Images of a Hacker in Popular Culture: Why didn’t Hollywood Movies Get It Right?

Minh Le

UNST-254E

In this blog post, I do not criticize or evaluate the whole movies and their quality at all, in fact they all are great and intriguing to watch. By that mean, I decided to narrow down my research to only focus on the image of a character identified as a hacker, in order to analyze how my identity-programmer represented in popular culture as a whole. After watching three movies I chose and taking note, one thing I noticed is that even though they were made and released in different time period: Hackers-1995, The Social Network-2010, and Blackhat-2015, they all highlighted a common stereotype in which talent programmers (hackers) tend to do evil things and abusing their power over the computer to exploit operating system vulnerability. (Side note: it is not that long in time, but the one comes out later should be better or avoid common missteps revealed in the previous one, right? In fact we don’t see much improvement here)

First, let’s clarify the definition of hacker and who is a hacker exactly in case for those that are still confused by the false presentation of hacker in popular culture artifacts, and then we can further examine how they were depicted as the way they were in Hollywood movie. The term hacker itself originally meant to identify computer scientist or programmer who is particularly skilled in computer programming. As time passed by, the meaning of the word “hacker” started to diversify, and somehow Hollywood movies and popular culture misled it to a typical stereotype in which the portrayal of hackers were depicted as awkward, antisocial, malicious, and secluded in their own world: the cyberspace.

Hackers

The first artifact I analyzed is the 1995 American film Hackers directed by Iain Softley. The film is about a genius programmer, Dade, and his elite hacker group trying to uncover the truth hidden behind the criminal case. Although Hackers did a good job of portraying some elements of hacker culture, the film is notable for being the least accurate portrayal of hacking techniques as the way it shaped hacker culture in its own image. That is, in the article titled Hackers written by professional critic Jim McClellan reviewing the movie, he also shares the same thought on how Softley put all the action scenes in an immaterial realm cyberspace or map the urban landscape onto cyberspace (McClellan 1996), is failing to describe the actual hacking itself in reality.

Hacking in the movie

How people hack in the movie

After watching this movie, I noticed that Hollywood has contributed to the stereotype, which depicts hacker as young computer geniuses (with marvelous technological skills) had committed misconduct behaviors and performed illegal activities. Although there are many other hackers with different characteristics described in the movie, I will just focus on the portrayal of hacker demonstrated by the protagonist on this post. That is, my observation noted that dominant characteristics of a hacker are mischievous, ambitious, and childish, and it was shown each time when Dade intentionally used his skills to achieve his personal wishes. In McClellan’s article, I found that he mentioned the same argument that most of the hackers in the movie are representatives of cyber youth culture that tend to “take the world by storm” (McClellan 1996). His article basically suggested that Softley’s Hackers movie does a good job on the portrayal of hacking culture and the teenage characters, despite being depicted from a stereotyped pool.

The Social Network

Moving to the second artifact I chose, The Social Network directed by David Fincher, based on the real life story of the foundation of the social networking website Facebook-Mark Zuckerberg. In my opinion, The Social Network is a great movie as it has done a uniquely good job of displaying computers and hacking movement on the screen in realistic way. Although what Zuckerberg typed in his laptop doesn’t necessarily reflect real life “hacking”, it still makes sense to the audience as it depicts realistic portrayal of modern hacking. However, similar to Hackers, The Social Network also depicts the portrayal of a genius, teenage hacker in the same stereotypical manner. In the movie, Mark appears to be a very sarcastic person, which can be perceived from his conversations with others (though his appearance is to fit in the film and its genre). Again, when I narrow my focus only to the protagonist, I found the most interesting element of the film is the way it depicts Mark’s characteristics of naive, smart, enthusiastic but always struggling in the social context at the beginning (i.e. antisocial – typical stereotype of a hacker), and then transforms him into a cold-hearted businessman at the end. This is also when the paradox was clearly shown by the portrayal of the antisocial guy develops a social network.

In the article titled The Geeks: gods of capitalism by Laurie Penny reviewing the film “The Social Network”. She criticizes that the movie is basically a “redemptive parable of male nerd culture” in which a social network that connected more than 500 million people across the globe was germinated in an act of vengeful misogyny (Laurie 2010). Once again we can see how Hollywood movie depict programmer in typical stereotype of ambitious, abusing power in desperate for wealth and respect.

Blackhat

Hollywood movie finally gets hacking movement right on the screen with Blackhat, the American action thriller film directed by Michael Mann staring at Nick Hathaway, who is an experienced hacker, is assigned to a Chinese-American force investigating a series of incidents of cyber terrorism. The filmmakers clearly did their research, and the result is a remarkably accurate reflect modern hacking techniques on the screen. Instead of displaying complicated operating systems’ interfaces with high-end graphics, characters on the film “hack” using techniques exactly the same as how hacker “hacks” in the real life (using Bash, Emacs, Linux, and typing commands). That is, every time the camera shows a computer screen, the contents of the movie are built on a solid premise with most of the hacking performed is within the realm of the possible. That all being said, the movie does an excellent job on the technical side aspects.

Image of coding on-screen portrayed how real life coding looks like

Although Blackhat gets the visuals right, it accidentally fell into the common stereotype that has visited in so many previous Hollywood hacker movies when it comes to portraying hacker on-screen: programming is served for heist related purposes. In this movie, the portrayal of hacker was mainly shown by the villain, who is the responsible for a cyber attack to a Chinese nuclear facility and planning to attack more targets.

Image of a nuclear power plant explosion

Overall, the movie is very realistic and detailed with the raw materials for even though the way the plot is played out in Blackhat was too fast to be realistic, which somehow diminishes the technical accuracy.

Discussion

To sum up what I have discovered so far after analyzing those movies, the ethical issue arises as one of the cause of how the portrayal of a hacker in popular culture falls into a common negative stereotype. Before advancing to the next step where I will discuss how the portrayal of hacker should be improved, let’s recall who are the hackers one more time. According to the definition in a peer-reviewed titled The Moral Cracker?, hackers are people who expose their interest in learning about computer hardware and software by digging into the machine to learn its hidden secrets or vulnerabilities, and, ultimately, to take control of it (Baird et al. 472) Now it’s time to categorize hackers into two groups. The first group, let’s called them black hat just like in the movie, vulnerabilities are prey to hunt for and exploit to gain financial benefits. The second group, denoted as the “ethical” hacker- white hat, is composed of individuals who serve for the cyber security to identify vulnerabilities and fix them before black hats find it. Though both use the exact same methods “to hack” into the operating system, their goals are way opposite from one another.

At this point, it’s clear to identify what Hollywood movies missing on the screen, we all see now? Yes, most of the hackers represented in the movies were fallen into the first group. Therefore, to put an end to the common stereotype existed so long, future movie that portrays the image of a hacker should be taken with the approach using the concepts discussed in the article The Moral Cracker as a core to develop.

 

Works cited

Baird, Bruce J., et al. “The Moral Cracker?” Computers &Amp; Security, vol. 6, no. 6, 1987, pp. 471–478.

McClellan, Jim. “Hackers.” Sight and Sound, vol. 6, no. 5, 1996, pp. 53,3.

Penny, Laurie. “The Geeks: Gods of Capitalism.” New Statesman, vol. 139, no. 5021, 2010, p. 12.