Friday, 6 July 2012

From Cyberspace to Composite: Two Fantasies of Hacking

Once upon a time, in the early years of the internet, nobody knew you were a dog.

In those days, nobody knew that I wasn’t really a 21-year-old graphic designer from Britain either. Every night, in the witching hour, I would sneak down to my father’s study, furtively unlock the door, and spend all night flirting on IRC with well-built Australian women. Tom Brindle had left the key in the lock once after losing a particularly savage drinking contest to our mother, and I cycled the three miles into town to get a copy cut. From then on, it didn’t matter who ‘sat’ on my ‘lap’ or what weird shit I wanked to, because it happened in a place as placeless and secret as Narnia.

Watching the trailer for Ubisoft’s forthcoming Watch Dogs reminded me of those nights because I feel sure they couldn’t have come from the same planet. Ubi’s game belongs to the world of Foursquare, Girls Around Me, and geotagged Twitter posts, where I can sit on a train and watch my best friend’s kid nephew’s tween Twitter spats. But I didn’t get social networking until I was 18 and didn’t ‘get’ it for another year after that. My adventures took place in the world of another hacking game: Introversion’s 2001 classic Uplink. Existing more than a decade apart, these games represent two very different fantasies of what role technology plays in our lives.

In an article for the New Inquiry last week, Nathan Jurgenson wrote about our fetishization of ‘authentic’ non-digital real life in an ever more connected world.
Digital information has long been portrayed as an elsewhere, a new and different cyberspace, a tendency I have coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct. The common (mis)understanding is experience is zero-sum: time spent online means less spent offline. We are either jacked into the Matrix or not; we are either looking at our devices or not. When camping, I have service or not, and when out to eat, my friend is either texting or not. The smartphone has come to be “the perfect symbol” of leaving the here and now for something digital, some other, cyber, space. 
But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say “IRL” to mean offline: Facebook is real life.
These paragraphs could accurately summarise the distance between Uplink and Watch Dogs. Jurgenson also links to an essay on the same site by sociologist PJ Rey, The Myth of Cyberspace – which is also worth reading. The “magical aura” of “glowing terminals” that its intro describes was the one that lit my pimpled face.

Sure, Watch Dogs isn’t out yet, but go watch its nine-minute gameplay trailer and you’ll find enough on its bones to chew over. The player stalks through rainslick streets past citizens absorbed in their phones (clearly this is the same world that incited Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together). Slipping into a theatre past milling crowds, turning your face away from security guards, you use your own phone to mess with those around you – eavesdropping on their calls, jamming their signals, or crashing their cars. Here, as on Facebook, everyone knows you’re a dog – they just don’t know it’s you who keeps stealing their slippers.

It’s all a far cry from Uplink, which presents itself as a series of menu screens. The game involves connecting to and various servers scattered across a neon world map and deploying software to crack their defences. To avoid detection, you must route your signal through multiple systems, drawing a jagged line across the map from your computer to your target, whose custodians will begin tracing you along this line once your hack is detected. It’s a perfect simulation of movie-style hacking (chiefly Goldeneye). Programs with names like ‘Password Cracker’ and ‘Proxy Bypass’ are booted; your trace alert beeps faster and faster as you race to wipe the evidence of your intrusion before someone tracks you to your home IP. “We’d rather not reveal that at this time,” type anonymous benefactors in the fake chat client where you pick up your missions.

Best of all, everything looks like shimmering blue nothing, and every sound effect sounds like robot sex on a glass harmonica. Uplink’s interface is nerd equivalent of that white substance cruise ships are made of. You know the stuff: it’s something like metal, something like plastic, something like bone china, but it doesn’t look like anything of this earth. Seemingly unchained from mere resources, mere materials, it resembles pure money reified into frictionless fact. Well, Uplink’s menus are made of Internet, of Cyberstuff. They are the same bright, smooth substance as John Perry Barlow’s ‘Declaration of the Indepenence of Cyberspace’, which castigates governments as “weary giants of flesh and steel” on behalf of a world of “thought itself”, a “civilisation of the Mind” which is “both everywhere and nowhere” – but “not where bodies live”. Our weary meatbag world, declares Barlow, was “based on matter, and there is no matter here.” It was the last gasp of a particular breed of techo-utopianism which was no doubt fun while it lasted.

