Hacking Away Just For … the Hell of It?

It’s a little hard for this preflood lady to understand the kick. Why did this herd of hackers jam up Yahoo exactly? Because it was there? Because they could? Because they were protesting, expressing ire against things running loose in cyberspace, against people ordering socks from J. Crew or making e-trades between folding the laundry and the afternoon siesta? Is somebody mad that somebody else is wired to the mall or can sell that old painting in the garage with the mere click of a mouse? It’s not clear to me where’s the beef or the stew or the horse that you’ve led to water. Is this just Luddite smashing of the machine in hopes that we can return to the days of Bonanza ? Or is it something else, more ominous, more frightening-is it possible that the very capacity for unity, for global economy, for communication with far-away merchants and builders of squidgets, has made the forces of darkness themselves unite, bind together as never before, to pull down the structures that others make, to stamp on the communal sandcastle and run, a pack of naysayers at the gates of civilization?

Perhaps this is just the first wave of bad-breathed, unwashed hordes carrying torches, dressed in animal skins that were not intended for the runways of Paris, intending to carry us back to the time when drums beat out the messages from hilltop to hilltop and a long distance call was across the valley and you needed very good lungs to get it there.

I suppose that the hackers who coordinated the mess of a slowdown at Yahoo are the same folks who write the Unabomber fan letters in his cell. But “Why?” is the question. Satan, that horned fellow with a pitchfork, used to be a respectable player in our affairs. Now he has been reduced to bit parts in movies made for teenagers and preteenagers who need an excuse to clutch each other in the dark. Some turbaned types might accuse America of being the great Satan, but that’s sloganeering, something akin to “compassionate conservatism,” a light tune to whistle on your way to heaven. The Miracle on Hezbollah Street might bring tears to the eyes of Iranian children, but the true believers in Satan are, if we were to do an exit poll, no higher in numbers than those who actually hear the pitter-patter of reindeer feet on the roof every Dec. 24.

Maybe it’s about money, haves and have-nots. The Internet has made a lot of people very wealthy and others are left behind, even those with pretty terrific computer skills. There’s been a gold rush and some of the miners are left with pebbles in their strainers and the losers may be doing more than gritting their teeth and cursing their luck. This attack on Yahoo was well coordinated and required wit to execute. That, of course, could also be said about some of the great bank robberies of the last century. You’d think anybody who could plan to shut down Yahoo in sludge could dream up an Internet idea of his or her own and make enough to retire to a South American country and wear a white hat and drink bourbon in the bar under a revolving fan for the remaining allotted life span. So while money is the root of all evil and no one can deny the envy of Bill Gates that itches in the heart of most red-blooded Americans, it hardly makes sense that a desire to play the great leveler, to gain revenge on corporate lust, is the motive for these hackers.

More likely, this is just another example of Eros versus Thanatos. The death wish taking its to-be-expected turn raining toxic ash on our accomplishments. One thinks of the killers in Columbine whose acts are still unexplained, whose troubles and dislikes of their classmates seem inadequate explanations for the explosions in the high school library. No one dies if you mess up some Internet wires, and maybe it’s good for a laugh against the moneybags and the establishment guys and the types who are building houses for themselves that might do for a hospital or a university in a small country on another continent. Maybe we should be grateful that their mischief-making drew no blood. But I still wish I understood the point.

If they wanted to send some Marxist political message, they ought to have attached a note to their destruction, or made an anonymous phone call or rather sent an e-mail to a local journal: “We, the Hackers of the Back Side of the Moon, have caused this breakdown in electronic communications as a preliminary action against the greed and corruption of the modern world and if you don’t, within a fortnight, deliver computers to every uninsured child in America we will be back, and next time it will be worse.” That, at least, would make sense. Or, “We, the True Chosen, demand that you shut down the vice trade in all countries with on-line capabilities. We want an end to child murder in the womb and want all pornography off the Net and out of your minds within 12 hours or we will strike again. We include as pornography magazines such as The New Republic , Talk and especially The Nation . We want the Slate site shut down and the Victoria’s Secret catalogue deep-sixed. Or else.” Now repugnant as that would be to most of our sensibilities, it would give reason to the unreasonable. A reason doesn’t have to be something you agree with.

Or how about an e-mail to the President of the United States: “Declare war on Cuba within the next 24 hours or we will clog up the Internet with repeats of Castro’s speeches over the last 30 years. Signed, your friends in Miami.”

It makes me anxious, this free-floating anger against the system, which is the system by which we make our money, build up our retirement funds, send our children to school and generally pass our days. But I suppose it was ever thus. Some little boy threw mud on Laura Ingalls’ new dress and some disgruntled Paleolithic man wrote graffiti over the cave paintings just because he could.

I open my computer. I sign on and hope that the crackle in my computer is hitching noises, and not the groan of a tongueless machine or the death throes of my dearest software. I order a pair of cashmere gloves to replace the ones I left in a taxicab and I give my credit card number-be safe, little credit card number, do no harm to your owner. I e-mail my daughter in Cambridge. I remember when I could touch her forehead to see if a fever was brewing. Now she’s grown up and wire to wire we talk. I worry, what kind of virus will I catch from her machine?