Virgil Griffith discovered the allure of hacking in 1993, while slumped at an Intel 80386 system in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was 10, and he was on a losing streak at Star Wars: X-Wing. To hit the leaderboard, he’d need a fleet of ace wingmen, but he only had one X-Wing fighter that could hold its own in the game’s World War I–style dogfights. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Digging around in the game’s code, Griffith found that each pilot had its own file, so he cloned his good fighter. Copy and paste, copy and paste, copy and paste—fully 20 times. This gave him, he told me years later, “a plentiful supply of the best wingmen from then on.” Players without Griffith’s workaround were out of luck.
Those brave pilots, gouged from the game’s code, seemed to serve as Griffith’s guardian angels in the next few years, during which he lived by the hacker’s creed: Enlightened cheating is the highest form of gameplay. You don’t beat the TIE fighters. You beat the game itself.
While in college at the University of Alabama, Griffith discovered a chink in the ID card system that let students cadge cafeteria meals. In 2007, shortly after graduating, he invented WikiScanner, a service that exposed the IP addresses and ideological biases of anonymous Wikipedia edits. (In one case, he revealed that people from offices in the US Senate were trying to fix their reputations, where others from Diebold, the company that made insecure voting machines, were using Wikipedia for corporate propaganda). He was on his way to black-hat status—and the circle of Julian Assange—when he discovered something even better than hacking: science.
Griffith is now a 34-year-old research scientist at Ethereum Research in Singapore, where he works on improving the company’s blockchain, a big piece of the global infrastructure that allows for secure exchanges of property and currency online. With essential software, he wrote in an email to me, “failures just aren’t acceptable anymore.” Examples he cites include controlling nuclear reactors, power grids, chip manufacturing. “There is a trend in software development away from the ‘hacker’ jury-rigging into a mature field, where things are ‘proven’,” he told me.
The chastening of the outlaw hacker does not make a great campfire tale. Maybe that story is too close to the tedious process of growing up. But with Silicon Valley convulsed by revelations of Big Tech’s security failures, founders’ above-the-law arrogance, and social media’s hospitality to bots, trolls, and fraud, here’s a remedy: honest valuations, business ethics, and the application of scientific method unmolested by greed. It’s time for a twilight of the hacker ideal.
The chastening of the outlaw hacker does not make a great campfire
I came by this a year ago, when Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, told WIRED that the hacker archetype had found its highest articulation in one Donald Trump. Like it or not, Ito argued, Trump represents the counterculture priority of disobedience over compliance. I shudder to repeat Ito’s view, but here it is: Trump was “very punk rock.”
Trump did indeed hack the American system. His was an especially crude hack, though it did the trick, chiefly because he had the field to himself; for his opponents, Trump-style violations of America’s terms of service—bald-face lying, inciting violence—were not strategically or ethically inbounds. The 1910 race to the South Pole comes to mind: The Norwegian explorers figured they could win if they left nothing edible unconsumed, and ate their sled dogs along the way as provisions. The British, committed to their geological studies as much as to winning, refused to eat theirs on principle—and lost. Trump won because he was unhindered by conscience. He ate his dogs.
Hacking a win is a question of principle. But it’s also a question of pride. In the short term, beating the system—especially a big one, like the IRS or American democracy—must yield an overman swell of supremacy to those who seem to be its slaves. But in another sense, a triumph secured by illicitly cloning wingmen (or hiding tax returns, eating huskies) doesn’t seem like a triumph at all. It’s a confession—even if a tacit one—that you weren’t good enough to win the real way.
Icarus, the documentary about Russian doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, gives a window on why the Kremlin would be so eager for ill-gotten gold medals that it would hack both the biochemistry of Russia’s best athletes and the painstaking system for making sure athletes compete clean. Russian authorities wagered that a rococo cloak-and-dagger biohacking and burglary scheme would work better than traditional training of athletes. Yes, the Russians swept the table that year—but the revelation of their widespread doping asterisks all those medals as suspicious for eternity. That cruel and gratuitous hack also irreparably damaged the bodies, reputations, and futures of the nation’s finest athletes, who are regarded as cheaters, with Russia’s team now banned from the 2018 Olympics.
Virgil Griffith now sucks down far less Kahlua than when I met him as the father of WikiScanner more than a decade ago. He has now put in time at Caltech, which he credits for beating the smart-ass hacker out of him, and turning him into a scientist. Wiser Griffith sees a bright line separating real science from the hacker culture he came from.
As he wrote to me, “The hacking culture is often more comfortable with approximations and low beauty—they just want to get on with their work—it doesn’t need to be optimal.” (Products of this hacker approach, in Griffith’s view, are the internet’s architecture and Apollo 11. The makeshift architecture of the internet may be coming back to haunt it, and early NASA race-to-space engineering has—since the Challenger explosion—given way to an ethic of extreme prudence.) By contrast, what Griffith loves about science over hacking is its concern with finding, as he puts it, “the unique and most beautiful solution to the problem which generalizes to N dimensions.”
The International Olympic Committee, not always known for its strong stands on corruption, issued a statement when it banned the Russian Olympic teams from February’s Pyeongchang Olympics. The Sochi doping “was an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games,” wrote Thomas Bach, the IOC president. “As an athlete myself, I feel very sorry for all the clean athletes … who are suffering from this manipulation … We will now look for opportunities to make up for the moments they have missed on the finish line or on the podium.”
Imagine that. A year without hackers and cheaters on the podium. And an active commitment to fairness, safeguards, compassion, and integrity? Good. Those are the things we hack at our peril.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88 is a contributor to WIRED. She also wrote about Reddit’s Change My View.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.