Pop Culture Figures Out The Internet, Part II: Sound And Fury In ‘Hackers’

I’m taking a little time this week to look at some of the earliest pop culture examinations of the Internet. Yesterday, Erica Newland wrote about the extreme prescience of Ghostwriter. Up today: Hackers.

Hackers, which came out in 1995, is not exactly what you’d call a good movie. It’s got ridiculous animations that are meant to make the Internet seem comprehensible to the legions of Americans who were beginning to sign up for web access as the Internet went commercial. Jonny Lee Miller seems so gummed up by the complexities of pulling off an American accent that when Angelina Jolie asks his character, early in the film, “Do you speak English?” the correct answer is really “No, but he’s trying very hard.” The hacker glam is ridiculous in the extreme. But I got obsessed with the movie in high school, Hackers was the perfect aspirational movie for angry smart kids everywhere who spent a lot of time on the Internet, whether they were hacking corporations or spending lots of time talking to teenagers from other states who participated in the same dorkily intellectual after-school activities that they did. And even though I no longer sign into chat programs under my deeply embarrassing first handle, Hackers had some real sense of where the Internet was going — and where we were going with it.

PCWorld gives Hackers credit for having at least some sense of hacker canon:”Before the core crew of hackers allows Jonny Lee Miller’s Dade to enter their group, they challenge him to identify a series of technical manuals considered essential reading among real hackers in the early 1980s. Dade aces the test, which culminates with the Ugly Red Book That Won’t Fit on a Shelf.” But Hackers gets its longevity less from specific demonstrations of technical foresight—the hardware the characters drool over is laughably antiquated today — and more from its portrayal of what would become the dominant attitudes about the Internet and the way we live our lives on it.

I’ve written before about the social aspects of the Internet that the movie understands very well:

Dade is not as aggressive or articulate in person as he pretends to be online, though Kate, being a quite young Angelina Jolie, is hotter than her handle, Acid Burn. Their prickly competition gives way to romance, and a strong solidarity between their immediate group of friends and the wider hacking community, as people they’ve never met come to their aid…One of the messages of the movie is certainly that while hacking can be used for evil, the internet is where you find your tribe, if you’re too smart, or too maladjusted, for your surroundings. The net’s great promise is that even if you feel alone, you can find someone like you out there in the vastness of the web, and that those relationships will be no less real for being remote.

While some hackers may want to do things on the Internet, like stealing internal emails from Bank of America, that the rest of us may not be particularly interested in, in the years since Hackers came out, the values that a cop insists are “not cool. It’s Commie bullshit,” have become increasingly mainstream. We get annoyed when Google+ or any other social networking application wants us to use our own names. We want a lot of access to data, and we want it for free, particularly if it’s entertainment — and we want it to be easy. Instead of Dade hacking a television network at the beginning of a movie, we love Netflix and Spotify and Hulu, except when they start charging us more money and we get cranky (interestingly, the way Dade periodically flashes into a movie clip reminds me of the way the iPod made it possible for us all to live in our own movie soundtracks). And the people who shut us down are squares, like pre-HBO Wendell Pierce (Lorraine Bracco, pre-Sopranos, is there as an evil corporate honcho as well) as techphobic Secret Service Agent Richard Gill in the movie, who is given to saying things like “These people, they’re terrorists,” when he gets a chance to preen in front of local television cameras.

And though some critics think the characters in Hackers are ultimately sort of sellouts, in that they aid a major corporation rather than taking it down (though in the name of clearing one of their friends), that attitude is basically where the rest of us have landed. We like that the Internet opens up our world, we like that it gets us things for free, and in some cases, we even like it when it becomes a tool to topple regimes that we don’t like very much. But mostly we want the internet to broaden the social playing field, to make it quicker and cheaper to be consumers, and to help us find love — in other words, for the world to stay the same, except faster and easier. Hackers, for all of its faux-edgey aesthetics, is brilliant at capturing those compromises.