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"A Statement of Principle" by Bruce Sterling

By Bruce Sterling (7) <bruces@well.sf.ca.us>
(Reprinted from SCIENCE FICTION EYE #10 with permission of the author.)

I just wrote my first nonfiction book. It's called THE HACKER CRACKDOWN: LAW AND DISORDER ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER. Writing this book has required me to spend much of the past year and a half in the company of hackers, cops, and civil libertarians.

I've spent much time listening to arguments over what's legal, what's illegal, what's right and wrong, what's decent and what's despicable, what's moral and immoral, in the world of computers and civil liberties. My various informants were knowledgeable people who cared passionately about these issues, and most of them seemed well-intentioned. Considered as a whole, however, their opinions were a baffling mess of contradictions.

When I started this project, my ignorance of the issues involved was genuine and profound. I'd never knowingly met anyone from the computer underground. I'd never logged-on to an underground bulletin-board or read a semi-legal hacker magazine. Although I did care a great deal about the issue of freedom of expression, I knew sadly little about the history of civil rights in America or the legal doctrines that surround freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. My relations with the police were firmly based on the stratagem of avoiding personal contact with police to the greatest extent possible.

I didn't go looking for this project. This project came looking for me. I became inextricably involved when agents of the United States Secret Service, acting under the guidance of federal attorneys from Chicago, came to my home town of Austin on March 1, 1990, and confiscated the computers of a local science fiction gaming publisher. Steve Jackson Games, Inc., of Austin, was about to publish a gaming-book called GURPS Cyberpunk.

When the federal law-enforcement agents discovered the electronic manuscript of CYBERPUNK on the computers they had seized from Mr. Jackson's offices, they expressed grave shock and alarm. They declared that CYBERPUNK was "a manual for computer crime."

It's not my intention to reprise the story of the Jackson case in this column. I've done that to the best of my ability in THE HACKER CRACKDOWN; and in any case the ramifications of March 1 are far from over. Mr. Jackson was never charged with any crime. His civil suit against the raiders is still in federal court as I write this.

I don't want to repeat here what some cops believe, what some hackers believe, or what some civil libertarians believe. Instead, I want to discuss my own moral beliefs as a science fiction writer -- such as they are. As an SF writer, I want to attempt a personal statement of principle.

It has not escaped my attention that there are many people who believe that anyone called a "cyberpunk" must be, almost by definition, entirely devoid of principle. I offer as evidence an excerpt from Buck BloomBecker's 1990 book, SPECTACULAR COMPUTER CRIMES. On page 53, in a chapter titled "Who Are The Computer Criminals?", Mr. BloomBecker introduces the formal classification of "cyberpunk" criminality.

"In the last few years, a new genre of science fiction has arisen under the evocative name of 'cyberpunk.' Introduced in the work of William Gibson, particularly in his prize-winning novel NEUROMANCER, cyberpunk takes an apocalyptic view of the technological future. In NEUROMANCER, the protagonist is a futuristic hacker who must use the most sophisticated computer strategies to commit crimes for people who offer him enough money to buy the biological creations he needs to survive. His life is one of cynical despair, fueled by the desire to avoid death. Though none of the virus cases actually seen so far have been so devastating, this book certainly represents an attitude that should be watched for when we find new cases of computer virus and try to understand the motivations behind them."

"The New York Times's John Markoff, one of the more perceptive and accomplished writers in the field, has written that a number of computer criminals demonstrate new levels of meanness. He characterizes them, as do I, as cyberpunks."

Those of us who have read Gibson's NEUROMANCER closely will be aware of certain factual inaccuracies in Mr. BloomBecker's brief review. NEUROMANCER is not "apocalyptic." The chief conspirator in NEUROMANCER forces Case's loyalty, not by buying his services, but by planting poison-sacs in his brain. Case is "fueled" not by his greed for money or "biological creations," or even by the cynical "desire to avoid death," but rather by his burning desire to hack cyberspace. And so forth.

However, I don't think this misreading of NEUROMANCER is based on carelessness or malice. The rest of Mr. BloomBecker's book generally is informative, well-organized, and thoughtful. Instead, I feel that Mr. BloomBecker manfully absorbed as much of NEUROMANCER as he could without suffering a mental toxic reaction. This report of his is what he actually saw when reading the novel.

