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Fewer than Jesus had Apostles
It could be that, in the future, people will look back on the American Empire, the economic empire and the military empire, and say, “They didn’t realize that they were building their whole empire on a fragile base. They had changed that base from brick and mortar to bits and bytes, and they never fortified it. Therefore, some enemy some day was able to come around and knock the whole empire over.” That’s the fear.
I have a confession to make. I’ve been holding out on you.
Quite a while ago I had one of the most positive conversations I’ve ever had. It makes me think it really could be possible to speed up the process of bringing down civilization. I talked with some hackers. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t tell you when or where we spoke, or the oddly satisfying circumstances under which we met.
I also won’t say their names or genders. Nor will I describe them. Presume they’re men. Presume one of them looks like your bench partner from your high school advanced laboratory class, and the other looks strangely familiar, too, like someone you saw once in the far corner of a library, surrounded by books on Nestor Makhno, Emiliano Zapata, August Spies, and Albert Parsons. Or maybe he looks like someone you saw standing at the very back of an auditorium as he listened to someone speak passionately about the necessity of taking down civilization now.
In any case, here I am sitting across a table (or at least you can presume I’m sitting across a table) from these folks, sharing a pitcher of water at a café. Let’s presume we’re in Asheville, North Carolina, and it’s late, very late, on a hot summer night.
“Let’s start small,” I say. “Would it be possible to inflict serious economic damage on a major corporation by hacking into computer systems?”
“You’re presuming,” responds the first one, let’s call him Brian, “that this doesn’t happen already.”
The other, let’s call him Dean, nods. I look back and forth between the two.
Brian continues, “It’s in the corporations’ best interests to not let on that this stuff happens all the time.”
“Why is that?” I ask.
“You think they want people to know how easy it is to hack into a system?”
He winks, then pauses for effect. “And it’s getting easier all the time. Take the use of wireless technologies that have come on strong these past few years. See that thermostat over there?”
He points to the far side of the room. I turn to look, then turn back when I hear him start talking again.
He says, “Those are oftentimes computerized, and send and receive signals through the air from a main system. The other day I hacked into the main computer of a major corporation through the thermostat.”
My jaw drops.
He throws back his head and laughs, then says, “I didn’t do anything. I was just trying to see if I could do it.”
“But could you have done damage?”
“Name a nasty corporation,” he says.
“Ha!” says Dean, “Name one that isn’t.”
“Freeport McMoRan is pretty nasty.”
They both shake their heads.
“Most polluting company in the United States. Pollutes all over the world. Machine guns natives in West Papua. Imprisons others in shipping crates.”
Dean looks at me intently before asking, “How does it make its money?”
“Mainly mining. Gold in Indonesia, sulfur in the Gulf of Mexico. Other minerals too.”
“Okay,” Dean says. “Piece of cake.”
“What do you do?” I ask. “Mess with their bank accounts, pretend it’s Fight Club and destroy their credit card accounts?”
Brian wrinkles his nose.
Dean says, “Shipping. All the shipping these days is computerized.”
Brian interrupts to ask, “Did you know the U.S. economy almost ground to a halt last year?”
“What?” I exclaim.
“The dockworkers strike on the west coast,” Dean says. “The big companies couldn’t get their raw materials and parts. They were within a day or two of running out. Do you now what happens then?”
It’s clear the question is rhetorical.
He asks another question, “Do you know how much it would cost GM to shut down its assembly line?”
“I have no idea.”
“Millions of dollars per minute.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“No,” Brian responds. “Dockworkers.”
“Or,” Dean says, “Hackers. Let’s say Freeport McMoRan ships through Singapore. Singapore is the most automated port in the world. What happens if you reroute canister after canister headed for New Orleans instead to Honduras, Belize, Istanbul?”
“The people who work for these companies,” Brian adds, “rely more on computers than common sense. They have to. The companies are so big, the movements of people and resources so complicated, that people can’t keep track of it all. Last month I hacked into the security system of a major corporation and had the computer issue me an ID card. I went to the company headquarters, swiped my new card, and it okayed me to enter. I walked over to the security people and told them I was a hacker who had just breached their security. They refused to believe me. They said that the computer okayed me, so I should just quit joking and head on in.”
