Hacking Democracy

Beto O’Rourke - the artist formerly known as Psychedelic Warlord - and his h4x0r pal, Lady C. — Photo by Nirva.

Democracy as a system has evolved into something Thomas Jefferson didn’t anticipate. — Hunter S. Thompson

Barack Obama was America’s first black president. He was also the first to admit to smoking pot, unlike Bill Clinton who years earlier claimed he had smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. As a young man, Obama got high but Americans had moved to a point where youth and soft drug use wasn’t an issue. In many states, marijuana is currently legal. Now I’m wondering if America is ready for a president who’s been linked with hacking. A recent report in Reuters revealed that presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke was a teenage member of the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) publishing and hacktivist collective.

As a member of the cDc I have a few thoughts.

The most critical question is, what is a hacker? According to Merriam-Webster, there are several definitions but the most important are: an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer; and, a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system. And there is also the hacker as political disruptor masterfully detailed by Stefania Milan. And just to complicate things, we have lifehacks used to describe solutions for everyday problems, such as finding a hack to raise the smoking point of butter: Add olive oil.

America has reached its political smoking point. And if there’s any chance that the “O’Rourke as hacker story” could be spun negatively, it will be. Russia’s state-sponsored mouthpiece RT is leading the charge, not to be outdone by the Trump News Network. Republican operatives are giddy with invective and I’m sure O’Rourke’s fellow Democratic hopefuls are finding their own ways of throwing shade. This is all to be expected. Politics is a contact sport and nobody gets through it without some bruising. But beyond the hyperbole and nonsense that Barack Obama described as “the silly season” in presidential campaigning, does anyone really care?

It depends on who you ask and their place in the digital divide. The generational one. Usually the digital divide is constructed along economic lines, with the rural poor and global South piled on the bottom and the urban elites and the North resting on top. But it can also be filtered according to generational exposure to the digital. Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials who form the electorate all relate to it in different ways. Donald Trump is a Boomer; Beto O’Rourke is a GenXer; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Millennial. They’re all fairly representative of their generations: Trump doesn’t have a clue how the internet works; O’Rourke was a teenager when he got his first computer; and Ocasio-Cortez was a toddler when the web went public.

To be clear, I know that O’Rourke wasn’t a “hacker” hacker. He’s definitely a smart guy and ran a BBS called TacoLand in the pre-web days, but he wasn’t adept at programming and couldn’t break into anyone’s network. However, O’Rourke wrote some t-files that were published by the cDc, did a little phone phreaking, and possessed some cracked video games as a teenager. But with all due respect: O’Rourke was no Stephen King; Steve Jobs sold blue boxes; and who hasn’t committed piracy? To this last point, you’re all required to be honest. You’ve never installed a copy of pirated software, loaded media content onto a device that you haven’t paid for, or used a streaming site without paying for a movie? Really?

We’re all Beto.

But O’Rourke isn’t the point although he’s been thrust into the spotlight. We’re living in a time where people are thinking about hackers and hacking, and depending on your age group you’ll probably have different opinions. Many older users tend not to understand basic concepts or technologies while most younger users treat being online as a second home. But across all generations, people who understand the internet tend to understand hacking as a structural paradigm. It’s used to cobble software together, create kitchen hacks, or even transform society. The cDc has always been as interested in hacking society as computer systems. We’ve also taken to hacktivism. As O’Rourke — whose unfortunate handle was Psychedelic Warlord — stated in the Reuters article, “There’s just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun while you’re doing it.”

Whether or not O’Rourke makes it all the way to the White House is anyone’s guess. Personally, I don’t think the hacker smear has a lot of Velcro attached to it. Republicans tried hammering Obama with socialism, birther conspiracies, and guilt by association. And in the last presidential campaign, Clinton was slammed with email conspiracies, misogyny, and pizza gate. Trump did, however, win the unpopular vote. As we move into the 2020 election cycle, hacking — in its broadest sense — will be on everyone’s mind. Who or what will the Russians hack this time? What campaign hacks will candidates deploy? And how will voters hack the media maelstrom to get the information they need? So I don’t think it’s much of an issue. If a liar can sit in the Oval Office, it isn’t much of a stretch to think that a hacker can too.