The Portrayal of the Network in the
Popular Media

What the Non-Techie Person-on-the-Street
Must Think of Us!

Gary C. Kessler, BBN Systems & Technologies
Steven D. Shepard, Hill Associates, Inc.

A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the IEEE Communications Magazine, "Special Issue on the Global Internet," May 1997. © IEEE, 1997.

Telecommunications networks, and the Internet in particular, were unknown to people outside of the industry until just a few years ago. Today, everyone knows about The Net. But what do people know? And where do non-technical audiences learn what they "know"? This article examines just a few of the ways in which the popular media has presented networks and networkers to the masses.

We have often mused to ourselves about what regular people (aka civilians) must think of the Internet and those of us who use the 'net everyday. When the Internet was a secret within the academic and R&D community, the popular literature didn't give it a second thought. But now that we see URLs everywhere (on the side of ambulances, say, and at shopping malls), Web addresses as common as 800 numbers, advertisements for Internet services appearing in Newsweek and on Super Bowl commercials, online real-time news events, and common criminals going online (not to mention new online-specific crimes), it is clear that the Internet has arrived as a popular icon.

But as an icon of what? We thought we'd take a look at how the Internet - and unnamed other worldwide networks - have been portrayed in books and movies over the last decade or so. This is not meant as the definitive academic study, but a personal reading and viewing list that might educate some of us about what they are thinking.

Some of the Books (Non-Fiction) ...

Although there have been a few books that have described some aspects of the Internet and/or some of the individuals involved in building the network and the protocols, two particularly noteworthy books have been written in the last few years.

The first of these histories is Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and beyond... [10]. This book gives an excellent overview of the Internet that is, in many ways, consistent with Vint Cerf's observation that the history of the protocols is the history of the Internet. The book traces events, protocols, applications, people, and networks through about 1994. It also contains many of the humorous RFCs that have provided us with entertainment and insight over the years, albeit often with humor that only a techie could love. The book's strengths are on the early years; the discussion of the later years almost seems forced.

More recently, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet [5] provides a history prompted by the 25th anniversary of the Internet (and, reportedly, written at the urging of BBN). This book provides a very even-handed discussion of the genesis of packet switching, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), and the ARPANET. Much of the book focuses on BBN, of course, because of BBN's involvement with the ARPANET and the focus is largely on the relatively early years; it takes at least three-quarters of the text before the 1980s arrive. But the earliest pioneers, such as Paul Baran, Donald Davies, Larry Roberts, and others, are shown to be the visionaries that they really were.

Both of these books shine when discussing early history because we now have enough information and elapsed time to put the developments in perspective and to actually form some conclusions. One conclusion is that the Internet would be nearly impossible to build today. The ARPANET/Internet was built by hacker engineers and programmers who were given a relatively free hand to design working networks, not prototypes or generalized "open" systems. David Clark's credo, "We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code," worked. The politics of the Internet were primarily internal and the goal was a functional network.

The Domain Name System (DNS) is a perfect example of this cooperative environment. Designed in 1984, the DNS is often cited as a key development that allowed the Internet to grow. It is hard to imagine the DNS being built in today's Internet, however. The politics, legal issues, and commercial problems with naming are a major concern today and are being resolved even as we write. But if the DNS did not already exist, it would be almost impossible to create in today's highly-charged political atmosphere. The hackers are gone, replaced by people and organizations angling for position. Although the ARPANET and Internet have been largely funded by governments, much of the innovation has come from the people who toyed endlessly with the systems. In an effort to provide the hosts with more useful applications and to make the network more useable, many individuals created the tools that we so often take for granted today.

