Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Unauthorized access

07 Feb, 2008 | Brian

"I aim to misbehave."
- Capt. Malcolm Reynolds

Disobedience is one of my favorite topics, and has been ever since I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, which was about 16 years ago. At that point in my life I was, if I do say so myself, an Internet pioneer. Not in the sense that I was inventing anything great, but rather that I was on the Internet. I believe it was 1991. I remember making a phone call to CompuServ and asking them if they could provide me with an Internet connection, and the poor customer service representative tried her best to pretend she knew what I was talking about. Of course she didn't. Hardly anyone did, back then. But I had a need to be on, the same way people feel the need now when their net connection goes down. You can't bear the disconnectedness.

So I did what was expected of me: I hacked my way on. Alright, that deserves at least a bit of explanation. I had been online for some years before 1991. A friend introduced me to the net-connected dumb terminals at the local university in late 1987, and we snuck in and played MUDs whenever we could. We also thrilled ourselves with connecting to FTP addresses that ended in .com or .gov. These were the zaibatsus and secret government sites we had read about in our dystopian sci-fi novels, and we believed ourselved deck cowboys who slipped past all the traditional barriers. I should point out that .com addresses in those days were as rare as hen's teeth. You never saw them. Everything was .edu then. The other thing that was rare in those days was cycles. As in processor. Also bandwidth was at a premium. Keep in mind that a typical desktop was running at 4.7 MHz. All this meant that computing had a cost that was still calculated in the late 80s, and although that cost was not nearly as high as it had been in previous decades, it was still counted.

This accounting of computer resources led to our group of miscreants getting in trouble. It turned out that the university administrators did not look kindly on some kids "using up cycles" and "causing the bridge to crash" (which we did sometimes). They didn't like paying students using these things up, and few of us were paying students - some were from other universities; some, like me and a few others, were still in high school. At first we would stride into the computer labs confidently, as if we belonged there. We would simply guess passwords, which were astonishingly often the word "password," or watch anyone who logged in, because they inevitably had their username and password written in full view on a piece of paper next to the computer.

The admins began a campaign of kicking us off when they saw a telnet session. In response we copied the telnet binary, renamed it "less myreport.txt", and ran it like that. The admins started finding our secret binaries and removing them, and blacklisting the accounts we used to get in. This kind of cat-and-mouse continued until I made a special floppy disk that, when inserted, would automatically bypass all log-in procedures and launch a telnet session off the floppy, undetectably. (Ashamedly, this last was an MS-DOS hack. There were some DOS machines in the lab, and we exploited them mercilessly.)

Now from my point of view none of this is all that interesting, except for the next bit: over the next months I began to see real students sticking a floppy into the computers and launching telnet sessions. The "hack" (I use that term weakly) I had created had spread. When I asked about it, someone told me that the admins had banned the playing of MUDs, and everyone had begun using this "special disk" to MUD anyway. No one knew who had made it, and I didn't try to claim credit, yet I was deeply gratified. I was technically being a jerk to the admins, and could by today's standards be classified as a criminal. What was I happy about?

Fasforward to 1991. This was the heyday of BBS culture. We all had modems, and we used them for evil purposes. Denied legitimate access to the Internet, I dialed in to the local university's "staging" program - a kind of terminal server. What you were supposed to do with this program is tell it which university resource you wanted to connect to. But what you could also do is point it at pretty much anything else, given the right commands, and it would obediently connect. I guess they were hoping no one would know the right commands, or something. In time, the admins of this system let me know I was unappreciated, and I proceeded to defy them as I had defied their predecessors.

And so I found myself in Minnesota in 1991, disobediently slipping through the cracks onto the Internet so that I could have a debate against someone named Geoff in Rhode Island about whether God exists. Under such circumstances I read these lines from Mere Christianity: "A man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it." By Human Nature, he meant an innate knowledge of what was right and what was wrong. This created in me a kind of cognitive dissonance. You see, I had been using C.S. Lewis's logic as fuel in my argument, but in the very process of doing so I was violating what I knew Mr. Lewis was advocating - following the Law of Human Nature. Even so, I still continued to feel justified in my electronic intrusions.

Then, in a later part of the same book, Mr. Lewis advanced a theory that I had never before encountered, and which, perhaps for very obvious reasons, I latched onto. The idea was that of a primary and a secondary good. The primary good was doing what you knew was right. The secondary good was going against this "law," repenting, and ultimately doing what you knew was right in the end. What is more, he suggested that the secondary good was somehow "more good" than the primary good. I had no idea what he meant by that at the time, but I found this philosophy to be incredibly profound.