The 1990s saw the rise of a new kind of young hero. He or she was different to the ones that had come before. These new heroes were not armed with guns and fists. They were armed with laptops and modems. They sat in darkened rooms, dressed in fashionable black, peering into computer screens behind designer sunglasses. They were hackers.
Computer hackers, as we know them today, have their roots in Tron (1982), before the mainstream internet. In Tron, a protagonist uses his video games skills to enter into a virtual world. In Wargames (1983) a young adult uses a basic phreaking technique to hack into a sophisticated military defence computer. But it was really in the 1990s with films like, Sneakers (1992), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), Ghost in the shell (1996), and culminating in the ultimate hacking film, The Matrix (1999), that hacking as we understand it today came into being.
The Matrix has come to epitomise the essential hacker tropes. The protagonist works outside the system. They discover something unusual and seek to reveal the truth. They have a street fashion or underground chic. They are usually anonymous, hiding their true identity. They are not after power or material gain.
Today, this otherness is more fully explored in the TV series Mr Robot and the Millennium series of novels and films, featuring the hacker, Lisbeth Salander. The series begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the original Swedish title was, Men Who Hate Women). Lisbeth Salander is a survivor. She is a tough and resourceful character. She exposes the lies and corruption of powerful people who are abusing their power. These abuses of power involve the sexual exploitation of women and physical violence against women. The men hide behind positions of authority and social respectability.
Contemporary hackers in fiction are more emotionally evolved than their 1990s predecessors. They are emotionally scarred and suffer from mental health issues. And yet they are able to ‘fight the power’.
Back in the 1990s, hackers were the new upstarts: breaking into computers, stealing information, planting viruses to destroy main frame computers.
The hacker is the Robin Hood of the digital world. Fighting for justice and exposing the truth. The hacker has a code of conduct. They have a moral core. They are fighting a corrupt and twisted enemy that can call on the establishment (the government, the police, etc) to defend them. The hacker’s enemy knows how to use the media to twist the truth for their benefit. The hacker’s enemy have no moral scruples or shame.
In the 1990s, the virtual world used to be the climactic combat arena. It was an unexplored realm. A ‘new’ world, like the mythic Cowboy’s Old American West. A place so new that the characters could literally invent the rules.
It was a highly skeuomorphic world. Digital files were kept in metaphorical filling cabinets, housed in virtual corridors and rooms. Digital information was contained in simulations of physical spaces.
These days the actual process of hacking commands less attention. The skeuomorphism of virtual reality has gone. The process of hacking into a system is usually a quick shot of some plain text in a terminal, on a screen. The clatter of a keyboard and an exclamation: ‘we’re in!’. The focus of the drama has returned to the real world, to physical spaces — to the emotional experience of the hacker and their fight against the tyranny of injustice.