Life in Space

by rthieme on August 8, 1998

eli There was so much hullabaloo at Def Con VI! (the recent convention for computer hackers, journalists, screen writers, producers, computer security and insecurity experts, programmers, federal agents, local police and sheriff’s deputies, advertisers and marketers, hotel security guards, undercover agents, refugees from raves, groupies, and endlessly curious mind-hungry men and women of all sorts and conditions) – hullabaloo, that is, about how hackers have morphed from evil geniuses into respectable men and women operating at the highest levels of industry and commerce, the military, and the intelligence community.

The basis for comparison, of course, is an image of hackers as whacked-out loners hunched over glowing monitors late into the night, cackling like Beavis or Butthead as they break into our bank accounts – an image created and sustained by the media.

Well …let’s be real. Some do, some are. That’s part of the scene, the digital equivalent of growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and living down these mean digital streets. That, however, is not the essence of hacking.

Hacking is curiosity, playfulness, problem-solving, motivated by the pleasure of browsing, following one’s nose where others say it doesn’t belong, looking for a constellation in the seemingly random stars. Following the luminous bread crumbs deep into the twilight forest. Building an elusive, always-hypothetical whole that forms and dissolves and forms again at every level of the fractal puzzle of life.

Hacking has its roots in Renaissance men like da Vinci and Machiavelli who saw clearly and said what they saw.

But something else is happening too. As I looked out at the audience of the Black Hat Briefings, I saw that the roles of journalists, specialists in competitive intelligence, spies, even professional speakers like myself, were converging, that roles in a digital world are as fluid as identities.

The skills of hackers and intelligence agents are the skills needed in the virtualized worlds we are learning to inhabit.

We hear endlessly of convergence of form and structure in the wired world. Every digital interface is an arbitrary distinction. Because we can reconstitute bits in whatever form we like, deciding to call an interface a PC, TV, or PDA is a job for marketing, not engineers.

But I’m talking about the convergence of roles. The digital world is back-engineering us in its image. Because that world is interactive, modular, and fluid, our lives are too. We don’t even notice anymore that to choose to present ourselves to the world is a choice.

At one extreme, identity hacking – stealing identifiers like numbers and codes with which to gain access to the social and economic world or creating a new identity from whole digital cloth in order to disappear and surface in a new body – is a growing industry. But choices we take for granted – changing jobs, religions, marital status, changing our names, changing careers, changing who we essentially think we are – have become part of consensus reality. Not so long ago, people who did that were thought to be just plain nuts.

Once upon a time, the roles we were expected to fulfill were our destinies. Unless external crises intervened, people were expected to stay in one place, get a job and keep it, get married and stay married, be whatever religion they were told they were (as if something else were even thinkable), and live inside a single identity that was so much a fish in water that it wasn’t questioned.

Identity is a social construction of reality that’s noticed only when the external factors that shape it have changed.

The new consensus reality is reinforced by information sources from talk shows to the Wall Street Journal. We can choose careers, another marriage, another religion, another way of being ourselves, and we are everywhere surrounded by helpful advice about how to do it.

In the digital world, sanity means having the resources and capacity to know how to morph, changing presentations that are bridges between constantly shifting external factors and our own developmental stages. This is true for organizations as well as individuals.

The protean self, back-engineered from the structures of our information technologies, thinks of life as a creative act. The ability to distinguish who we are from our presentations, knowing how to use those presentations to exercise power, build feedback loops of energy and information to sustain us, that’s a skill that used to belong to spies alone. Now it’s asked of everyone who wants to remain viable.

Hackers call it social engineering, learning how to look and sound a particular way to elicit the information needed to build the Big Picture. In business, it is often called competitive intelligence. Some just call it “the way it is.”

Every time I say, “the edge is the new center,” I notice that the edge I had in mind is no longer the edge. A new edge is emerging. Turn-around time is about six months, not only for computers, but for viable constructions of reality.

We work and live in space stations, docking in modular fashion, then we’re off again into space. That space is sheer possibility in which we create literally from nothing. The pull of the future creates the irresistible shapes of present possibilities with which we must comply. Every time we break through to a new way of seeing things it feels momentous, but breakthroughs are momentous for only a moment. Then they become commonplace, the background noise of the next stage of our lives.

Evil genius hackers? Give me a break. The hackers who have their hands on the throttles of power in the digital world were “kids” three years ago. That’s about as long as a current generation lasts. And civilization too is ramping up toward a single point of convergence where identities are arbitrary. What we call “our species” will soon be a wistful memory in the molecular clusters of the progeny we design, an arbitrary distinction that served us for a while before we morphed. A noun turned into a transitory verb. Ice turned into a flowing river.

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