The Hacker-in-Chief

The legacy of the 45th president of the United States will be forever bound up with the concept of hacking. That’s true regardless of what the investigation into alleged collusion with the Russian government reveals. It’s likely even more true if the majority party refuses to allow for a proper investigation. At this point, lasting damage has already been done.

Last week’s international cyberattacks put the current administration into an intriguing new light. As with so many aspects of human response, our view of computer hackers careens about depending on our own self-interest. Julian Assange nails our enemies – we are freedom-loving Assange fans. He nails our friends – and we grab the pitchforks and torches. Politicians, of course, have raised this form of self-interested rationalization to its most craven perfection, but most of us are guilty of it.

There are several ways to interpret the function and value of the computer hacker. He may be a criminal. He may be a troublemaker. He may simply be a greedy SOB looking for any opportunity to make a buck. Or he may be a freedom fighter, battling for the weak and underrepresented.

I’m usually sensitive to varying my gender specific pronouns but I didn’t feel the need to include any “hers” in the previous paragraph, because another thing you can say about the hacker. It is usually a he. It is also not uncommon for him to engage in a form of adolescent male banter – some may call it locker room talk – and extreme forms of online bullying. And those who have studied hacker culture say that he is often white and often easily bored.

The current occupant of the White House fits virtually every one of these descriptors. In a sense, we do not have a commander – we have a hacker-in-chief.

And so, depending on your political bent, you most likely either see the president as an outsider fighting for the rights of the little man, or as a greedy brute who has no regard for anything beyond the confines of his proverbial mother’s basement – which in this case would be the White House, or the big suite at Mar-A-Lago.

I choose to see him differently. Computer hackers, regardless of their motivations, function as do symptoms of disease. Whether they intend to or not, they reveal weakness in underlying infrastructure, and at least for a while, offer a window into which positive change can emerge. One of the many remarkable things about last week’s cyberattack was the revelation that the users who had bothered to keep their updates current were largely immune. There was a known vulnerability and there was a readily available patch. However, millions of computers across the world were unprotected because … well, therein lies the real question.

Because we were too lazy? Because it was too inconvenient? Because we had to binge watch the last three episodes of The Americans? Because the comfortable don’t believe anything terrible can ever really happen in our great country? Because the poor are too beaten down to believe that anything can ever really improve?

Your guess is as good as mine. And your guess depends largely on where you are sitting when you go about making the guess. William Gibson, the visionary writer who was among the first to define the contours of the virtual world, referred to cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination” which reaps and sows in the “nonspace of the mind.” How quickly that consensual hallucination has moved from the virtual to the real world.

The current president has hacked our political system and revealed the vulnerabilities in a complacent citizenry. The good news is that there are a handful of elections – the next one in the Georgia 6th Congressional district – which offer the opportunity to address the underlying disease. November 6, 2018 – just 540 days from now – offers a much bigger opportunity. William Gibson’s 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties is concerned with possibility of a media tycoon seizing control of the world. Gibson refers to “nodal points” – discrete periods in history which allow for historic change. The 2018 mid-terms elections may be just such a nodal point. Thanks to hackers like the 45th president of the United States, we should be well prepared for the day to come.