NEUROMANCER has won quite a following in the world of computer crime investigation. A prominent law enforcement official once told me that police unfailingly conclude the worst when they find a teenager with a computer and a copy of NEUROMANCER. When I declared that I too was a "cyberpunk" writer, she asked me if I would print the recipe for a pipe-bomb in my works. I was astonished by this question, which struck me as bizarre rhetorical excess at the time. That was before I had actually examined bulletin-boards in the computer underground, which I found to be chock-a-block with recipes for pipe-bombs, and worse. (I didn't have the heart to tell her that my friend and colleague Walter Jon Williams had once written and published an SF story closely describing explosives derived from simple household chemicals.)

Cyberpunk SF (along with SF in general) has, in fact, permeated the computer underground. I have met young underground hackers who use the aliases "Neuromancer," "Wintermute" and "Count Zero." The Legion of Doom, the absolute bete noire of computer law-enforcement, used to congregate on a bulletin-board called "Black Ice."

In the past, I didn't know much about anyone in the underground, but they certainly knew about me. Since that time, I've had people express sincere admiration for my novels, and then, in almost the same breath, brag to me about breaking into hospital computers to chortle over confidential medical reports about herpes victims.

The single most stinging example of this syndrome is "Pengo," a member of the German hacker-group that broke into Internet computers while in the pay of the KGB. He told German police, and the judge at the trial of his co-conspirators, that he was inspired by NEUROMANCER and John Brunner's SHOCKWAVE RIDER.

I didn't write NEUROMANCER. I did, however, read it in manuscript and offered many purportedly helpful comments. I praised the book publicly and repeatedly and at length. I've done everything I can to get people to read this book.

I don't recall cautioning Gibson that his novel might lead to anarchist hackers selling their expertise to the ferocious and repulsive apparat that gave the world the Lubyanka and the Gulag Archipelago. I don't think I could have issued any such caution, even if I'd felt the danger of such a possibility, which I didn't. I still don't know in what fashion Gibson might have changed his book to avoid inciting evildoers, while still retaining the integrity of his vision -- the very quality about the book that makes it compelling and worthwhile.

This leads me to my first statements of moral principle.

As a "cyberpunk" SF writer, I am not responsible for every act committed by a Bohemian with a computer. I don't own the word "cyberpunk" and cannot help where it is bestowed, or who uses it, or to what ends.

As a science fiction writer, it is not my business to make people behave. It is my business to make people imagine. I cannot control other people's imaginations -- any more than I would allow them to control mine.

I am, however, morally obliged to speak out when acts of evil are committed that use my ideas or my rhetoric, however distantly, as a justification.

Pengo and his friends committed a grave crime that was worthy of condemnation and punishment. They were clever, but treacherously clever. They were imaginative, but it was imagination in a bad cause. They were technically accomplished, but they abused their expertise for illicit profit and to feed their egos. They may be "cyberpunks" -- according to many, they may deserve that title far more than I do -- but they're no friends of mine.

What is "crime"? What is a moral offense? What actions are evil and dishonorable? I find these extraordinarily difficult questions. I have no special status that should allow me to speak with authority on such subjects. Quite the contrary. As a writer in a scorned popular literature and a self-professed eccentric Bohemian, I have next to no authority of any kind. I'm not a moralist, philosopher, or prophet. I've always considered my "moral role," such as it is, to be that of a court jester -- a person sometimes allowed to speak the unspeakable, to explore ideas and issues in a format where they can be treated as games, thought-experiments, or metaphors, not as prescriptions, laws, or sermons.

I have no religion, no sacred scripture to guide my actions and provide an infallible moral bedrock. I'm not seeking political responsibilities or the power of public office. I habitually question any pronouncement of authority, and entertain the liveliest skepticism about the processes of law and justice. I feel no urge to conform to the behavior of the majority of my fellow citizens. I'm a pain in the neck.

