.
One thing they weren’t: Dumb. We’re talking guys who, among other things,¬†taught themselves how to program Commodores in assembly language. That takes as much intelligence as it sounds like. But they seemed to lack role models who could guide them toward productive uses for that intelligence.

Eventually we quit talking, and I don’t have any idea what happened to any of those guys. I only ever knew handles and first names, and after 20 years I struggle to remember even those.

One of them called me out of the blue, around Thanksgiving in 1991. I was holding down a job and was a published author by then. I don’t even remember how long it had been since I heard from the guy, but he’d been in trouble again. Supposedly he’d been hauled off, charged, and spent time in juvenile detention yet again. I never knew how much of those stories were true and how much of it was embellished. The only reason I can even put a timeframe on it was because I mentioned I’d just bought a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and he said, “Yeah, we like Nirvana up here too.” We didn’t talk very long. There wasn’t any animosity; we’d just run out of things to talk about. And at that point I certainly wasn’t going to go into his world, and mine probably seemed pretty distant to him too.

There will always be bored teenagers who have difficulty finding productive outlets for their talents and who don’t like the situation they’re living in, whatever it is. And they’ll lash out at whoever it is they think put them in that situation. In 1991, there were technological and geographical limits on how quickly and easily they could organize. In 2011, those limits are laughable. Who’s a target? Video game makers who limit the capabilities of their machines. Banks who foreclose on people–perhaps a bank foreclosed on their parents, forcing them to move. Or on their best friends’ parents, forcing the best friend to move. And, certainly, another target is governments that they perceive as having no interest in protecting them.

Some of it will go away when the economy improves. Governments will always be a target as long as they’re perceived as being in the back pockets of badly behaved corporations, but if they can shake that image, they’ll become less of a target. But being in a position of authority, they’ll always be somewhat of a target. Companies will be even more so, but I do remember that in the early 1990s, very few people wanted to pirate Quicken, because there was a perception, real or not, that Intuit genuinely cared about its customers and wanted them to get their personal finances in order. Few companies, if any, have that perception today.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. People were doing this a generation ago. Go back another 20 years, and there were other people stealing long-distance service and making whatever other mayhem they could. Two guys active in that scene were one Stephen G. Wozniak and his less-technically inclined sidekick, Steven P. Jobs. Whatever your other opinions of them might be, you have to agree at the very least that they became productive members of society.

And in my generation, one prominent software pirate/cracker, Tony Krvaric, became a prominent California Republican politician. I’ve written about that before. I’ll refrain from commenting on whether politicians are productive members of society.

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