Want to Be a Hack Superstar?

I guess there must still be a few little kids out there who dream of growing up to be firemen. And who knows, maybe even one or two who say, "I want to be President someday." But it seems like there's just nothing "hot" about these professions anymore. Despite Clinton's efforts on this front, these more "noble callings" just aren't sexy in today's fame-for-fifteen rock ‘n' roll world.. In the words of Cypress Hill, "You wanna be a rock superstar, live large, big house, fine cars."

Don't get me wrong, I hold in highest esteem the pursuit of art and athleticism, and appreciate the yen for glitz and glamour, but there is something particularly lovely about children wanting to protect and serve and something less magical about them wanting to "be on TV" But for better or worse, not everyone can be a superstar, and some are even find their way to the path that leads them to public office or public service. And thankfully, some even have a profound impact in these areas.

To make a gross generalization about technology professions, it seems like the kids who ended up big in the field were the same ones last picked on playing fields. Yes, that's right, they're the geeks who've grown up and made good—only now there's the outlaw chic of the hacker cult to contend with. Where once parents might have proudly looked in on a child hammering away at the keyboard and thought, "what a good student," now they do so guardedly, wondering if all that hammering is pounding out the latest virus or decryption code. But maybe hacking isn't such a bad thing after all.

Nine years ago, a Swedish archivist named Reidar Djupedal created a database designed to serve as a digital catalog to more than 11,000 Ivar Aasen books and manuscripts. When Djupedal died, his family donated the database to the Ivar Aasen Center for Language and Culture. Unfortunately, the archivist didn't leave a record of the database's password. The center sought the help of librarians and professional computer technicians, but to no avail. Then the center put out a Web call for hackers. Five hours later, Joachim Eriksson, a programmer for Swedish game company Snowcode, replied. Eriksson's email—the first received by the center—had the correct password and included the unencrypted files of the database. OK, the level of hacking required may not have been all that impressive in geek circles—the password was Djupedal spelled backwards—but it was the free exchange of ideas made available on the Web that made the solution possible. It was also the power of hacking's lure.

Hey, hacking's hip. Take this summer's "Extreme Computing: Festival of Inappropriate Technologies," as a clear indication of its exploding cultural cachet. The "Woodstock for the geek generation," held in London in June, featured famed physicist Freeman Dyson, singing robotic birds, and techno DJs.

Stateside, just days before, a three-judge panel in a federal district court in Philadelphia unanimously ruled the Children's Internet Protection Act unconstitutional. The act would have required libraries to filter obscene materials on Internet-enabled library computers. While few would argue against protecting children from exposure to obscene materials, we've been through this before with books in libraries and ultimately decided that individuals—librarians and parents—need to monitor what children are exposed to; wholesale filtering and broad-stroke litigation cannot distinguish the subtle distinctions between art and obscenity. In this case, the judges said they largely based their decision on the ineffectiveness of existing filtering software.

The district court judges found that commercially available filtering programs erroneously block a huge amount of First Amendment protected speech. In fact, one filtering program reportedly blocked a page titled "Pen Is Mightier" because it compresses to include the word "penis" in the title. "Filters are not the only—or the best—way to protect children," said ALA president John W. Berry. "The issue of protecting children online is complex, and it requires complex solutions with parents, librarians, and community members working together." And tell me smart kids wouldn't figure out how to hack through filters in no time.

It's a pretty sorry situation that we can't rely on human nature to protect children from technology-enabled porn, but it seems particularly sad that we can't harness the power of human ingenuity to create a way to protect them. Maybe we can raise the next generation of hackers to use their powers for good, not evil.