The hacker legacy is not limited to the Internet nor did it always refer to individuals to be afraid of, as the popular press today might have us believe. Prior to the mid-1980s, the term hacker was a complimentary, almost revered term reserved for clever, innovative programmers and engineers. The classic book that describes this more innocent age is Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [7]. Written in 1984, it discusses the "real" hackers, those who in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s defined the Hacker Ethic and the Hands-On Imperative, and made major contributions to today's computer hardware and software, networks, and applications. This book discusses many individuals who are not necessarily household names yet have had a significant impact on our industry, such as Doug Carlston, Peter Deutsch, John "Captain Crunch" Draper, Steve Dompier, Lee Felsenstein, Bill Gates, Richard Stallman, Ken Williams, Roberta Williams, and Steve Wozniak, as well as the historic machines (e.g., Altair, Apple II, PDP-1, Sol, and TX-0), groups (MIT's Tech Model Railroad Club and Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club), and companies (Brøderbund, Digital, MITS, and Sierra On-Line). The stories in this book are from a time when hacker referred to whiz kids, often idealistic and always irreverent; these guys didn't just write in assembly language, they wrote the assembler and designed (and built) the I/O boards!

In the early days of the Hacker Ethic, the programmers shared everything. From MIT to the Homebrew Computer Club, sharing was the excitement and the way to progress the industry and the fun. It is interesting to note that the early days of game software development saw a tremendous amount of cooperation between competing companies - foreshadowing of coopetition? But then a funny thing happened - commercialization. Suddenly, young hackers were able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in royalties and free sharing was no longer so attractive. Bill Gates may have been among the first to suggest to hackers that software distribution should not be free, but he didn't remain alone for long.

How does this parallel the Internet? Born and bred by hackers, the long-term survival of the Internet also required commercialization. And the same clash between hacker and capitalist cultures is ensuing today. In the early days of the ARPANET/Internet, cooperation was the key to successfully building the network and besides, everyone was having fun doing it. Even the earliest Internet service provider(s) cooperated closely with each other because each had a monopoly in some geographic area. In the current commercialization phase, this atmosphere has changed; the product is the end game and not necessarily the good of the net.

Hackers is a counterpoint to the dark side of hacking and there is no lack of examples in this latter arena. There are several excellent books about today's more nefarious hackers, both good guys and bad guys, as it turns out (and, in fact, almost always guys). Most of these books - no surprise - have come out in the last half-dozen years or so.

One of the first such books to become popular outside of the technical community was The Cuckoo's Egg [16]; not only was this book preceded by a technical article in the Communications of the ACM [18], but there was also a PBS special and even a Reader's Digest version about the exploits of Cliff Stoll, the book's colorful author. The Cuckoo's Egg tells the story of how a 75¢ billing discrepancy turned into an international manhunt through cyberspace. It is a highly readable book and traces Stoll's own learning experiences and personal evolution. In some sense it is a high-tech whodunit, while on another level it shows Stoll's transformation from novice user to security expert, from expatriated hippie to registered Republican.

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier [15] is a history of attacks on the hacker community by the government and law enforcement agencies, as well as attacks on the network community by hackers, written by one of today's better-known science fiction authors. This book discusses the evolution of networks and technology, and the people who attack and defend them, ranging from the first young people to mess up the telephone network in the 1870s to those that mess with Signaling System No. 7 in the 1990s. The book is primarily oriented towards bulletin board systems and attacks on telephone companies, but also profiles many of the individuals and groups on all sides of the hacker issue.

Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier [6] is still one of the best profiles of the "hacker" personality. The book is readable, nonjudgmental, and reasonably technically accurate. The book's three sections describe the activities of Kevin Mitnick and his cohorts in the Los Angeles area; the Chaos Computer Club, a group of hackers in Germany, including some who broke into Cliff Stoll's system; and Robert T. Morris, who launched the Internet Worm in November 1988. If you think of hacker in very black-and-white terms before reading this book, you won't afterwards.

Kevin Mitnick has probably become the best-known hacker in the U.S. Profiled in Cyberpunk, he was also accused of breaking into systems at AOL, Colorado SuperNet (CSN), and Netcom, as well as Tsutomu Shimomura's systems at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), in 1994. At least three books have been written about this episode.

Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw by the Man Who Did It [11] was co-written by Shimomura, and even condensed in WIRED [12]. The title gives away the fact that this book is as much anti-Mitnick as it is pro-Shimomura, tracing the way in which one of Shimomura's graduate students detected the break-in and how they tracked the attacks back to the source. While a fascinating technical story and interesting insight into Shimomura's motivation and personality, it also shows that in many ways, he and Mitnick are merely different sides of the same coin; both are smart and talented on one hand, arrogant and selfish on the other. It certainly paints Shimomura as a hero, but truly as much a cowboy as any "bad guy" hacker; you're glad he's an ally rather than an enemy.

At the other extreme is The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick [8], a Mitnick apologia by another professional journalist. This book takes the posture that Mitnick did not, could not, and would not break into the systems at SDSC and the other sites; he is, indeed, portrayed as a talented, yet misunderstood, fellow who will never get a job in the industry because the cards are stacked against him. Even as Mitnick made statements that clearly indicated that he had broken into author Littman's (and other's) e-mail accounts, the author continues to maintain Mitnick's innocence and naiveté. Mitnick is portrayed here much like Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One.

In some sense, The Cyberthief and the Samurai [4], despite its clearly opinionated title, is a more balanced view. This book tells a story that is largely a repeat of the two above, but provides background about Mitnick and Shimomura that doesn't appear in either. While not as detailed as Takedown, this book is, in many ways, much more fair.

In a related but different vein is Masters of Deception [13], the story of two rival gangs within the underground hacker community. In 1989, when "computer hacking" was still widely thought of as a harmless fringe activity practiced by bored teenagers, such a group formed a club called the Legion of Doom. The group soon became divided over the purpose of the club and hacking, in general. Most members of the Legion of Doom were primarily interested in the challenge of breaking computer code, getting into systems, and moving around the network; they meant no malice toward their victims and did not purposely destroy anything. Another element of the club, however, took the opposite view and attacked any computer system and network that they could. This latter group was ejected from the Legion of Doom and formed a rival club called the Masters of Deception. While the Masters of Deception focused on breaking into systems with malice and destructive intent, the Legion of Doom turned their skills into forming a security company dedicated to fighting the very thing that they liked to do. This book is the story of the battle between these two groups. It also shows a bunch of youths that some might describe as having a diminished moral compass, but all would agree had a certain arrogance; some of them believed that they understood the telephone network structure better than the network engineers because they weren't limited to just one network. They do deserve credit for understanding one aspect better than the network engineers - security!

With all the positive hype that the Internet enjoys, it is important to recognize books that take a somewhat different perspective on things. Cliff Stoll's more recent book, Silicon Snake Oil [17], observes that while most people see the global Internet as something resembling a pirate's treasure chest, filled with the jewels and bullion of information riches, he sees it more like a large city dump. As long as the avid searcher is willing to put on digital hipboots and dig through a lot of online garbage, they'll find the occasional treasure. Their success rate, however, will be dependent on the quality of their shovel - the search tool and innovation of the user.

Some of the Books (Fiction) ...

There have been a slew of books, mostly science fiction, about the network. In most of these books, the protagonist is a hero fighting the system, where the network represents the system and the hero prevails by overcoming the network. There are many books that can fit into this category, but there are a few books that stand well above the others.

One of the first of the genre was The Shockwave Rider [2]. Written in 1975, this book describes a paperless, cash-less, electronic society in which a large computer network manages all transactions. The network, in fact, is also able to track the activities of almost all of its citizens by knowing where they spend their money, what they are buying, what buildings they are entering, and what mode of transportation they are using. The protagonist of the story is able to change his identity at will because his super-privileged access to the network allows him to build new data files, destroy old ones, and fend off investigations by others. Finally, he seeks refuge in the only community on the planet where nothing is done electronically, a community that the authorities allow to exist because of the special services that only they can provide.

