I've written about Hackers; the 1995 movie starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Lee Miller, several times in the past. I gave my quick thoughts, explained how it got me excited and let me down, and my interactions with the hackers community before, during and after the film was released. I was driving to Miami today and I was thinking about watching the movie again for the first time in about 5 years, and decided to listen to a podcast about it. I flipped through a few, and all of them were making fun of the movie, saying how horrible it was, and how it was a waste of time for everyone involved. Admittedly the one podcast I listened to all the way to the end, they said they were a little young for the film, had no connection to early 90's culture, and no link to hacking or Macintosh computing from the era. I thought, well, since I have all these connections, and was the original target audience, why not go over it in depth?
Let's be perfectly honest: Computers of that time cost a metric fuck-ton. The introductory price of a Macintosh LC II in 1993, with 4MB of RAM, no monitor, no modem or add-ons of any kind, was $1699- or $3095 in today's dollars, allowing for inflation. Add a monitor? No problem, for $399 for the cheapest and smallest 13 inch available. 4MB RAM? Better call Kensington and hand over another $219. Modem? Toss in another $100 for a cheap one. Don't worry, I did the math; the average complete Macintosh Setup from the day cost around $4800 in today's money. Forty-Eight-Hundred.
I use the LC II as an example, because at the time you could run in to an Office Max and this was the budget solution and setup you could expect to be hard sold by some guy in a red shirt making $5 commission per sale. In 1994, the Performa/Centris/Quardra/LC lines became all one computer that ran different variants of the 68040 Motorola processor. For the low, low price of $599, you could interchange your motherboard with the next model up for an almost imperceivably increase in speed and zero functionality. This was a dark time for Mac's, but were a mainstay in school, and their system 7 environment was far more advanced than the Windows 3.1 available at the time.
Bottom Line, if you had a PC in your home, it was for the entire house to use. Your parents paid their bills and used it like a word processor, while you played games and got online to talk to friends.
My Group of Friends, and their Tech
We had an IBM DOS compatible computer in our house that my parents used, and I got on to BBS's on, all the way from the late 80's to the early 90's. At school it, was all about the Macintosh computers, System 6, and how advanced and friendly they seemed at the time. I begged my parents for one, and every time they looked, it was way out of their price range. I come from a pretty well to do family, for them to say it was out of their price range is kind of a big deal. My sister got a car for her birthday one year, and they said the computer would be more than a used car. My whole life changed when I moved to Florida after my parents divorced, and my grandfather died no sooner did we move. There was an inheritance involved and it was close to $10,000. I didn't have any friends in Florida, but I knew I wanted whatever Macintosh was available at the time. It was 1994, and the Performa's were the newest machine available in Macmall Magazine. I was able to the get the best one in the magazine, with the best monitor, keyboard and modem, no expense spared. I chose the Performa 636CD, and added the optional DOS card, a supra express external 28.8k modem, printer, ergonomic keyboard, speakers, and whatever software looking awesome at the time. It came with a free 100 minutes of America Online in the box. I was ready to go.
I met a few people at school who played with computers, one in particular asked me what kind of PC I had, and I told him a Macintosh proudly. He practically begged me to come to his house and see his setup. He only lived a few streets away in a nice neighborhood, and had the aforementioned LC II in his room, with all the bells and whistles, RAM upgrades, and even a scanner, which was kind of rare at the time. He had a commercial grade laser printer, and his previous computer, a Macplus with an external hard drive, was also plugged in as a secondary computer to test HyperCard stacks and whatever else he was working on. Color me impressed. Up until this point, I played games on mine, got on to AOL maybe once a week to use my 20-30 minutes of time I was allowed as it was $1.99 a minute, and played around in the paint program and such. I had no hacking tendencies and really never thought of it. The only time I thought about doing something malicious online was finding a way to get more internet time.
Friends and the Vibe
There was no real "Hacking Style" like the movie. That is 100% exaggerated. Even the music and the whole vibe to the movie is so off, it's crazy. Myself and others did take on some of that style and music choice of the movies. I'll explain.
Each character in the movie has their own computer. A portable of some kind, tailored to their own eccentric natures and unique to them. Well, we didn't have portables, but we sure customized. I brought my PC with me almost everywhere. I had skate stickers all over it, and screwed a handle in the back and sides so I could lug it around easier. My friend mentioned before painted his monitor, keyboard, mouse and PC jet glossy black; He was an expert typist already and didn't need to see the keys. Other friends had various stickers, markers and even graffiti on theirs to reflect their personality.
