If Truth Be Told

by rthieme on August 1, 1998

richardthieme3 The press coverage of the Black Hat Briefings II and Def Con VI tells part of the story, but the fact that mainstream media covered those cons the way they did tells much of the rest.

Def Con is the biggest and most celebrated convention for computer hackers. The con has grown from sixty to two thousand in six years. The Black Hat Briefings, which grew out of Def Con, is a forum in which the best and brightest hackers engage in serious conversation with experts in computer security. The technical presentations are as good as it gets, and attendance at Black Hat tripled in a year.

Stories about Def Con in the New York Times and L. A. Times had similar slants: Young hackers who a few years ago hesitated to reveal even their on-line handles now occupy critical positions in business and government. Which is certainly part of the story.

The crew from CNN, however, floating through Def Con like the bright shining bubble of the Good Witch of the North, was a symbol of a bigger truth.

Leon Panetta once said that CNN inserted itself like a filter between our minds and our own experience of reality.

Panetta recalled his arrival at the White House as Chief of Staff. One of the first things he wanted to see was the Situation Room. He wanted to know if it really looked like the one in “Doctor Strangelove.”

So what did he find?

“Two guys in shirtsleeves sitting at a table watching CNN.”

Now, think about it. A much younger Leon P sits in a darkened movie theater. Inside his head are “symbolic modules” generated by his youthful experience and education. “Doctor Strangelove” coupled an image of a hidden, forbidden reality – the situation room where life and death decisions are made – with that modular interface. With all his experience and political savvy, Panetta still wondered when he arrived at the White House years later if the image fit. He said it did not … but in a deeper way, maybe it did.

Panetta saw two people interact with CNN, a medium that couples symbolic modules with our modular constructions of reality. Panetta had interacted with a movie that coupled a symbolic module with his construction of reality. In other words, decades later he laughed at two guys for doing what he had done … and he had believed in his images all those years.

The CNN crew attracted everyone’s attention. The camera and fuzzy mike on a long boom were huge, and every time they turned on the bright lights, attention in the room swirled around them like water going down a bathtub drain. Like physicists observing sub-atomic particles, they altered what they saw by the act of observing it.

The reporters who directed the process knew their business, but not hacker reality. “Three weeks ago, I had never heard of Def Con,” said one. They looked forward to the Black-and-White Ball on Saturday night because they wanted good visuals. The visuals would be filtered to fit the expectations of the audience – expectations created by the media, where images of hackers have replaced Cold War spies as magnets of fear and fascination.

The media need modules that snap tightly together without being forced.

News and entertainment are virtually indistinguishable in the digital world. Their agendas are set by those who own the media and decide what is thinkable. Those who determine the questions that can be asked do not need to worry about the answers. The answers fly about in simulated opposition like birds flocking to a few recursive rules inside a digital cage. Because the birds have enough room, they do not even notice the cage.

At a deeper level, the structure of our information infrastructure determines how we think, the questions that we ask. That infrastructure is the context of our lives. Those who work at the nexus of context and content rule the digital world.

We don’t notice those cages either, but that’s what the real geniuses at Black Hat and Def Con are building. Those who code software and build chips (i.e. code in a harder state, like ice and water) create the contours or parameters of commerce, social interaction, and the kinds of wars we fight.

Although intrusion and data manipulation or destruction can be damaging, hackers are not threatening simply because they can break into systems. At the top level, it is their ability to piece together the Big Picture and see how the imaginary landscapes that we call “the real world” are constructed that constitutes a threat.

Hackers, spies and journalists resemble one another.

A reporter told me of her journey through ostensible coverage of the software industry to the unintended discovery of how things really work. Her off-the-record account detailed infiltration, collusion, and sabotage. “It wasn’t what I was looking for,” she said, “but I can’t forget what I saw.”

I mentioned something a hacker had uncovered, and she laughed. I repeated what I said and she laughed again.

“Ridicule is easy,” I said. “The first line of defense of consensus reality.”

“I have to laugh at that,” she said, suddenly not laughing. “I would go insane otherwise.”

If truth be told, that reporter is telling it. Wisdom and sanity depend on a context to give them meaning. When the context shifts, wisdom becomes nonsense, what is sensible sounds insane. And vice versa. The first line of defense of consensus reality is always to laugh, then ridicule, then attack.

Hackers don’t live inside that consensus. Nor do spies. They live too close to the edge, the terminator on the moon where everything is thrown into relief, where intentionality creates consensus. In a world of pure information, intentionality is everything.

There’s plenty of laughter at Def Con, but it’s laughter at the paradox of the mind observing itself, watching itself build worlds in which – in spite of seeing marks of the tools on the raw material, the tools in our own hands – we lack the freedom not to believe.

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