There is an obvious contrast with Watch Dogs. Its slow-motion shooting sequences where raindrops glisten as they hang suspended in the air, and its loving simulation of wind rustling in the trees, is as interested in materiality as any high-fidelity shooter whose developers painstakingly recorded the clunks and clicks of an AK-47 in a bare concrete space. More than that, the player of Watch Dogs is embodied as an avatar in a real space. It leashes itself to the weighty third-person of Uncharted/Gears/God of War (a format that looks like it’s becoming as robust and familiar a platform on which to build new ideas as the FPS was for the developers of System Shock 2, The Void, and Amnesia). 

In this sense, Watch Dogs resembles a trad immersive sim like Deus Ex or Thief. Hacking skills are just a way to probe and exploit the vulnerabilities of a physical space, and are linked to your existence (and vulnerability) as a meatbag walking around Chicago. Uplink, however, is all about distance. Its hacking depends on your physical absence, on the delicious tension of interfering from afar – and that comes across in every aspect of its design.

(I didn’t really have pimples, by the way. That was artistic exaggeration. My skin has always been perfect.)

Introversion no doubt chose simple menus and maps for their game because they had no money. Yet they also allow for Uplink’s central conceit: that the game could all be real. Once it boots, the player creates a fake identity and ‘logs in’ to a remote computer stored in some dusty warehouse. If you get caught, you’re told, federal agents will confiscate this computer and Uplink Corporation will be forced to dissolve your identity in order to protect your real self.

While you only spend about 10% of your time on the world map, you use it repeatedly, reinforcing the global nature of your crime spree. You can park your ‘Gateway’ PC in Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York or Chicago, so that wherever you live, it can be far away from you. Your digital tendrils spread from server to server across oceans and continents; you hack servers in Japan, Alaska, the Ivory Coast, the Indus delta. And yet, although the world map has two dimensions, the game space really only has one – or one and a half, if we’re generous. Where in the world you lay your linear trail is mostly irrelevant except in special cases (like getting into mainframes through secondary systems). This supposed space has the topography of a phone line, its movement limited to closer or further away.

What really matters is how long it is: how many relays you can put between yourself and your target. Distance is the sine qua non of hacking, and the more of it you have, the better (a principle taken to extremes in this speedrun).  Making this distance difficult to cross is also important. Though national borders mean little, graphical borders around compromised systems signify how safe you are behind them, with a full border if you have admin access, a dotted line if you have a user login, or none at all if you are unprotected. And then there are the nested layers of protection placed between you and your first connection:  first your computer, then your Uplink client, then your hacker alias, and finally your far-flung Gateway – not to mention the motion sensors and locked doors you’ll surround it with if you can afford to (just in case the Feds come knocking). Once you’ve got the right HUD upgrade, even the security systems of a foreign computer are represented as a line you must traverse. Monitors, Proxies and Firewalls lie ‘between’ you and your target, which you must disable or break through.

The one time you are closest to your targets is when you phone up system administrators and record their puzzled “hello?” Analysing these tones allows you to break through voice locks on certain mainframes. But as you sit there silently feeling the voyeuristic thrill of being so close and yet so far away, their voices are fuzzed by the pseudo-intimacy of the telephone. The tinny, static-laden words expressing simultaneous distance and closeness.

In his introduction to The Hacker Crackdown, which concerns “the electronic frontier of the 1990s” and stars the cast of Uplink (as well as the Electronic Frontier Foundation which published Barlow’s essay), Bruce Sterling identifies the telephone as the original gateway to cyberspace:

Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. The indefinite place out there, where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.

