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Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker

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The popular portrayal of computers as magic boxes capable of anything has done real societal harm. Now one TV show wants to save us.

Cory Doctorow writes: For decades Hollywood has treated computers as magic boxes from which endless plot points could be conjured, in denial of all common sense. TV and movies depicted data centers accessible only through undersea intake valves, cryptography that can be cracked through a universal key, and e-mails whose text arrives one letter at a time, all in caps. “Hollywood hacker bullshit,” as a character named Romero says in an early episode of Mr. Robot, now in its second season on the USA Network. “I’ve been in this game 27 years. Not once have I come across an animated singing virus.” mr-robot2.jpg Mr. Robot marks a turning point for how computers and hackers are depicted in popular culture, and it’s happening not a moment too soon. Our thick-­headedness about computers has had serious ramifications that we’ve been dealing with for decades. Following a time line of events from about a year before the air date of each episode, Mr. Robot references real-world hacks, leaks, and information security disasters of recent history. When hackers hack in Mr. Robot, they talk about it in ways that actual hackers talk about hacking. This kind of dialogue should never have been hard to produce: hacker presentations from Black Hat and Def Con are a click away on YouTube. But Mr. Robot marks the first time a major media company has bothered to make verisimilitude in hacker-speak a priority.
The show excels not only at talk but also at action. The actual act of hacking is intrinsically boring: it’s like watching a check-in clerk fix your airline reservation. Someone types a bunch of obscure strings into a terminal, frowns and shakes his head, types more, frowns again, types again, and then smiles. On the screen, a slightly different menu prompt represents the victory condition.

But the show nails the anthropology of hacking, which is fascinating as all get-out. The way hackers decide what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it, is unprecedented in social history, because they make up an underground movement that, unlike every other underground in the past, has excellent, continuous, global communications. They also have intense power struggles, technical and tactical debates, and ethical conundrums—the kind of things found in any typical Mr. Robot episode. … (read more)

Source: MIT Technology Review

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