My behavior is far from flawless. I lived and thrived in Austin, Texas in the 1970s and 1980s, in a festering milieu of arty crypto-intellectual hippies. I've committed countless "crimes," like millions of other people in my generation. These crimes were of the glamorous "victimless" variety, but they would surely have served to put me in prison had I done them, say, in front of the State Legislature.

Had I lived a hundred years ago as I live today, I would probably have been lynched by outraged fellow Texans as a moral abomination. If I lived in Iran today and wrote and thought as I do, I would probably be tried and executed.

As far as I can tell, moral relativism is a fact of life. I think it might be possible to outwardly conform to every jot and tittle of the taboos of one's society, while feeling no emotional or intellectual commitment to them. I understand that certain philosophers have argued that this is morally proper behavior for a good citizen. But I can't live that life. I feel, sincerely, that my society is engaged in many actions which are foolish and shortsighted and likely to lead to our destruction. I feel that our society must change, and change radically, in a process that will cause great damage to our present system of values. This doesn't excuse my own failings, which I regret, but it does explain, I hope, why my lifestyle and my actions are not likely to make authority feel entirely comfortable.

Knowledge is power. The rise of computer networking, of the Information Society, is doing strange and disruptive things to the processes by which power and knowledge are currently distributed. Knowledge and information, supplied through these new conduits, are highly corrosive to the status quo. People living in the midst of technological revolution are living outside the law: not necessarily because they mean to break laws, but because the laws are vague, obsolete, overbroad, draconian, or unenforceable. Hackers break laws as a matter of course, and some have been punished unduly for relatively minor infractions not motivated by malice. Even computer police, seeking earnestly to apprehend and punish wrongdoers, have been accused of abuse of their offices, and of violation of the Constitution and the civil statutes. These police may indeed have committed these "crimes." Some officials have already suffered grave damage to their reputations and careers -- all the time convinced that they were morally in the right; and, like the hackers they pursued, never feeling any genuine sense of shame, remorse, or guilt.

I have lived, and still live, in a counterculture, with its own system of values. Counterculture -- Bohemia -- is never far from criminality. "To live outside the law you must be honest" was Bob Dylan's classic hippie motto. A Bohemian finds romance in the notion that "his clothes are dirty but his hands are clean." But there's danger in setting aside the strictures of the law to linchpin one's honor on one's personal integrity. If you throw away the rulebook to rely on your individual conscience you will be put in the way of temptation.

And temptation is a burden. It hurts. It is grotesquely easy to justify, to rationalize, an action of which one should properly be ashamed. In investigating the milieu of computer-crime I have come into contact with a world of temptation formerly closed to me. Nowadays, it would take no great effort on my part to break into computers, to steal long-distance telephone service, to ingratiate myself with people who would merrily supply me with huge amounts of illicitly copied software. I could even build pipe-bombs. I haven't done these things, and disapprove of them; in fact, having come to know these practices better than I cared to, I feel sincere revulsion for them now. But this knowledge is a kind of power, and power is tempting. Journalistic objectivity, or the urge to play with ideas, cannot entirely protect you. Temptation clings to the mind like a series of small but nagging weights. Carrying these weights may make you stronger. Or they may drag you down.

"His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean." It's a fine ideal, when you can live up to it. Like a lot of Bohemians, I've gazed with a fine disdain on certain people in power whose clothes were clean but their hands conspicuously dirty. But I've also met a few people eager to pat me on the back, whose clothes were dirty and their hands as well. They're not pleasant company.

Somehow one must draw a line. I'm not very good at drawing lines. When other people have drawn me a line, I've generally been quite anxious to have a good long contemplative look at the other side. I don't feel much confidence in my ability to draw these lines. But I feel that I should. The world won't wait. It only took a few guys with pool cues and switchblades to turn Woodstock Nation into Altamont. Haight-Ashbury was once full of people who could trust anyone they'd smoked grass with and love anyone they'd dropped acid with -- for about six months. Soon the place was aswarm with speed-freaks and junkies, and heaven help us if they didn't look just like the love-bead dudes from the League of Spiritual Discovery. Corruption exists, temptation exists. Some people fall. And the temptation is there for all of us, all the time.