It’s appropriate that this is the only ‘place’ you’ll ever hear another human’s voice in Uplink. It’s also this passage that Rey cites in ‘The Myth of Cyberspace’ when he describes cyberspace as a “travel narrative”:
How can the other person on the line be so far and yet seem so near? To overcome this disconnect, we create for ourselves a little expository travel narrative. We begin to imagine information as occupying space and then imagine this space as something that can be traversed and experienced, an alternate geography that provides a new path to reach the other person on the line. And though we know we are indulging in a fantasy, we can’t help but take it seriously. 
This serves as a good description of Uplink’s world map. It is not really space, because relative positions and distances for the most part don’t exist. Instead, it is a spatial metaphor, loosely associated for suggestive purposes with thousands of miles of real geography, but primarily existing to make hacking comprehensibly tense to a novice player. Like the idea of cyberspace itself, it simultaneously depends on and ignores the geography of Earth: depends on it for the thrill of remote intervention, but ignores it so that intervention can actually take place. Tellingly, the game’s basic verb is, diegetically as well as literally, ‘to click’. Using this verb to link points on its world map is a perfect micro-rhetorical expression of the way distance vanishes in a globally connected world. (c.f. the world domination map in MolleIndustria's Leaky World, a playable version of Julian Assange's theory that technology has allowed power elites to conspire and connect more efficiently than ever before).

By contrast, Watch Dogs simulates a fully three-dimensional space where distances and positions have a similar significance to that of meatspace. It is clearly a world where “bodies live”. The first obstacle the player faces is a queue, which is a literal meat barricade. Slipping past it, perilously close to security guards, she then uses her own avatar’s body as bait: his physical presence influences and changes the situation. Later, wind will blow the tails of his coat and rain will soak his shoulders. He will throw himself bodily over car bonnets and people will get beaten up or shot in the head (perhaps too much, as Alec Meer lamented). And in order to escape, he’ll need to actually haul his body out in a car, rather than merely withdrawing his ethereal presence and cleaning up his trail of ectoplasm behind him. If Uplink’s basic verbs are clicking and typing, Watch Dogs’ are ‘walk’ and ‘use’ as well as ‘select from menu’. On this fundamental level, its third-person perspective involves being embodied in a way Uplink’s menu screens don’t allow.

Of course, both games rely on an interface between the real and the digital. Uplink involves ruining people’s lives by getting them arrested and changing their social security records so that they’re dead or divorced. But these details are the sparse interface points for two worlds which are kept separate (see also the HL2 mod Dystopia). Watch Dogs instead resembles Jurgenson’s description of “an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology”. The “digital shadows” you hack from the phones of those around you – “Charged with plagiarism”, “Newlywed”, “Credit rating low”, “Teaches Krav Maga” – are immediately suggestive of Jurgenson’s “real people with real bodies, histories and politics”.  The game signals its augmented approach to digital space right at the beginning of the trailer, which shows points of data and information as a map that overlays the real world and approximates the shape of its buildings. Besides, hacking in Watch Dogs has immediate and visible feedback, like a car crash, whereas Uplink deliberately distances you from the consequences of your actions. The only sign you have that somebody has been arrested is a dry note in a news report and the eerie ringing of a phone that they’ll never pick up.

This is all a massive paradox when you step back and look at it. I’m claiming that Watch Dogs is more ‘real’ (aesthetically) because it simulates a completely fake body and a fake world, and that Uplink is less ‘real’ (aesthetically) because it faithfully replicates the experience of using technology in the early nineties. On the contrary, Uplink’s appeal has always been that it feels real. By extending a diegetic explanation to the player’s own existence (you are just ‘logging in’), it closes the gap between the game’s world and the player’s – and this is the source of its fantastic tension. The beeping of the tracer comes to seem more urgent than bullets ever could (no doubt it helps that there are no save games and failure is permanent). Supposedly, an old PC Gamer UK hack once booted up the game to review it and immediately shut it down because they believed it was actually connecting to the internet.

Ironically, then, there is a sense in which Watch Dogs looks more like cyberspace than Uplink: the former’s world is digital and separate to our own, while the latter’s mingles and interpenetrates with it. This is not an ontological difference, because a videogame is also a cyberspace; Ubisoft’s Chicago and Introversion’s internet are both “expository travel narratives” that players use to understand and structure information passing between them and a computer (Kieron Gillen was literally correct when he referred to games writers as “travel journalists to imaginary places”). Instead, the difference is between a realist aesthetic and a realistic frame.  As Ian Watt showed in The Rise of the Novel, the former, what John Barth called “bourgeois realism”, is simply a set of formal characteristics with no necessary relation to the ‘real world’: a particular type of modelling, a particular type of 3D, a particular type of control system.

