Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) — those early precursors of the World Wide Web — fundamentally changed my relationship to computers. Before I discovered the boards, I thought of a computer as something to program and play video games on. But used as a gateway to a BBS, it turned into a door to be unlocked, with a host of knowledge just waiting for me on the other side. BBS allowed me to discover new worlds, to step into uncharted territory as part of a global hacker collective, and to thrive as an individual.
It was on a bulletin board that I first learned about hacker culture, the “let’s just break through this wall and see what’s on the other side” mentality.
That gave me the courage to try new things. Before I was hired by Obama’s team as the CTO for his 2012 re-election campaign, I had certainly never been involved with anything of that nature before. Yet, I somehow knew I could do the job. I attribute that confidence to my experience as a hacker and the subsequent willingness to take risks. If you never break through that wall of doubt, you will never see what might’ve been possible.
I grew up in Greeley, Colorado, in a house without a television set. I was a very nerdy kid: I used to play “astronaut” and eat bouillon as astronaut food. We also had tons of books. Every so often, my mom would take me and my brother to the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, where she’d encourage us to read anything that piqued our interest.
That’s how I first discovered bulletin boards. A BBS enables computers to communicate with each other using modems over telephone lines. When I was 12, I was looking through an issue of Computer Shopper magazine, which I used to obsessively pore over even though it was terrible, and I found a listing for something called TOTSE, or “Temple of the Screaming Electron.”
TOTSE was “an information network providing criminal insights to anyone with a phone, personal computer, and a modem.” At the time, we had an IBM Model 25 computer and a 300-baud modem. Of course I had to go see what TOTSE was all about. What I found there completely blew my mind — a Pandora’s Box of totally crazy stuff, from Anarchist Cookbook files to a compendium of documents on how to hack stuff.
TOTSE eventually lead to another bulletin board called Dark Shadows. This one was multi-user, which meant that you could chat with other people on it. From then on, computers were no longer something I did by myself, as an escape from the tedium of school. These bulletin boards were early prototypes of social networks, and they represented the power of what the fledgling Internet could do. I’d simply type commands into Telnet, and be taken to another world. It was the first time I realized that I wasn’t alone, that there were other people like me who were there out there, that I belonged to a worldwide community.
That’s where it all started. Getting hired as CTO of Threadless, then CTO of the Obama for America campaign, and currently, CEO at Modest, Inc., none of it would’ve happened without the early exposure to hacker culture.
Of course, I first had to understand that the knowledge gleaned from these boards could also get me in trouble. In 1994, I got kicked off all of the school’s computers for swearing at the librarian. I had software installed on my bulletin board clients that just spat out swear words, and I accidentally triggered it during a session with the librarian. She was asking me how to do something and the computer literally said, “Fucking bitch.” It happened so fast! My parents had to come in to the school and we had to talk about it. It was an accident, but the school didn’t care. I lost computer privileges at school for the rest of the year..
A couple of years later, I got into trouble again — this time it was far more serious. A local kid made a bomb and blew up a $20,000 haystack. His mother called the fire department so that they could talk to her son about fire safety, and they asked him how he learned to build the bomb. No surprises for guessing what he said — he learned it from Harper Reed, of course. And so, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms came over with their badges and their guns, and began questioning me. It was very intimidating. But I soon realized that these people don’t know about bulletin boards, or even the Internet. They thought I was some major information source, telling kids all over Greeley how to build bombs. But I had just told the kid about an anarchist website, and he’d found the information himself. Thankfully, I didn’t get kicked off the computers again — because I had already parlayed my experience into running IT for the high school, and thus knew more about the school’s computers than any of my teachers. They needed me.
I would still describe myself as a hacker. I still remember feeling the magic, the sense of discovery, when I first connected to a bulletin board. It seemed like the world was somehow brighter, the greens were greener. Like I’d stepped through a portal to the other side. I knew back then that things would never be the same again for me. And I was right.
As told to Adrienne Day
Illustrations by Thoka Maer | Cover .gif shot on Samsung Galaxy S6 by Joey Jeter