Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 6

I loved cyberpunk. It was an alluring nightmare. The dystopias of Blade Runner and Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and even True Names and Max Headroom, were as powerfully sexy as they were also alarming commentary on where things seemed to be heading. Cautionary tales, and terrific high-tech dreams.

Science-fiction, before cyberpunk, had focused on stars and aliens and zap guns and rockets and robots, the post-war flying-saucer spectacle. Star Wars and later Alien rubbed a bit of dirt on science-fiction and made the characters a little less stilted, more approachable, with fewer silver-shiny suits. Cyberpunk took away the rockets and the zap guns and the aliens. People no longer yearned for the stars, but holy crap did we have awesome computers. And terrible corporations have mostly overpowered the world’s governments, strangling humanity at least a little bit, while powerful new things, like early artificial intelligences, begin to appear.

I said that cyberpunk got rid of aliens, but actually I was wrong. Early artificial life forms are the alien beings who our criminal anti-heroes encounter.

Cyberpunk people spend as much time as possible in a virtual world — sometimes a single big one, but more often a lot of little ones (as well as a few secret ones) — where the people you encounter could as easily be on the other side of the world as they might be artificially intelligent.

It’s a world with so many computers, of so many shapes and sizes, that they were essentially disposable. You could get super-expensive ones, still, certainly, but a phone you could dig out of the trash could get you online and keep you mobile while connected, for only a few credits paid ahead.

And once online, if you knew the address of anyone else, you could reach out to them — immediately talk to them, seeing them over video — even play video games with each other and fall in love, or hunt someone, find them, harm them.

Many, many more people in the cyberpunk world have a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of computing power in those hands, and they learn how to do very destructive things. The largest scale operations have turned millions of computers into totally remote controlled instruments of whatever the hell the network’s owner decides they should do, from looking for credit card numbers to looking for spreadsheets at companies which are about to report their quarterly numbers.

We imagined a cyberpunk world of computer criminals, because we were afraid that was where things were headed. And it basically seems to be where we’ve arrived.

The Secret Service went hunting hackers because they were afraid that we had already arrived at a cyberpunk world of computer crime. They spent a crazy amount of money — 150 agents? 23,000 floppy disks? — as part of a massive bet which basically presumed that the world described in cyberpunk science-fiction was as much a reality as technology would meaningfully allow.

How much is 23,000 floppy disks, in terms of data? Depending on the kind of disks they were, it’s between 7–30 gigabytes. In today’s terms, that’s between seven and ten high-definition movies. In the mid-1980s, a name-brand box of 10 disks cost nearly $40. Let’s say they cost $1 each in 1990, so it’s easy to see how much 23,000 floppies worth of storage would cost. In 2013, I can get that same amount of storage in a plastic stick about as long as an infant’s thumb, ordered online and delivered to my home by Google in under 4 hours for $15.

It’s not a terrific stretch to say that we are today not far from the everyday cyberpunk ideal. Most of what I described above is day-to-day reality today for most of the Western nations, and increasingly for most of the rest of the world. There were roughly fifteen times as many computers in the world at the start of 2010 as there were at the start of 1990, when AT&T’s network shouted itself into oblivion for a few hours. That might sound like a lot of computers, but I stopped the numbers at 2010 because that’s about the time phones begin to get counted in the number of “computers” made and shipped. I’m writing this in 2013, and the last three years have seen what we had previously called computers — laptops and still the occasional desktop — dwarfed by tiny, mobile computing products, phones and tablets, which now themselves steadily sprint toward a new evolution.

I love charts.

And simply saying that there are fifteen times as many computers in 2010 than in 1990 doesn’t even scratch the surface of talking about how much more power we have. Our computing power is incredible, and the threats to that power, and our many cat photos, are wide-spread, malicious, and very persistent.

To be fair, science-fiction authors of the 1980s and ’90s were only so visionary. They never considered how much of cyberspace would be filled with advertising, and how unnecessarily clumsy the filtering controls would be, and I don’t think you can blame them because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, either — though it is undeniably the current reality.

The agents of the U.S. Secret Service who were responsible for Operation Sundevil should be acknowledged as the futurists they were. They went looking for an emerging threat that looks basically like where we are now. They were right, even though they were twenty years ahead of their time. Maybe they would’ve done better writing science-fiction.

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