“True Names,” by Vernor Vinge, is one of the few things I can point to and say, “That thing there, it changed my life.” It was dressed up as science-fiction, though it could hardly have been more accurate in depicting the world as I saw it — or at least, as how I saw it was going to be.
In the old fairy tales and fantasy stories, knowing how to make magic was the most powerful thing you could do. You were a walking, talking plot-device, not just a game-changer but a world-changer. However, your success hinged on remaining untouchable. If someone knew your real name then they could control you.
In “True Names,” a group of hackers meet secretly in an online fantasy world, using fake names like Mr. Slippery, where they share information, raid computers, and do all the other things that hackers are classically thought to do. Our story begins with a guy getting busted by the cops, because they were able to trace him back to his online hacker identity. Eventually, of course, he comes to see that the cops are right, that one of his hacker buddies is a terribly bad guy who he has to help take down, but the story kicks off with him being forced to take their side because they know his true name, and they threaten to destroy him if he doesn’t do what they say. Not a great beginning to a partnership, but a great start for a story. I had a special fascination for a part of the story where something terrible had begun to grow in the unused spaces between systems, in this near future where tens of megabytes could go unused, unnoticed. These spaces had to be explored, because there was no way of knowing what you’d find there.
Having my inner life lain so bare gave my fantasies an external reality much more powerful than I could have built them up to be on my own. The expensive modem I wanted had begun to feel very far away. As “True Names” settled into a space in my mind, saving money for that modem acquired a life-threatening urgency. Dwelling deeply on what my eventual plans should be as I mowed our yard week after week, I could not shake the one thing about the story that angered me. It wasn’t that the hero turns on his hacker buddies and works with the Feds. It was the word that he has the hackers call themselves. The author calls them warlocks. I’m sure it was meant to echo back to the origin of the idea behind the power of “true names” in fantasy literature, but let’s be honest: it was stupid. It was an example of the problem I had even then with most fantasy and science-fiction. You don’t have to make up dorky words when there are perfectly good words that people use every day. I mean, come on. It grieved me to the point that I wanted to type in the whole damn thing, replacing “warlock” with the real words I knew, the true true-names.
Then as now, most of the people walking around in my world knew the word “hacker,” and they had some idea of what it meant, and they were wrong. There were four general groups of people in the digital underground at the time.
There were pirates, who largely limited their activity to copying software and helping spread it around. It was acknowledged that this was probably at least a little illegal, but no one had ever heard of anyone being arrested for it, outside of racketeering-scale piracy, more often counterfeiting schemes, specifically to make money. Real pirates, we all agreed, were not doing it for the money. Being a pirate also required the least amount of specialized knowledge and effort, so most people in the underground identified as pirates.
There were phreaks (pronounced “freaks,” sometimes called “phone phreaks” just to be clear, especially when talking out loud). Phreaks could do amazing things with phones, starting with free long-distance and growing more sophisticated until you were rerouting pizza delivery calls to your ex-girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. Not that I ever did that, but that was the kind of thing that happened. We presumed that the phone company would be enraged about some of these things, but most of what we were doing wasn’t strictly illegal at the time. Still, after enraging your ex-girlfriend’s father with an inundation of Saturday night calls demanding pizza, you might not have thought of yourself as a criminal even if you were definitely an asshole.
Then there were crackers, the people who got up to the actual, undeniably illegal tricks. A pirate could help you copy a game, and could probably even figure out how to copy something that had been copy-protected in a way that he’d seen before, but it took a cracker to dedicate the long and tedious hours to figuring out how to defeat some new form of copy-protection. And more often than not, the focus and dedication and curiosity that made an expert copy-protection cracker would eventually get turned toward cracking any number of other kinds of systems — for, as they say, fun and profit.
The term “cracker” didn’t really catch on. I thought it was a little lame, myself, but from within the underground I could see the need to differentiate between a hacker in what we imagined to be the pure sense — someone smart and curious and interested in exploring for the love of knowing more — and someone driven by selfishness or even by malicious intent.
Whenever there was a news story about some hacker who’d broken into a system to change his grades, or who had been caught downloading documents from a corporate system, or something similar, it almost always kicked off a new round of underground indignation along the lines of, “You should call these people crackers, like safe-crackers, because they’re trying to break things, and not hackers, because it’s an insult to the hackers who just want to look around and have fun and don’t want to hurt anyone and aren’t in it for the money.”