I've come to draw a line at money. It's not a good line, but it's something. There are certain activities that are unorthodox, dubious, illegal or quasi-legal, but they might perhaps be justified by an honest person with unconventional standards. But in my opinion, when you're making a commercial living from breaking the law, you're beyond the pale. I find it hard to accept your countercultural sincerity when you're grinning and pocketing the cash, compadre.

I can understand a kid swiping phone service when he's broke, powerless, and dying to explore the new world of the networks. I don't approve of this, but I can understand it. I scorn to do this myself, and I never have; but I don't find it so heinous that it deserves pitiless repression. But if you're stealing phone service and selling it -- if you've made yourself a miniature phone company and you're pimping off the energy of others just to line your own pockets -- you're a thief. When the heat comes to put you away, don't come crying "brother" to me.

If you're creating software and giving it away, you're a fine human being. If you're writing software and letting other people copy it and try it out as shareware, I appreciate your sense of trust, and if I like your work, I'll pay you. If you're copying other people's software and giving it away, you're damaging other people's interests, and should be ashamed, even if you're posing as a glamorous info-liberating subversive. But if you're copying other people's software and selling it, you're a crook and I despise you.

Writing and spreading viruses is a vile, hurtful, and shameful activity that I unreservedly condemn.

There's something wrong with the Information Society. There's something wrong with the idea that "information" is a commodity like a desk or a chair. There's something wrong with patenting software algorithms. There's something direly mean spirited and ungenerous about inventing a language and then renting it out to other people to speak. There's something unprecedented and sinister in this process of creeping commodification of data and knowledge. A computer is something too close to the human brain for me to rest entirely content with someone patenting or copyrighting the process of its thought. There's something sick and unworkable about an economic system which has already spewed forth such a vast black market. I don't think democracy will thrive in a milieu where vast empires of data are encrypted, restricted, proprietary, confidential, top secret, and sensitive. I fear for the stability of a society that builds sand castles out of databits and tries to stop a real-world tide with royal commands.

Whole societies can fall. In Eastern Europe we have seen whole nations collapse in a slough of corruption. In pursuit of their unworkable economic doctrine, the Marxists doubled and redoubled their efforts at social control, while losing all sight of the values that make life worth living. At last the entire power structure was so discredited that the last remaining shred of moral integrity could only be found in Bohemia: in dissidents and dramatists and their illegal samizdat underground fanzines. Their clothes were dirty but their hands were clean. The only agitprop poster Vaclav Havel needed was a sign saying Vaclav Havel Guarantees Free Elections. He'd never held power, but people believed him, and they believed his Velvet Revolution friends.

I wish there were people in the Computer Revolution who could inspire, and deserved to inspire, that level of trust. I wish there were people in the Electronic Frontier whose moral integrity unquestionably matched the unleashed power of those digital machines. A society is in dire straits when it puts its Bohemia in power. I tremble for my country when I contemplate this prospect. And yet it's possible. If dire straits come, it can even be the last best hope.

The issues that enmeshed me in 1990 are not going to go away. I became involved as a writer and journalist, because I felt it was right. Having made that decision, I intend to stand by my commitment. I expect to stay involved in these issues, in this debate, for the rest of my life. These are timeless issues: civil rights, knowledge, power, freedom and privacy, the necessary steps that a civilized society must take to protect itself from criminals. There is no finality in politics; it creates itself anew, it must be dealt with every day.

The future is a dark road and our speed is headlong. I didn't ask for power or responsibility. I'm a science fiction writer, I only wanted to play with Big Ideas in my cheerfully lunatic sandbox. What little benefit I myself can contribute to society would likely be best employed in writing better SF novels. I intend to write those better novels, if I can. But in the meantime I seem to have accumulated a few odd shreds of influence. It's a very minor kind of power, and doubtless more than I deserve; but power without responsibility is a monstrous thing.

In writing HACKER CRACKDOWN, I tried to describe the truth as other people saw it. I see it too, with my own eyes, but I can't yet pretend to understand what I'm seeing. The best I can do, it seems to me, is to try to approach the situation as an open-minded person of goodwill. I therefore offer the following final set of principles, which I hope will guide me in the days to come.

And while I don't plan to give up making money from my ethically dubious cyberpunk activities, I hope to temper my impropriety by giving more work away for no money at all.

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