The 1995 cult classic depicts a vision of techies as stylish, punk and sexy – over twenty years later that aesthetic and attitude is nowhere to be seen
I’ve been talking about Hackers for months.
If you don’t know, Hackers is a 1995 cult classic about unnaturally hot teenage whiz kids. The gang spends their days roller-blading through traffic and geeking out over thick-looking computers. They program their high school’s sprinklers to go off during the day. They go deep into cyberspace, which is animated like a K-hole. The lead guy Dade, with his pre-Y2K gelled tips, is eventually framed by a sinister corporation; chaos ensues over a floppy disc. The kids band together to stick it to the man, all while looking fabulous.
Stylistically, it’s Party Monster meets Spy Kids, a lightly-genderfucked crime flick with gadgets and misfits, revisionist high school in rave colors. The plot is convoluted; Dade is a dick. When I bring up Hackers to groups of people, more than half of them shout, “Oh my god, that movie!” They love it too.
What makes Hackers so iconic? Obviously, there’s the style. Who could forget Angelia Jolie playing pinball in motorcycle shin-guards, a pansexual dreamboat when people still called themselves pan? There’s also the bounty of genderfluid and cross-dressing characters. In a dream sequence, Angelina’s character Kate gets off to the image of Dade in lingerie. That seems pretty advanced for a low-budget teen movie. Ramón is a veritable gay icon when he and buddies snap, “Spandex is a privilege, not a right!”
I think Hackers’ appeal to 90s babies like me goes even deeper than the looks. The kids in Hackers, for all their techno slang, aren’t techies. Or at least, not yet. They’re spunky and scrappy. They quote the Hacker’s Manifesto at length. While Dade frets about college applications, my guess is that he and his friends would find Palo Alto quite lame. These days it’s easy to forget the time, not so long ago, when techies were a fringe group and the Internet uncharted territory. How did the techie evolve from spiky-haired outsider to model consumer, cyberpunk to plutocrat?
“How did the techie evolve from spiky-haired outsider to model consumer, cyberpunk to plutocrat?”
The transformation is most evident in style: from cybergoth to flip-flops. This self-righteous slumpiness is part of tech’s rhetoric, bespeaking a fetish for chill. “Just be yourself!” the corporate posters declare. As in, don’t dress up, don’t try too hard, relax. This invocation to be yourself is interpreted in an opposite way in Hackers, wherein the motley gang of cyber geeks is nothing if not flamboyant. Dade and co try hard to stand out, in antic and fashion. When did the uniform shift from Waschowski-esque pleather to pajamas at work? Hackers has me thinking.
What is hacking, literally? It implies a breaking and entering, a culture jam. Innumerable articles on “life hacks” come to mind: intermittent fasting, mug cakes, jeans in the freezer. I’m also reminded of a book I read in which the ex-CIA author outlined all the ways America could/would be ruined by Russian teens hacking our power grid. He described a scenario, allegedly hypothetical, in which all the self-driving cars in San Francisco were programmed to drive off the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m also reminded of this Oneohtrix Point Never video. What unites these visions of hacking?
Maybe the word play.
I hear this word literally every single day. It’s as ubiquitous in the Bay as ‘hella’ or ‘witchy’. The term has expanded to mean many things. I think its usage can be plotted across three dominant categories, which often overlap: corporate, Californian, and kinky.
Paradoxically, play is a word you’ll hear a lot in job interviews here in San Fran. It’s central to the way start-ups and pop-ups (playful words in and of themselves) brand their products and vibe. I remember when people talked about Facebook and Twitter’s headquarters with wonder: ping pong tournaments, beer on tap, silent discos, unlimited snacks. Dave Eggers’ so-so book The Circle spoofs the paradisal vibes of a company modelled on Google: all the employees are young, chirpy, rabidly social. They play hard, work hard, until the distinction becomes moot. Corporate bonding games abound.
On paper, a workspace devoted to chillness and good vibes sounds great. But it’s weird that this definition of play has translated into something so literally kiddish. When did the techno-utopian emphasis on personal freedom boil down to the freedom to wear a onesie to work? In my humble opinion, the manic need to scream “WE’RE FUN!” betrays a darker motive. Sometimes it feels like this obsession with play is the tech industry’s attempt to shirk responsibility, to deny the millennial shift of power from an ambiguous Them to this new crop of nerds. You can’t be an underdog and The Man. Old-school San Franciscans like my mom still hiss when the unmarked Google Bus goes by, shuttling techies from the Mission to Mountain View.
“They have a barista onboard,” she growls. “How cute.”
This corporate definition of play bleeds into a more Bay Area-specific definition, that of my mom’s generation: play as self-discovery, as self-improvement and spiritual journeying. I’m thinking of ecstatic dance and Radical Faeries, birth charts and energy healing, things I find myself drawn to despite high risk of preciousness. I’m a white girl with gut problems who used to juice wheatgrass for $15/hr; I can’t help but feel myself called. Emily Witt has a lovely essay about attending orgasmic meditation workshops in San Francisco. From de-escalation to fermentation, the Bay Area loves its workshops.