The actual hackers — the real geniuses who weren’t malicious, or at least not very much, who were obsessed with learning more about the systems, who simply felt compelled to code all day and spend their spare time exploring connections, the spaces between the systems — seemed rare. But they were out there, a small but decent number of them.
Thirty years later, we talk about white-hat hackers and black-hat hackers in order to call out the difference in motivation and intent. But really, most of us knew that what separated the people we thought of as hackers from the people we dismissed as crackers was opportunity and perspective. Most hackers I knew were never actually given the opportunity to find out what they would do when faced with the chance to pilfer a corporate system. In the same way, most hackers I knew never allowed themselves to objectively consider how far they had in fact already gone in violating the privacy and the security of some systems and people. Most people seemed to be pretty cavalier about it.
Given the opportunity, though, I think a lot fewer people would have risked serious jail time through outrageous exploits than talked about it. From a more honest perspective, though, I think vastly fewer people would have been able to call themselves merely hackers. If you spent enough time on the scene, and you had even the slightest idea about and interest in what you were doing, eventually you were going to crack something.
Ideologically, I sympathized with the pirates, but I trained with phreaks, which relates to why I suffered without a modem for so long. Most modems back then used a super-cheap way of dialing a phone, pulse-dialing — imagine the simulation of an old rotary phone click-click-clicking around its actual dial in order to tell the phone switch what number it wanted to be connected with — because tone dialing, the sounds we still today associate with pressing numbers on a keypad, was very expensive to simulate. Computers back in the day could not generate arbitrary tones, not cleanly. Now, your phone can store and play back a sample of any kind of audio you’d ever want to play, spooled down at fantastic speed from a server who-knows-where, but when I was fifteen, if you wanted to dial a phone using touch-tones then you needed a modem with a special and expensive tone-generating chip. And the great thing about those was that once you can generate touch-tones, you can generate all kinds of tones.
The phone system back then was driven by tones. It lived and died by them. For example, you’ve probably heard how a guy who goes by the name of Cap’n Crunch — whose true name is John Draper — discovered that a whistle, included as a free toy in a brand of cereal marketed to children, produced a clean-enough 2600 Hertz tone to trick the old analog phone switches into thinking that a call had just ended, which left the whistler with an open line. Once you have an open line, you can call anyone, anywhere, for as long as you’d like to make the call, because the phone company won’t log it to your account. Then there were the tones that switches expected from pay phones when someone puts in a nickel. Fire the correct tone enough times, and you could make whatever call you wanted, since you’ve convinced the systems that you’ve paid for the privilege.
So if I saved my money for a more expensive modem, I would have touch-tone dialing, which was super fast relative to pulse-dialing and which made it much more likely that I’d be able to get through to some busier sites on busier nights while I let auto-dial do its dirty work. Plus, I’d be able to generate a number of interesting tones, starting with 2600 Hz and working my way up. And that way, I would only be ripping off the phone company. And no one likes the phone company, anyway. And since it’s not like I ever would have paid to make those calls in the first place, I reasoned, then it’s not like I’m robbing the phone company of anything. Fourteen-year-old boys can reason with a very specific flavor of self-serving precision.
What matters is that I will never forget a most joyful if painfully over-long bike ride to and from the only electronics store within many miles of my house in small, suburban Texas. It was just after Easter, I think.
I returned to the online world to find that a lot of my favorite numbers still worked, and a lot of people were glad to see me back. That was cool. There was no longer a computer answering the phone number for the Southern Baptist bulletin-board system. I never called it again.
On one of the first boards I connected back into after nearly a year’s absence, I requested to chat with the system operator. This was a common feature back then. The person calling in presses C from the main menu, and the remote system would beep, flashing a message that the user would like to chat, if the sysop was available. The sysop had been both nearby and interested in chatting, so we typed at each other for a while. I was quick on the keys, and expressed myself much better than any kid near my age, stutter aside. I told him I was interested in running a bulletin board system and asked if he could share a copy of the software for one with me.
“Just the source code,” I said — or typed, rather. “If you don’t mind. I want to run my own system. I want to see what the code looks like so I can write my own.”
He was of a pirate mind, and was happy to let me pull down a full copy. I could not believe my luck.
That night, I set up my system the way I wanted it to be. I got stuck thinking of a name, though, until it hit me. What should I call an underground site, hidden inside a boring chunk of hardware, though which my happiness bubbled out into the world? I posted an announcement, with my phone number, on three or four local sites — THE SUNSHINE FACTORY — and then I went to sleep.
