Cult of the Dead Cow

I’m just going to be honest with you. I haven’t read your book. There are a few exceptions. In that case, I did read your book and I loved it! Such a good read! And I learned a lot!

The truth is I’m kind of a slow reader and have come to be pretty picky about what books I read, partly because I don’t read that many of them. And the other truth is I have a bunch of incredible friends who are pumping out books all the time. So, this has been a problem for me for a couple decades. I probably read 1/10th of the books my friends write. It’s inexcusable and I feel pretty bad about it.

From time to time, I do read a friend’s book. And that’s awesome. But then there’s another problem: I didn’t read it when it came out, rather months or even years later. Then, I’m embarrassed to mention that I read it, because… dude that book is from a long time ago. Why didn’t you read it when it was fresh and new and relevant?

cult of the dead cow book cover

Anyway. I read my buddy’s book, Cult of the Dead Cow: How the Original Hacking Supergroup Might Just Save the World. It was good! I really liked it! I learned a lot! But it was from 2019. When it came out it, it broke news and was politically relevant: Beto O’Rourke, a member of the secretive hacker group, was a leading Presidential candidate.

But that was then and by now, no one really cares. But it was a cool scoop for Joe and it could have been a bigger deal if politics went a different direction.

But the book’s not really about Beto, anyway. It’s generally about a secretive, kind of snarky, juvenile group of misfit kids at the dawn of the internet era who found each other on message boards and called themselves the silly, grandiose Cult of the Dead Cow. Apparently they were an influential and early hackers group with many spinoffs and connections through all hackerdom.

The hacking, according to the book, has its roots in stealing long-distance telephony from the phone companies. Back when long-distance calls were a significant expense and even more so when young people were trying to use early internet dial-up services, sometimes long-distance to sign on to message boards, etc. Getting cheap or free access to telephony was important for young proto-hackers. And the long-distance companies of the era, MCI, AT&T, could be scammed or hacked or thieved. I remember those days: dial up internet. Long-distance calls to sign into your email account. Crazy expensive long-distance bills if you weren’t careful. Finding work-arounds that weren’t necessarily legal, but which only victimized big, faceless, unpopular telephone giants.

The early hackers were pranksters, they wrote angsty screeds and manifestos. They were teenagers in Texas. They were the heirs of hippies and Timothy Leary, the beat poets and dadaists. Joe documents some real connectivity — including some family relations — between these social and cultural threads.

This is my (and Joe’s) precise cohort. I’m not a hacker and not a coder. But all of the emergence of the hacking is contemporaneous with my own life and experience and gestalt. As I read the book, I realize how many points of contact in my life relevant to this hackerworld. I had these early computers. My dad brought home a modem with a telephone cradle. I mean, look at this.

phone-cradle modem with old style phone

We had that! I remember signing on to message boards with these tenuous contraptions and feeling like I had discovered a new continent. I remember making text art, the clicking keyboards, borrowed phone lines. I remember the excitement of connecting to people across distance. Text chatting with an anonymous person was a wonder.

I also remember the angst, the snark, the sarcasm. The feeling that big systems were obsolete and unfeeling. The sense that inter-generational conflict was important and good, old people don’t understand, government is ridiculous and oppressive, leaders are all hypocrites. Part of it, was my adolescent stage of life, but another part of it was the state of sociopolitical culture. It all feels long ago now, and quite naive.

And yet, it was always a tangential interest for me. Never a primary focus.

One thing I sorta knew, but sorta didn’t, is that electronic hacking isn’t good or bad. It can be either, or both. It can be malevolent and destructive, but that malevolence and destruction can be directed at evil institutions or people. It can be silly and absurdist, but in the process cause deeper reflection and change. Some hackers feel they are doing a public service by finding flaws in systems and bringing them to light. Hackers often feel they are taking the side of consumers of software and technologies who are left vulnerable by big companies to the depredations of malign forces. These hackers are demonstrating the vulnerabilities and, therefore warning consumers, holding companies accountable, and generally improving the system. Sort of a consumer reports for technology. We don’t think consumer reports is doing a bad thing when they show that a car might light on fire in a low-speed collision, or might flip over on a turn because it’s top-heavy. Testing products in controlled conditions is important and valuable.

Joe documents who members of the Cult of the Dead Cow actually coined the concept of “hactivism” which purports to using hacking skills and techniques to subvert oppression and undermine totalitarian systems. Launched with a focus on dissidents and exiles from Tibet and activism in China, hacktivism did a lot of advance a theory that technology could be subversive to oppression. The idea that hackers could advance democracy and human rights did a lot to improve the public idea of hacking and spawned uncountable initiatives and projects to do just that.

Of course some (many?) hackers, and increasingly governments and organized crime, are not hacking for public purposes and aren’t trying to improve the systems. They’re exploiting weaknesses for financial or strategic advantage. And hacking isn’t inherently good or bad. The same activities and techniques can be used for either or both. Some hackers have been on both sides. Some hackers view the government as the enemy. Others come to work for the government and feel they are working for the good guys. There are, apparently, many fractions, divisions, rivalries, and complicated ethical and moral questions. “Soon CDC’s descendants would be playing on all sides of an increasing complex struggle among spies in many countries, their technology suppliers, and the enemies of those suppliers”

Joe has written other books on the emergence of Russia and mobsters into the hacking enterprise. But this book describes some of the linkages between the early US hackers and more sinister backers and work — sometimes in specific people. This led, eventually, to 2016 DNC hacking and strategic release of emails, and to SolarWinds which is in the news today.

Joe describes “the tech industry’s amoral drift of the 2000s” even while the internet became both increasingly indefensible and more critically integrated into every economic sector and crevice. The amoral drift has left us today with little to anchor ourselves as governments and malevolent pirates backed by plutocrats have made the internet a sea of predation. Joe’s epilogue is powerful: “The more powerful machines become, the sharper human ethics have to be….serious applied thinking is a form of critical infrastructure.”

Joe’s book gives insight into all this, but doesn’t really try to enclose or fully explain it. I am left with more questions than answers after reading his book.

The book profiles some of the major figures in the Cult of the Dead Cow who are themselves, major figures in hacking community and cyber-security. And while it’s unavoidable to get into some of the personal details, Joe is respectful of their privacy and dignity. He doesn’t delve too deeply into psychology, even when there are obviously interesting characters to explore. I suppose it’s not what he wanted to do, but I was wishing for more. Because as I learned more about these people and their milieu, I also started wanting to understand their motives and drives better. What pushes teenagers, overwhelmingly male, to throw themselves into these highly technical, obscure, intensive pursuits? How is it different or similar to more traditional and conventional pursuits of kids those ages: sports, partying, etc. As I said above, I feel like I could have been one of these hackers and had many of the same ingredients in life. Yet, I’m not. Why them and not me?

I should note that Joe is a great writer and the book is easy and engaging. It’s not technical or obscure, and even someone who is only marginally interested will find it a good read and will learn things that will help them understand the news.

ENDS///

I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.

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