This second definition of play has its roots in hippie culture. It implies a West Coast way of being, of going with the flow and feeling things out. This sense of play is more introspective than the aforementioned corporate shenanigans; it suggests an inward exploration, a nudging past interpersonal or sociopolitical limits, as invisible to the outside eye as Kegels. The game is not Ping Pong, but something more general, something you’re playing whether you like it or not.
“Find your edge!” my yoga teacher loves to say. “Play with that edge. Be a little kitty cat.” Sometimes this playfulness embarrasses me, especially in a stuffy room with mixed genders and ages; sometimes I wag my tail with glee.
Start-up culture has glommed onto this Californian sense of play, incorporated mindfulness into its work model. It’s no accident that Silicon Valley is where it is. I get why the idyllic weather and probiotic food would be attractive to an industry that deals, at least partly, in paradigm shifts. People like to experiment here, with drugs and family structures; our traditions are more flexible. Tech and the New Age share, if nothing else, an interest in alternative realities (which is probably why both groups intermingle at Burning Man). I can totally see how the earliest techies, still cruising on the queerness of the Internet, saw this coastal city, with its queens and cool breezes, as the ideal jumping-off point for their investigations in utopia. Long before tech, people here were already questioning the Real.
“I can totally see how the earliest techies, still cruising on the queerness of the Internet, saw this coastal city, with its queens and cool breezes, as the ideal jumping-off point for their investigations in utopia”
Finally, there’s the kinky definition of play. Kink, like the New Age, is a Bay Area staple. Within the kink community, play has a specific meaning. It connotes a vast range of activities: play parties, piss play, playmates, edge play. I love reading about San Francisco in the nineties, the heavy players and the S&M scene, the ubiquity of leather pants (paralleled in Hackers), hardcore sex in a meteorologically softcore city. I picture Mary Gaitskill-ish heroines getting their nipples pierced in lesbian bars, before all the lesbian bars had to close.
Of course I’m romanticising. The kink community has always had its battles with inclusivity. Sometimes it’s terribly tacky. But kink, for all its issues, remembers the important thing: that to play, you must have rules. A game is defined by its rules, just as a fantasy is defined by its limits and a utopia by its borders. Most workshops begin with a laying out of the ground rules. You can break rules, defy them, make up your own, but there is no play without them. It’s an almost Biblical trope: the more powerful someone gets, the less they feel like the rules apply. This is something the tech industry, for all its high fives and brunches, should not forget.
The Folsom Street Fair (a.k.a kinky Christmas) was a few weeks ago in San Francisco. Matrix looks were trending: little sunglasses, long trench coats, PVC. There was, naturally, a lot of playing: pups playing in their human-sized pens, adult babies sloshing their beer. Some babies coyly wore jeans over their diapers, so that only the pink stretchy band poked out. Navigating the crowd, I found myself thinking, for the millionth time, about Hackers. I studied the tourists, normal-looking people in button-downs and jeans. In a sea of furries and flashers, it’s the fully-dressed dude in the boat shoes who looks the creepiest. So you could say that the Folsom Street Fair, for one sunny Sunday, hacked the city, or at least, three blocks of it. For a whole afternoon I could indulge my 90s fantasies of a cheaper, freakier San Francisco, poppers in the air.
To return to Hackers. The film is nothing if not playful: the quippy dialogue, the sexual tension, the swirly depictions of cyberspace. The characters whiz through New York, forever unsupervised. They are, importantly, underdogs. They hack into major corporations’ databases by guessing the password — G-O-D. As with sex games and mind games, sex-positivity workshops and intentional communities, hacking is dependent on the rules: in this case, how cleverly you can break them.
There’s a part of the movie where Kate and Dade make a bet as to who can pull off the craziest hack. They cancel a cop’s credit cards, change his legal status to deceased. They’re high schoolers fucking around, pushing the limit to see how far they can go. It’s serious play, but it’s play nonetheless. What’s different now is who sets that limit. Who has the power? Who is G-O-D? I picture an unsettling cross-breed between the suited Agents in the Matrix and a Stanford grad in a onesie. With transhumanism trending amongst tech’s major players, the question of godliness becomes literal.
“Hackers presents a delicious vision of cyber delinquency, released at a time when the Internet was freaky and new. It’s important to remember the time when cyberspace seemed like another utopia”
The game changes when the nerds are the ones making the rules. Then it’s no longer really playing, no matter how much fun you’re having, no matter how many times you repeat the word fun. It’s not play: it’s jurisdiction, albeit with a zany edge.
Hackers presents a delicious vision of cyber delinquency, released at a time when the Internet was freaky and new. It’s important to remember the time when cyberspace seemed like another utopia, Donna Harraway meets the Vengaboys, a space in which the stringent codes of gender and sex could be scrambled at will. Hackers reminds me of the queer potential of the Internet, of any space where the body can be remade. In real life, too, you can hack the body, via probiotic foods or a fabulous look or, in time, cryogenics. I can be a kitty cat in yoga class. If I was so inclined, I could be a big bad baby. Hackers inspires me to keep playing with my options, online and off. It also inspires me to resurrect my trench coat. Life hack: leather pants.