Sometimes, just when your faith in "kids today" has been drained so bad your mind feels like a purple slurpee being rudely slurped by an obnoxious kid who is kicking the bottom of your airline seat as you ride the plane to nowhere in ever-widening circles, something comes along to renew your hopes for the future. A case in point? The debut documentary from a talented young director Ashley Schwartau: Hackers are People Too.
(A.k.a. H4CK3RS Are People Too for the folks who are 3Lit3 or HAPT for those who are into the whole brevity thing.)
The "hope renewed" impact of this documentary hit me on two levels. First and most importantly, HAPT delivers a fresh take on what it means to be a hacker. Schwartau eschews traditional media fear-mongering in favor of the classic definition of hacker: people who like to mess with technology, not to mess it up, but to tune it up, to deconstruct, understand, and re-animate everything from phones to computers to radios and doorlocks and robots. Sure, there are people who break computers and the law, but as one of the many articulate interviewees in HAPT asserts, it makes more sense to call those people computer criminals than to appropriate a word which champions of industry like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were once proud to own.
By taking a positive approach, Schwartau is able to give her audience a rare glimpse of the breadth and depth of talent that is part of the hacking community. We can plainly see that hackers come in all shapes and sizes although most seem to share two characteristics: above-average intelligence and above-average tolerance for people who are "different."
Sure, there are some snarky smart-ass remarks--the movie would have been unbelievable without a smattering of those--but on the whole we see hackers for what they are, relatively likable people. And if that observation sounds too simplistic to be a revelation I suggest you a. watch some traditional media portrayals of hackers and see just how distorted they are, b. hang out, as I have, at some hacker gatherings. As I argued many years ago in a debate at a major security conference, these kids are not amoral sociopaths, they have their own set of morals, some of which, such as tolerance, our society could use more of.
The style of Hackers Are People Too is direct and largely un-narrated, with Schwartau letting the subjects speak for themselves (which they sometimes do with considerable flair). She paired some interviewees in ways that prove effective and engaging, offering a break from solo talking heads. I also like that there are no fancy graphics grafted on to the interviews (after all, the world of hacking is historically one of monochrome command line text interfaces). There is a nice real world feel to the interviews and a refreshing lack of window dressing.
The occasional use of on-screen footnotes to explain some terminology was helpful without being condescending; if you're a geek you probably won't need them, but you shouldn't diss them--this is a film that could reach a lot of people who would ordinarily shun a subject as geeky as hackers. Who knows, some minds might even be changed, for the better.
The first public outing for Hackers Are People Too is a premiere event on August 8th at DefCon in Las Vegas. Look for it on DVD shortly thereafter. You can find the trailer on YouTube right here. You can also check the web site.