Working on the Atlanta Olympics pushed me to the limits. I got in early and processed a flood of content, posting pictures, filling grids with stats, and formatting stories for millions of readers. On the first morning of the first day, my cursor froze up. After a few attempts and recovering, I lamented the loss of half an hour’s work and rebooted my system. Nothing.
I wasn’t alone. Curses filled the air of the boiler room where I did my work. My boss laughed.
“Take a break, fellas. We’ve been hacked.”
Luckily, this was all according to plan. Hundreds of miles away, a team of white hat hackers was busy probing the site for any possible vulnerabilities. They’d found one before the bad guys did, and repairs were in progress.
I knew lots of brilliant programmers. I’d worked with coders who created browsers, voice recognition systems, search engines, and computer animation. But this was my first introduction to the out-of-the-box iconoclasts we know as hackers. Some, like my colleagues who made my job harder, are the good guys. Others steal identities, hold laptops for ransom, and trade porn. Good, bad, and in between, they have become a force in our lives and are slowly making their way into the stories we tell.
We are all familiar with the characters and tropes and of the gangster genre. Capos, gunsels, molls, wannabees, trigger men, and more populate our imaginations. You don’t need to provide a glossary of terms to watch The Sopranos. And we know about people seeking revenge, snitches, drug busts, the guy who wants to break away from the gang and go straight, and the bloody path to becoming the godfather.
For hackers, our characters, stories, and knowledge are still evolving. A bitcoin bank goes bust. Chinese hack corporations. Snowden pulls NSA’s pants down. Iran’s centrifuges tear themselves apart.
Those are some of the big stories. The small ones have to do with viruses, our credit card numbers being sold on Darknet. School administrators turning laptop cameras on in students’ bedrooms. People pretending to be friends asking us to connect on social Web sites. And an uneasy feeling of vulnerability whenever we hear about someone we know being victimized by malicious coders.
We are creating the stories that will be as much apart of world culture as Vito Corleone, Bonnie and Clyde, and Scarface. Our characters will be heroes, villains, sidekicks, and pranksters. Doing it right will be a challenge. Dramatizing code creation and activation within a full and rich hacker culture will be harder to get right and to communicate to nontechnical audiences than setting up the story of a heist, where the loot, weapons, and defenses are more familiar and tangible.
In my own writing, I’ve found comics can a helpful guide, especially for finding narrative opportunities in heroes and villains. Secret identities? Mad powers? Headline-making stunts? Find them all on the evening news. Then work them into your stories.
If you’d like to learn more about the world of hackers, join my online Savvy Authors workshop, Hackers: Pranksters, Criminals, Soldiers, and Superheroes – The good guys and bad guys of the Internet and how they work (June 30-July 13). We’ll explore the characters, tools, techniques, classic hacks, and culture of the next great genre.
Peter Andrews is a full-time, independent writer of speeches, articles, and blogs. He has dozens of short stories and hundreds of nonfiction articles in print. He has worked professionally in PR, and as a Web producer, speechwriter, and a radio producer. His How to Write Fast blog can be found here.