The hero of the book is able to successfully erase his identity in the network by launching a tapeworm, a program that automatically travels through the network with a particular task, in this case erasing the hero's records wherever they are found. While this book is often credited with the introduction of this term as it relates to the Internet, this attribution is probably wrong; intelligent programs, called worms, were reportedly used on networks at Xerox PARC years before this book was published, for such activities as performing background batch jobs, posting announcements, and doing file cleanup. While using the words worm and Internet in the same sentence might make people nervous, observe that intelligent Web crawlers, Web agents, and knowledge robots (KNOWBOTs) perform functions similar to those of a worm.1

Another important book in this genre is Neuromancer [3]. This is a very dark book about a future where the computer and the network are used for evil and the "good guys" are high-tech lowlifes. This book's hero is Case, a drug-addicted network cowboy who can save his own life only if he breaks into a computer network and steals data for a criminal gang. This is the classic cyberpunk novel, and Case has proven to be the inspiration for any number of hackers.

Among other things, Neuromancer is credited for having introduced the term matrix to describe the interconnected, worldwide network of computers. Reportedly, this was the motivation for the title of Quarterman's classic 1990 book titled The Matrix [9], describing the networks of the world.

Snow Crash [14] is another book that takes place in the relatively near, post-apocalyptic future, where society, laws, and government have pretty much broken down. The story revolves around Hiro Protagonist, a Samurai warrior on the trail of the distributors of Snow Crash, a deadly virus that is introduced via a network and destroys the minds of programmers2 (hackers in the vernacular of the book). The book's action occurs in two worlds: the Metaverse, a kind of three-dimensional, interactive, real-time global network in which every person has a self-defined alter ego, and Reality. The description of Reality, the Metaverse, and the very fine, often indiscernible, line between the two is particularly interesting. Like the central character of Neuromancer, Snow Crash revolves around a super-hacker; unlike Case, however, Hiro is actually likable.

This book is intelligent, compelling, and foreshadows the 3D World Wide Web browsers that started to become available in 1995. With these, individuals enter a room and appear as a cyberversion of themselves; this entity is commonly called an avatar, the same term used in the book. Avatars have recently come booming into popular culture; the word stems from Hindu religious texts, and literally means "the physical incarnation of a god." By creating an avatar, the average person -- or perhaps "less than average person" -- can recreate him or herself in a more acceptable form. Want to be taller? No problem. More hair? Look like Harrison Ford? Kathy Ireland lookalike? Easy to do. And while the concept is whimsical, it points to one of the powerful realities that the Internet creates: under the appropriate circumstances, the Internet becomes a powerful social equalizer, ŕ la the now-famous New Yorker cartoon in which two dogs are sitting in front of a PC, apparently engaged in an online session of some sort, and one dog says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."3 And while the Internet is indeed blind and therefore a compelling equalizing force, it can also be used to discriminate between the so-called information haves and have-nots.

Now, if you read any of those books, you should treat yourself to Headcrash [1], one of the best satires of the genre. Combining aspects of all of the books above, Headcrash is the story of Jack Burroughs, "... the coolest cybernetic surfer ever to hang ten on the shoulders of the Great Information Superhighway." A programmer working in, and then fired from, a corporate computer center, the action takes places in the real world and in the virtual world. Much of the humor comes from the fact that the author really does understand this stuff; he is, in fact, credited with inventing the word cyberpunk. The description of the system boot process is particularly enlightening and will bring back all sorts of fond and not-so-fond memories for those whose past includes playing with "big iron."

The Movies...

There have been many movies that have characterized computers and hackers. Sure, HAL ran amok in 2001: A Space Odyssey and killed a guy, but he acted alone; what about all of those computers who had friends?

We have come a long way since the early movies that portrayed computers as having minds of their own and working with other computers, such as Colossus: The Forbin Project. In this movie, a computer is given nearly omnipotent power. It then somehow comes as a surprise to people when it uses its power to gain more power, eventually finding other computers to communicate with and to teach.

