XW INFLUENCES PART ONE: HACKERS

[Heyo! To promote my ongoing Kickstarter campaign for Crossed Wires Volume 1, I’m writing a series of short essays on works of film and literature that have influenced Crossed Wires’s creation. (I was thinking about calling it “Legacy Systems” but I should probably strive for clarity, lol.) If you’d like to read the comic, you can at http://crossedwires.irisjay.net, and if you’d like to pre-order a slick, fancy printed copy of Volume 1, you can at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/irisjay/crossed-wires-volume-1. Peace!]

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HACKERS. Film. 1995, dir. Iain Softley.

I’ve said it dozens of times, to countless people, but I can’t repeat it enough: Crossed Wires would not exist, would not exist, if Dade Murphy had worn that dress to his date with Kate Libby at the end of the movie.

It would’ve been a more satisfying conclusion to the film, not just from a social justice perspective but from a narrative one: Instead of the male protagonist proving his hacker superiority over his female counterpart, they would finally respect each other as equals. It would’ve felt a little truer to their characters; as someone with a mistrust of the patriarchy and traditional gender roles instilled in her from childhood, I doubt Kate would dare wear a dress to a social event without reframing it as a subversive act, and Dade (though a bit of a creep at the movie’s start) seems to hold a similar chip on his shoulder for cultural norms that obstruct ideas and emotions. And it would’ve been queer as hell, in a movie that strives so hard to be young and wild and dangerous, featuring characters who would be enemies of society and the state in any other traditional Luddite Hollywood production. Yet, despite teasing it, Hackers refuses to go that extra inch. Outcast teens committing international cyber crimes and harassing federal agents? Sure, we’ll put that in. But a man in a dress is too much!

I’ve seen Hackers maybe over twenty times at this point, and have memorized most of the lines. It’s what I usually list as my favorite film during party icebreaker conversations, and if I find out friends of mine haven’t watched it, I’m usually the one who goads them into coming over to my apartment for a screening. For me, it hits a sweet spot at the intersection between “cult classic” and “cultural document”: not a true account of How Things Were by any wildest stretch of the imagination, but an approximation of a feeling, an optimistic ethos that’s woven into its core fabric, and I think that’s why it’s resonated with me so deeply.

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Let me underline: It’s not accurate in any sense of the word. In the world of Hackers, computer code looks like equation-riddled fractals, and computer networks are improbable Plexiglas towers invaded by talking, singing Video Toaster effect viruses. Teens hang out at Rollerblade-friendly cyberpunk video arcades built in empty, abandoned municipal pools, and television pirates advertise Jolt cola and explain phone phreaking when they’re not gyrating at underground nu-metal clubs. None of this actually happened how the movie claims; real hackers from the age will tell you their wild, subversive acts mostly consisted of tediously combing through other people’s data to find homebrewed solutions for complex problems, not jumping over police cars and jacking laptops into the Empire State Building’s antenna. When the movie came out in 1995, the internet was in a wonky adolescent stage between “wonky oddity for corporations and nerds” and “utterly ubiquitous cornerstone of personal computing”– to many, the golden age of hacking had already succumbed to multiple FBI raids and system countermeasures. For this reason, I’ve heard others spin Hackers as a Tomorrowland for the ’90s, as real as a Coke commercial: a hip way to sell PCs and tech culture to rebellious kids out in the sticks.

And maybe that’s the case. But isn’t the whole point of hacking, more so even than being Good With Computers, about salvaging what we can from the world around us and building our own lifestyle from the pieces? Aren’t we allowed to find at least some personal truth in something as vapid as a throwaway Youth Culture Film?

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Hackers is cyberpunk, certainly, but it lacks the grim, dystopian outlook that otherwise defines the genre. It isn’t ten minutes into the future, when consumerism and corporate interest have strangled the planet and deepened the divide between haves and have-nots into a bottomless chasm. Hackers takes place right now (well, the now of when it was made, anyways), and its characters are colorful, eccentric and human, not stone-faced drug-laced avatars of a rotten society. They come from all different backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, united by a love of breaking rules and a burning desire to change things. To have some positive impact on their world, even if that impact clefts against the grain of what might be considered acceptable or legal. It’s not a new message, but with rapidly advancing technology and the Wild West of the Internet in the mix, it almost seemed like something you could believe in.

The problem is, right now, in 2016, we’re living in that nightmare ten-minutes-away near future. Corporations are strangling the planet. Politicians and public officials have stopped even bothering to pretend that all men are created equal. Elections turn into ghastly publicity circuses, poisoned water supplies are neglected, shootings happen so often that our outrage has numbed to a dull apathy. An entire intelligent, tech-savvy (and significantly queerer!) generation is largely disenfranchised, broke and aimless. I wrote Crossed Wires largely because I feel like Hackers’ message still needs to be heard, especially for people like me who maybe wouldn’t have found themselves without connecting with similar outcasts online. You’re not alone. You have power. There’s a million other lights glimmering in the darkness, reaching out to you. All you need is a little skill and a little will, and you can change the world, right now. 

And if you want to wear a dress while doing it, hey, no prudish Nineties screenwriter can stop you.

[Again, you can read Crossed Wires at http://crossedwires.irisjay.net. Preorder a print copy of Volume 1 at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/irisjay/crossed-wires-volume-1. I’ve got a list of ten of these, so expect a new essay maybe once every four days until the campaign ends. Thanks for reading!]

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