We dressed how we dressed before we starting messing around with computers. How did people dress in the 90's? Well nothing like the people in Hackers. I was in a skater/BMX community in Vermont with my older brothers before I moved to Florida, so already wore clothes and shoes that reflected I was a skater. Rollerblading was super hot at the time, and skateboarding was out. We rarely saw any skateboarders at the park, it was all blades. I met someone who was not in to the Macintosh scene, a neighbor a few streets away who had an Amiga in his room. He could play awesome games, visit BBS's and listen to music on his PC, but not get on AOL like we were doing. I instantly was hooked on Rollerblading, and it became my preferred choice of transportation in 1994. We had chain wallets, Mossimo shirts, and Airwalk shoes. We rollerbladed so much, we both became very good at it, and later competed in competitions around the South Florida area. Remember, this is all before the movie Hackers came out.
We went to Macworld Boston in 1994, me and three other guys, rollerbladed in the Subway, met new people and saw new technology. We took disks as booths with the sole purpose to overwrite the information on them and keep the free disk. People had glasses and polo's on, khaki pants and white tennis shoes. No one stood out like us, and we didn't care. We met some other people that were around our age and local and made a weekend of it, and had the times of our lives.
It was super rare to know someone that had a personal computer in their room back then. Getting online? Even more rare. That had a Macintosh? 10000000% more rare. My four friends and I were a group, we wanted to know more, we lived and died Macintosh, and hated on the 'IBM Lamerz'. First order of buisness was to find out how to get free internet, because $1.99 per minute was way too fucking much.
Introduction to Hacking
We had to get online as much as possible. Getting free AOL disks from the kiosk at the Mall or Office Max seemed like the best idea, but 150-1000 minutes free on a new account went faster than you think it would. We needed to be online 24/7. 4-5 months of using the trial accounts worked for a while, and someone we knew even made a utility that generated "Certs" so we didn't even have to go to get the disks from the mall anymore, we could generate them at home. The "Certs" started lasting less and less time, as AOL caught on to people using them for unlimited free trials. It became almost an emergency to find another way to get free AOL, or any kind of internet for that matter. One way was the local area network providers. Basically a company in the area that offered unlimited shitty internet for a cost and did not meter the bandwidth or who was logging in. Peganet was a good option at the time, and for $50 a month you could have unlimited 14.4 baud connections, then use that to log in AOL. Bad news: The price was a little high, the speed was slow, and they only had 10 nodes and we were 4 people alone. To get all online at once and for free was hard to do, and, you still had to have an AOL membership that was active and use their minutes. Makes no sense, but perfect sense at the same time. It was only a matter of time before we discovered carding.
Our aforementioned friend made a program in Director that would exploit the Zahn method of credit card generation. He got the secret of it from trading files with other in the 'MaCWaReZ' chatroom, and built a small but light program around it. These programs were like gold, and easy to download and use. Some of them even came with detailed instructions and the people that made them frequented the chatroom to help you if you got stuck. A mutual friend worked at Blockbuster provided us with Credit Card numbers and expiration dates from out of the country that were Blockbuster card holders. Bajedo Puerto Rico seems like the one we always used. Input the CC information, the generator would spawn 100 card numbers, load the card number into the next utility someone traded us, it would generate the expiration number and boom, we are off to the races.
AOL only billed at the end of the trial period, so no matter what, the card would work if everything matched the Zahn method. We would make a new account, spoof a new screen name which would just be different variants of our typical handles, and stay online for 30 days straight without interruption. We would use thousands of minutes at $1.99 a minute. 1000's every single month. This worked perfectly until AOL went to the Unlimited for $29.99 a month subscription service, which we all signed up for. Our introduction to hacking was the necessity to get online as much as we wanted without getting charged an arm and leg. We all had our own dedicated phone lines, so that was a non-issue.
Each person was good at something. I was good with the creation of OneClick pallets and editing and stealing other people's code and programs and using ResEdit to repurpose them for our use. The "Hell" tools that people used on macs that were basically ports of AOLHell from Windows 3.1 were remade in OneClick. The one that I was known for was WhiteHell. I spent weeks on end finding out ways to change the boot up screen, the backgrounds, icons and logos of the Finder operating system so we could put whatever we want there. My best friend who was great at coding loved to make things from scratch and had been coding and making HyperCard stacks since say 1. We had one friend who had access to servers of different types, and used an IBM PC as his main computer so we had multiple ways to read and store information. Another friend had a full music setup in his house, all MIDI based craziness hooked up to Roland Keyboards and was able to make MOD and MIDI files on the fly with professional software and hardware. My father was the owner of a Radio Shack franchise in town, so we could always get parts or anything we needed easily and quickly with zero cost. I had one friend that used a 286 PC that was a hand-me-down from years before, that had a 9 inch amber gas plasma display and a 9600 baud modem. He was a super fast typer, was on BBS websites locally and all across Florida constantly. He traded files with people overseas and from other states, and had a amazing library of text files and small DOS programs that could help you get free long distance calls, make Phreak boxes and so on. This same person was a fucking wizard at stealing things. David Blaine level slight of hand and thievery skills. He was very introverted but was also very interested in anything that was dangerous or highly illegal. Need some RAM? Give him a 12pk of beer and a smile and he will grab some at the mall for you. Super amazing resource.