War Games (with Matthew Broderick), of course, was one of the first movies to feature a hacker gaining unauthorized access to computers (and alluded to the fact that there were ways around long distance telephone charges). Yes, the movie was a little hokey; finding a dial-in line to a highly secure NORAD computer that wants to play the game Global Thermonuclear War is a little hard to buy. But the Broderick character broke into computers at school by looking into administrators' desks to find usernames and passwords written on pieces of paper; that is realistic! Passwords are written down, a particular problem today with password overload caused by needless registration at many Web sites. And war dialers4 still exist, even today, and many sites continue to believe their dial-in modems to be safe because the numbers are unlisted. (Ally Sheedy played Broderick's girlfriend; he may have been a nerd but he wasn't a lonely nerd!)5

One of our favorites of the genre is Sneakers, with Dan Aykroyd, Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, and David Strathairn as a group of computer and site security consultants comprising a reformed computer hacker, electronics and acoustics experts, and a former CIA agent. The movie has a good story, likable characters, and an interesting array of gadgets, including a nice trick at defeating a voiceprint system (you start with a pretty woman, a romantic dinner, and a tape recorder...). Never mind the fact that it is a myth that most hackers graduate from their marginally criminal pursuits to become security specialists; the movie is fun and points to the vulnerability of information resources when they are connected to a network. A clear moral of the movie is to reinforce the Golden Rule: "Whoever has the gold makes the rules." Here, of course, the gold is information.

The Net is one of the more recent hacker movies with a similar message. In this movie, Sandra Bullock plays a reclusive programmer who is so dependent on computers and the network for everything that her neighbors don't know her, and even her colleagues and cyber friends only know her as a network presence and disembodied voice. A killer pursues her after she discovers that a computer security software company is selling a product that has a backdoor; their plan is to create fear and panic about security so that their software will be widely purchased by banks, mega-corporations, and governments, and then to access their customers' secrets. When her identity is "stolen" by an impostor and all computerized information suddenly shows her to be a wanted criminal, she can't even go to the police.

Although a tad unrealistic in some ways, the movie is fun and not totally beyond the realm of possibility; after all, what are we in cyberspace and the electronic world but a little magnetic ink? But perhaps the real lesson from this movie is, who do we trust? As Internet-based commerce becomes more pervasive, this question becomes one of very real concern. Cryptographic techniques, for example, are well understood and widely implemented; the primary stumbling blocks to widespread Internet commerce include social, legal, and cultural issues dealing with mutual trust.

Jurassic Park, although not particularly about networks, benefits most from the presence of Jeff Goldblum's character, Malcolm Ian. Part mathematician, part chaos theorist, and part philosopher, his dialogue is peppered with thoughtful observations that stick with the attentive viewer for months, and that have as much relevance in communications technology as they do in gene splicing. One of the most powerful, albeit short, statements is uttered when, referring to the scientists' biological successes, he observes, "You were so wrapped up proving that you could, you forgot to ask whether you should." The movie also has a great throw-away line when the dinosaurs run amok after the computer system fails and the teenage heroine exclaims: "I can fix this. It's Unix, like in school."

No discourse like this would be complete without a discussion of the movie Hackers. It is a classic "good guy" vs. "bad guy" movie. The "bad guy" is a grown-up hacker sleaze working for an international conglomerate. He plants a virus in his own network so that he can extort $25 million from his employers and, naturally, devises a way to frame a bunch of lovable, teenage hackers for the misdeed.

Hackers is actually quite watchable, and there's plenty of name-dropping, from (William) Gibson and (Charles) Babbage to the Hacker Manifesto and the publisher of 2600 Magazine (Emmanuel Goldstein). The movie even shows quite accurately how social engineering and dumpster diving work.

But the most telling thing about the movie is that the bad guy is merely a grown-up version of what the teenagers can become; by his standard, the kids are mere amateurs. Unfortunately, this movie may be the most compelling vision that the masses have about the dark side of cyberspace. Indeed, real hackers broke into the MGM's Web site advertising the movie, and the studio took the break-in in stride and even thought that it was funny -- did they, in fact, find it acceptable? If so, what do they think about the hacks into the Department of Justice, U.S. Air Force, CIA, Kriegsman Furs, and other sites?