The next morning, I saw to my delight that the system had been busy overnight. Then I realized to my horror that the system was down, hard down, wedged in a bad state, and all because I had done something exceedingly dumb. There had been enough callers overnight, and between the posts and their uploads they had completely filled the digital space on my one disk drive. It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it was a time when you could basically type a computer to death. Now, I’ve seen people look like they were trying to fill their phones with text, but I don’t think anyone’s ever succeeded.
I reached back out to the guy who’d given me the software.
“You gotta set limits on things,” he said. “You can’t just let people post any old thing, either. You gotta delete stuff. It takes time.”
Then I told him I only had one floppy drive.
“That’s your problem,” he said.
“Do you have anything smaller?” I asked. “If the code was smaller, maybe there’d be more space on the disk for other stuff.” An Apple II disk could hold nearly 19,000 words. That wasn’t a lot. When I’m on a roll, I write about 1,000 words an hour. A lot of the code that ran the bulletin-board system was embarrassingly straightforward, though big chunks of it made zero sense. I had now idea how much of it was absolutely necessary versus what I could happily delete in order to make room for another small list or two of interesting numbers.
He didn’t have anything smaller. I had to aggressively remove posts and completely restrict file uploads. People were happy to download without contributing, but the gears of the Sunshine Factory were grinding. I was failing before I’d even begun. I hadn’t set out to host a popular pirate site, offering up the hottest new games, because I didn’t want to serve users who would only connect so that they could kick off a download. I wanted to talk to people.
Something else would have to be done. I called another board that I’d been on for a while, chatted with the sysop. He also agreed that my problem was the storage, not the size of the software. We typed back and forth at each other for a little while, until he told me to call back with an actual phone to have an actual conversation.
I asked if he’d mind giving me a copy of what he was running, just a piece of it so that I could see how it worked. I told him I didn’t want to rip anybody off. “Why don’t I give you a copy of the whole thing?” he asked. He was going to be in my area that weekend. He said he’d stop by.
He ended up being a man in his mid-30s, red hair, mustache — the first person I ever met in person only after coming to know them online. I’m not sure what he was expecting but from his expression when a whisper-thin fifteen-year-old boy answered the door, I was not what he was expecting. He took it well, though.
“Come on back to my room,” I said. He stepped in, nervous, looking around for adult supervision. My parents were out.
In a black nylon satchel, he’d brought a spare disk drive and the cables it needed to hook up to my computer. Soon we were reading his bulletin-board software from one drive and copying to a blank disk in the other, while he thumbed through my small library of pirated software. He wasn’t interested in games, which cut out most of what I had. Evidently I had a sector editor he hadn’t seen, though, and he asked if he could copy it. I was totally surprised he hadn’t seen it, since it had been so useful to me.
Earlier that year I’d fought my way through a game called Ultima III, and once I got to the same point with it that I’d gotten to with Wizardry where it felt less interesting and more of a grind, I’d started wondering how the game remembered my progress. A sector editor was a tool I’d been told was used mostly by crackers to read and modify information on a disk at its lowest level. It usually looked like garbage, though sometimes you could find interesting things by scanning through screen after screen of the actual bytes on a disk. Scanning my copy of Ultima III eventually turned up where it was storing my game character, and through methodical experimentation I figured out what all the funny letters meant — this one told the computer how strong I was, this one was how hard I was to kill, and so on. I gave myself greater and more incredible powers until I sailed straight through the game’s finale, devastating it. Even weeks later, I kept tweaking my character, going back to stomp things that had previously been serious challenges for me in the game.
“It sounds like you’re trying to do something here,” he said. “What are you trying to do?”
I felt pierced. I wasn’t prepared to talk about what I’d been planning, especially not with a grown-up.
“Have you ever read a story called ‘True Names’?” I asked, stuttering badly.
He had not. Using as few words as I could, I told him what I was going to build.
He clearly wanted to finish my words for me, as most adults would when my stutter was at its worst. It was a relief to find him interested in what I had to say and patient enough to let me say it myself. It was a real kindness, and was probably one of the reasons we became something like friends, eventually.
When I was through telling him what I planned, he stared off into the distance, nodding to himself. Then he looked back at me and said, “That is completely bat-shit crazy. My name’s Frank, by the way.” We only knew one another by our online name.
“Patrick,” I told him, pointing at myself, because I was not about to give anyone my true name. I had a lot of work to do.