The Movie Comes Out
My closest friend decided he did not want to watch the movie. The trailer had a young kid with VR glasses on, there were attractive women, and stylish night clubs. It was obviously a super glamorized version of the lift we were living. I did have an attractive girlfriend, but she wanted nothing to do with computers. Getting a date was hard as a nerd who spent 90% of their time on a computer and the other 10% rollerblading. I ended up going to the movies to watch it with my friend that owned the Amiga. He was the furthest away from being a PC user and hacker, but had all the access to the professional audio equipment. His dad made his own beer, and he had insane speakers that were modular to take to parties. Before we knew what a modern DJ looked like, he was it. Hooking up his computer to a giant amp and house speakers to play his newest mods, or in some instances, even early MP3's. We both LOVED the movie. We talked about it to our friends and hyped it up over all. I went to the mall the next weekend and bought the soundtrack, the Fat of the Land Prodigy album, and changed what I was wearing almost immediately to be more edgy. I knew the movie was not the reality of a Macintosh soft-hacker from south Florida, but holy shit, I wanted it to be. Before this movie came along, Pump Up The Volume was the song of our people.
I wanted to go to NY City. I was under the impression that this mystical place had a whole culture where people went by their user name and were "In the business". I spray painted my walls and brushed up on coding. I even further customized my computer's boot screen. I even distributed an early version of the backgrounds featured in the movie that I made in photoshop to the AOL download message boards. The movie came out on VHS, and I was the only one of my group that was interested in watching it. I know it's fantasy guys, but it's so close. Take the VR shit out of it. The stylized version of the net, take that out too. Those backgrounds and desktops are so similar to ours. We do the little customizations to our setups, and we even rollerbladed. The similarities were too hard to pass off as a coincidence, and at the end of the day, I desired to know how Hackers was made.
I got older. The DVD was released with zero special features. I bought the Laser Disc online for $4, it was the Deluxe version that was letterboxes. I finally had something that was close to the movie theatre version, and not some pan-and-scan bullshit. I paused the movie and would capture little details. I found out through a fan website on Geocities that the movie was filmed in Pinewood studios at the same time as another film at the time. The person had pictures of the lobby cards and even had a copy of the script signed by the actors. I had to have more. I emailed people that had anything to do with the movie, found out cast members names and found their AOL screen names and sent them direct messages. I got little details here and there. Above all, I wanted the address to Cyberdelia, the club from the movie. I learned from a low level grip/lighting person over AIM that the majority of the movie was filmed in London. All the indoor shots, schools, apartments, bedrooms, clubs and so on were all purpose built sets made in the UK. My hopes of every finding Cyberdelia were gone. I know from watching the movie that SOME of it had to have been filmed in NYC. Grand Central Station? I could go there. I wanted little details no one knew. Meanwhile, I picked up the second and third iterations of the soundtrack at the mall in the bargain bin for $2 each at FYE.
I taught myself HTML and made several fan sites about movies I liked, and begged for more information.
What you need to get started
To be a Macintosh Hacker in the 90's you needed a certain set of lucky things happen to you:
- Have nice or wealthy parents that had 5k +++ to throw away on a computer for you
- Have nice or wealthy parents that were willing to keep your computer upgraded
- Have parents that were willing to give you freedom and access to some kind of money
- Be lucky enough to be allowed to have this car-priced piece of equipment in your room
- Lived in a heavily populated area to meet people with the same circumstances or a way to meet those people online, or both
- Pray that they also used Macintosh computers, had access to some way to get online, or trade files with you
- Had friends or resources that were willing to research or help you in some way, and introduced you to hacking, warez rooms, or some kind of entry level coding
- Had student access to school Macintosh computers that could be sourced for parts
- Have friends with wildly different sets of skills that span across multiple different operating systems and computer types
- A basic understanding of how computers worked and communicated with each other