This presentation will focus on a literary and cultural movement of the computer underground that featured texts written in ASCII code and distributed by means of the Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) that flourished from the early-1980s until the mid-1990s. Independently-produced ASCII publications (also known as textfiles, t-files, g-files, philes, etc.) offered computer users a means by which to share information and opinions with one another. This movement, at its height, also gave rise to an innovative literature that was shaped by the technological environment in which it was produced and by the digital culture that it was connected to.
This presentation will focus primarily on two of the earliest serial ASCII publications: PHRACK andCult of the Dead Cow. These publications were founded in 1985 (shortly after the film WarGames and the book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution). These publications share several things in common: they are collaborative projects, written and edited by pseudonymous computer users in their late teens / early twenties, they contain illicit information about hacking, phreaking, and mischief, and they are uncensored and boundary-pushing. They both refuse to copyright their material, with the hope and expectation that their publications will be freely uploaded and downloaded throughout the computer underground. And most importantly, both of these publications feature literary writings that innovate new forms and styles that are strongly influenced by the techniques and tenets of hacker culture, particularly in its connection to copyright.
When the earliest ASCII zines emerged, the computer underground consisted of innumerable hubs of digital culture, primarily in the form of independently-operated, predominantly non-profit bulletin board systems. BBSes functioned much like answering services, routing incoming calls into an interface that would allow callers to send messages, upload and download files, and play door games. Most BBSes were very small and had one telephone line, meaning that only one user could access the system at any given time. These small BBSes were not directly linked to one another (unlike hypertext models), but instead were connected through their users, most of whom would frequent several other BBSes, downloading and uploading files from board to board.
Because BBS culture had no hierarchy of organization and because most BBSes were non-profit, there was no major presence of corporate media organization (e.g. newspapers, book publishers) within BBS culture. The literati of the BBS world would instead emerge from a new chorus of voices: namely, those who were willing to publish their works without any remuneration and were willing to allow their works to be copied and distributed freely throughout the computer underground. In exchange for this, the writers would have the potential to proliferate from BBS to BBS, city to city, allowing for the distant (but actual) possibility of becoming major contributors to the shape of computer underground culture. As an acknowledgement of their willingness to allow users to do what they will with the text, most of these files either exclude any statement of copyright (Phrack), or compose puns such as ‘all rights worth shit’ (Cult of the Dead Cow). The publishers implicitly acknowledge that, in order for their work to proliferate, they must allow the work to be freely downloaded from BBSes and freely uploaded to other BBSes.
If information wants to be free, what does this freedom entail? ASCII publishers allow their works to be shared, transferred, and read without cost to the reader or creator. The files can be limitlessly replicated with minimal concern for material costs. But beyond the ability to distribute and use these files freely, Cult of the Dead Cow and Phrack themselves take liberties that extend beyond use and distribution. These publications demonstrate a willingness to modify the work of others in order to produce new works of their own, in the way that we might envision software programmers using open-source code. What follows are three successive stages of open source literature: reprinting, modification, and recombination.
‘The Conscience of a Hacker’ (also known as ‘The Hacker Manifesto’) is probably the most well-known essay of the ASCII era. It was originally printed in Phrack 1:3, Phile 7 (1986). It was later republished in Cult of the Dead Cow 12, without any acknowledgement that the essay had previously been published in Phrack, and without the knowledge of the author. Moreover, cDc used ‘The Conscience of a Hacker’ to overwrite the original content of issue 12 (the transcribed lyrics of Metallica’s Master of Puppets album). For Cult of the Dead Cow, it was not only their own copyright that was ‘worth shit,’ but also the copyright claims of other publishers and writers, both digital and mainstream. In 1988, they republished a rant entitled ‘Fuck the World,’ which strongly influenced the next ten years of ASCII literature. The article, ironically, was a reprint from a print publication entitled Forced Exposure. Although the editor of cDc (Swamp Rat) does give credit to the author and original publisher in the issue, the header of the issue clearly reads ‘FUCK THE WORLD / by Swamp Rat,’ leaving generations of readers confused as to who truly authored the article, and to what extent the text is ‘by’ Swamp Rat. Here, unauthorized reprinting seems to take its place alongside hacking and explosives manuals as yet another form of illicit information.
In Cult of the Dead Cow and Phrack, freedom of information also extends to the modification of text. In academia, scholars frequently build upon the work of their colleagues, citing the findings of other scholars as part of the process of developing their own work. In ASCII publications this is also common, but without the same insistence of formality. The most parasitic example of this was the practice of tagging, where BBS sysops would obtain published text files, modify them by adding advertisements for their BBSes to the header or footer of the file, and continue to distribute the file by means of their BBS. The modified versions would proliferate, often under the same file name, which would limit the circulation of (and possibly overwrite) copies of the original version.
Phrack and Cult of the Dead Cow also modified texts, but for different reasons and in different ways. Instead of inserting their own text into other peoples’ publications, they would bring other people’s writing into their publications. This was often done without the knowledge or consent of the writer. In some instances, they would replicate a substantial portion of another text (or an entire text), and then add to or subtract from that text at will. One of Phrack’s regular features, ‘Phrack World News,’ would republish articles from corporate media outlets, occasionally interjecting their own undercutting commentary in square brackets. The inversion is clear: this is what the mainstream is saying about us, and this is what we are saying about what them.
Phrack’s most documented exploit in modification is their publication of a scaled-back version of a document that had been illegally downloaded from a ‘secure’ BellSouth computer, describing some of the workings of their Enhanced 9-11 system. Even though the contents of the file were lightweight and contained no indication of being proprietary or sensitive information, its republication demonstrated that the systems at BellSouth could be hacked, by affiliates of Phrack. The editor was indicted on charges of wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, and computer fraud and abuse.
The central concept of hacking is to generate a flexible and adaptable mastery of codes, and to develop a mastery that transcends a system. This is central to the hack and to the hacker ethos. Like any other codes, legal codes are equally susceptible to disruption and modification, as demonstrated in these four publications, which demonstrate a libertarian attitude in their handling of illicit information (in terms both content and copyright). Like any other codes, literary and linguistic codes are likewise susceptible. Even in these early publications, there is a tendency toward the recombinant (that is, writing that borrows liberally from multiple sources). From the inception of ASCII literature, writers tend to transform, and recontextualize language, style, and form from other ASCII publications and from BBS culture. Writers blur the boundaries between information and narrative, purpose and play, text and intertext.
The most prominent example of recombination that took place in this era is probably ‘The cDc #200 Higgledy-Piggeledy-Big-Fat-Henacious-Mega-Mackadocious-You-Can’t-Even-Come-Close-So-Jump-Back-K-BOOMIDY-BOOMIDY-BOOM File.’ This file, designed to simulate the scrolling display of an early-1990s BBS, follows the narrative arc of a BBS experience, with every message board and file area transforming into narrative, each narrative venturing into the most iconic tropes and mythemes of the computer underground, corporate culture, and ASCII literature: Internet Relay Chat, Teen Beat, Encyclopedia Brown, K-Rad slang, Phrack magazine, ‘The Real Pirate’s Guide,’ George Bush, Malcolm X, and old school 40-column all-caps ASCII. This issue begins to demonstrate what can be done with the structures and contents made familiar by other publications. It demonstrates a writing that takes freely and gives freely, which is never proprietary, and for whom all rights remain shit. Most importantly, it leads into the next generation of ASCII literature, where writers continue to borrow from one another, to build cultural mythologies collectively, and to follow the hacking tenets set out by Steven Levy: ‘All information should be free. Mistrust authority – promote decentralization. You can create art and beauty on a computer.’