“They believed the computer over their own ears.”
“I tried to persuade them, but nothing I said convinced them to listen to me.”
“Do you think,” I ask, “that hackers could do more than just mess with a big corporation or two?”
Brian smiles. “You’re presuming, again, that nobody is already doing this.”
No,” I say, “Do you think they could bring it all down, could take down civilization?”
Brian nods, and so does Dean. Dean says, “I’ve spent the past twenty years studying how the economic system works. I don’t mean economic theory, although I certainly understand that. But rather the nuts and bolts of it. Transport of raw materials like we were talking about with those canisters. And the thing that amazes me is that the system hasn’t already collapsed. It’s incredibly fragile. And incredibly vulnerable.”
As Dean talks, Brian pulls what looks like a walkie-talkie from a holster on his belt. The walkie-talkie has a small LED screen. Suddenly the machine squawks, and a light turns green.
“Guess what, ”Brian says. “Somebody in Asheville is receiving a page. He pulls a hand calculator from another holster, and punches a few buttons. He shows me the screen. I read information about the page. He smiles, proudly, then says, “I made a few minor modifications....”
I ask, “Why do you do this?”
“It makes me giddy to figure things out. I love the rush when I suddenly understand something new.”
I know the feeling. I feel what I’d imagine is the same rush whenever I suddenly get the relationship, for example, between pornography and science.
I ask, “If you love computers, would you take it down?”
Dean says, “Yes.”
Brian says, “In a heartbeat.”
“Do you know where they put computer books in bookstores?” Brian asks.
“In the business section.”
“Computers were supposed to set us free. That was the rhetoric. That’s always the rhetoric. But they’ve just been used to further enslave us, to further enslave the poor, to further enslave the planet.”
I become aware of the silence in the room. I take a sip of water.
Brian continues, “Let’s say you have a soldering iron that you love to use. You love soldering pieces of metal together. You love burning beautiful designs into pieces of wood furniture. Now, what would you do if somebody started using that soldering iron to torture people? I can’t speak for you or anyone else, but I would pull the plug on the iron. I’d do that,” he repeats, “in a heartbeat.”
A soft sound breaks the silence of the café. Across the room the lone employee has begun stacking chairs on tables.
Brian says, “I’m in love with figuring out how things work. And the existence or nonexistence of machines doesn’t mean we can’t figure things out. If I smash this calculator, that doesn’t invalidate Ohm’s Law. Ohm’s Law is still there. Nature is still there, under all this concrete, under all these machines. And have you gone outside during a blackout? The lights are still there; they’re up in the sky. And it’s so quiet you can finally start to hear.”
I ask again, “And you’d be willing to help bring it down?”
The woman is stacking chairs closer. We don’t have much time.
They both laugh and say, “Of course.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot.”
Again, both laugh and say, “Of course.”
I have to know. “If they were dedicated enough, and knew what they were doing, how many people do you think it would take to bring down civilization?”
Brian says, “It would take far fewer than Jesus had Apostles.”
The woman has stacked all the chairs but ours.
Dean says, “Let’s go.”
I nod, then say, “It’s late.”
Derrick Jensen is the author of numerous books, including A Language Older That Words and The Culture of Make Believe, the first two parts of a rough trilogy of which Endgame is the third. The first concerns the question of how we make ourselves sane in an insane culture. The second asks: now that you are sane, what do you see when you really look at this culture? And the third asks what you are going to do about it. He has also written extensively about deforestation, domestic violence, education, technology, surveillance, science, and racism.
Derrick Jensen is also a longterm grassroots environmental activist who has worked on issues surrounding deforestation, dam removal, restoration of habitat for salmon and other fish, habitat improvement for amphibians, and the promotion of organic farms and the preservation of family farms.
He has taught at Eastern Washington University and Pelican Bay State Prison, and has given lectures at scores of universities and colleges across the country.
Site updated Fall 09