This paper describes our profession and what most of us view as our network as presented in some of the popular media. These books and movies suggest that most people consider themselves to be "outsiders" with respect to this technology and that they hold a number of "truths" about the network and its users: only the technically astute can fully utilize computers and the Internet, network users are a tad "odd," and the network is a strange and uncharted place. Some of these beliefs are borne out by today's headlines, what with thefts and even murder being arranged over the Internet. These beliefs are, in large part true; if not, how could the media exploit them so easily?

The network is the next frontier. And the ease - and missteps -- with which we cross geographic and cultural boundaries are limited only by our imagination and remains a very sharp, two-edged sword.


  1. Bethke, B. Headcrash. New York: Warner Books, 1995.
  2. Brunner, J. The Shockwave Rider. New York: Ballantine Books, 1975.
  3. Gibson, W. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984.
  4. Goodell, J. The Cyberthief and the Samurai. New York: Dell, 1996.
  5. Hafner, K. and M. Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  6. _____ and J. Markoff. Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
  7. Levy, S. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City (NY): Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1984.
  8. Littman, J. The Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1996.
  9. Quarterman, J.S. The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide. Bedford (MA): Digital Press, 1990.
  10. Salus, P.H. Casting the Net: From ARPANET to INTERNET and beyond... Reading (MA): Addison-Wesley, 1995.
  11. Shimomura, T. with J. Markoff. Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick, America's Most Wanted Computer Outlaw by the Man Who Did It. New York: Hyperion, 1996.
  12. _____ with J. Markoff. "Catching Kevin." WIRED, February 1996.
  13. Slatalla, M. and J. Quittner. Masters of Deception. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
  14. Stephenson, N. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 1992.
  15. Sterling, B. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam, 1992. (URL: Last accessed: 8 November 1996.)
  16. Stoll, C. The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
  17. _____. Silicon Snake Oil. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
  18. _____. "Stalking the Wily Hacker." Comm. of the ACM, Vol. 31, No. 5, May 1988.


Gary C. Kessler, at the time this article was published, was a Senior Member of Technical Staff and Director of Information Technology at Hill Associates, a telecommunications training and education firm headquartered in Colchester, VT. He has written over 50 papers for industry publications and is co-author of ISDN, 4th. edition (McGraw-Hill, 1998). Gary's main areas of interest include TCP/IP and the Internet, security, and fast packet technologies and services. Gary has a B.A. in Mathematics and an M.S. in Computer Science. His current e-mail address is Gary is a member of the IEEE Computer Society and Communications Society.

Steven D. Shepard is a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Hill Associates. His areas of specialty include international issues in telecommunications, the development of multilingual and cross-cultural training materials, and the social implications of technological change. He is the author of Managing Cross-Cultural Transition: A Handbook for Corporations, Employees, and Their Families (Aletheia Publications, 1998) and A Spanish/English Dictionary of Telecommunications Terms (CRC Press, in press). Steve has a B.A. in Spanish and an M.S. in International Business. His current e-mail address is


Current affiliation: Hill Associates, Inc. (At time of publication) [Back to main text]

1 Worms have also entered the realm of Internet hoaxes. In February 1996, messages were distributed on many mailing lists describing the Internet Leap Year Worm, a program launched quadrennially to delete extraneous files from the Internet. Users were warned to disconnect their systems from the network, since any files found on the network or any system connected to the network would be deleted. [Back to main text]

2 Snow Crash is a binary virus that only programmers can understand and, therefore, are the only victims. It's sort of like those 3D picture books that only our children can visualize. [Back to main text]

3 In one of the ISOC reports that came out a few years ago, one of the statistics read: "Number of people on the Internet who know you're a dog: 0." [Back to main text]

4 A war dialer is software that controls a modem dialing a block of telephone numbers and keeping track of those that respond with a modem tone; greatly simplifying the life of an attacker trying to find modems within a given telephone exchange. [Back to main text]

5 The fact that there is a character (albeit an obscure one) named Kessler in this movie has no bearing on why Gary likes this movie so much. Furthermore, this movie has nothing to do with why he named his son Joshua. [Back to main text]