On the one hand, this distinction somewhat subverts the games’ identities. On the other hand, it reinforces them with a new twist. Uplink’s two worlds are neatly divided: one is utterly digital, and the other exists outside the game, which blurs it with the real world by cannily declining to model it. Watch Dogs, meanwhile, extends the realm of the fake and the digital to contain the world where bodies live, weaving them together in one big hyperreal mashup. Its world is one where the difference has ceased to exist because both are being modelled on the same ontological level (inside the computer game). Its digital world has been realised, its real world digitised. To misquote Ken Auletta, it has been Googled.

In truth, ‘the internet’ doesn’t exist anymore. There is rarely any point speaking of it as if it was separate from the rest of the world – which is a cyberspace too. Uplink’s fantasy of separation (or separatism?) is now barely coherent. But then, it was always based on a Hollywood vision of the electronic frontier. In their use of space and distance, and the aesthetic choices that surround them, Watch Dogs and Uplink seem to bookend an ontological shift in how we think about the internet, a move from fantastic digital dualism to rhizomatic complexity. Now the only question is whether Ubi’s game can capture this moment as brilliantly as Uplink captured mine.


  1. Well, sort of.

    The thing about Uplink is that it does faithfully replicate much of the experience of actual hacking: constant misdirection and fear of being traced. It's abstracted, sure, but you scan ports, crack passwords, delete logs. The majority of the slow patient work revolves around not leaving traces of your presence.

    Watchdogs, by contrast, is very much Hollywood hacking. It's pretty much precisely what hacking isn't. Information spills freely from every source, and no care need be taken to avoid leaving traces of your tapping into it. Its "integration" is the big lie; what you are seeing as modern, as 21st century, is actually just the bound from fiction rooted in reality to fiction that isn't.

    It's easy to be fooled in these days of social networking and smartphones into thinking that everything has changed. It hasn't. Particularly instructive is the recent case of HBGary, where Aaron Barr made the same mistake; he believed he could track movers and shakers in Anonymous through tying IRC logins to Facebook activity. This was not the hubris that brought him down; telling them he planned to unmask them was, whereupon his company's servers were turned inside out, the data released to the world, and Anonymous, finding out what he had, chortled, "Publish and be damned". Those in the Lulzsec subset of Anonymous (some of whom may have been involved with HBGary according to some reports) were not even particularly professional in hiding their traces, which came back to bite them in short order; hubris ends careers.

    The roots of the pretty interface to computing you see run as deep as ever they did. The duality persists, it's just less visible. People have largely lost the habits of net hygiene, of enforcing separation, so personal data is more easily come by than it was (not as easily as Watchdogs makes it seem though) but from the hacker's point of view, their own hygiene has to be immaculate. Uplink made that hygiene essential, and so remains infinitely more true to the reality than Watchdogs can ever be, for all its gorgeous graphics and 21st century trimmings.

  2. Great piece, as always.

  3. I was going to say what Quirk said, but he already said it. Instead I'll add a bit.

    Like it or not all the slick chrome in the user interfaces of today's software is running on basically the same technology it was in the 1990s. Under it all are modems, routers, backbones, and most of the same languages, standards and protocols (sometimes with higher level abstractions or a few new features, but not fundamentally changed). Though our computing is more ubiquitous, the procedure for attacking your cell phone as we both sit in Starbucks - I on my linux netbook, you on your android phone, say - is not drastically different from the procedure I may have used to hack your corporate server from my 486 two decades ago. In fact, while our physical proximity is coincidentally greater in the former scenario, the trackless void of cyberspace is such that the distance between us can be more vast than it was in the latter. Especially from your perspective, in which (if you are even aware of the intrusion) some nameless entity is interfering in your life from beyond a chasm you lack the knowledge to cross.

    Augmented Reality and ubiquitous computing is not the merging of cyberspace and meatspace; it is a medium through which the two fundamentally different geographies can more easily touch each other. While you may mistake this abstraction as closer to reality, many of the technologists who build that abstraction for you, including myself, still understand its real underlying nature.