Can you jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace?

I miss the naïve utopianism that surrounded computers back in the ’80s and ’90s.

The above clip, taken from the “Who is Max Mouse?” episode of Ghostwriter, made the rounds on Twitter earlier this week, and I can’t believe I haven’t written about it before. Not because I have any nostalgia for Ghostwriter (I never watched it) but rather, because it’s such a perfect example of a certain attitude that surrounded computers in the ’80s and ’90s.

The clip features a young Julia Stiles as the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper who also happens to be a hacker and computer enthusiast. “Do you know anything about hackers?” she asks her classmates, who grow increasingly bewildered as she bombards them with a string of geeky questions: “Can you jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace? Ever read Neuromancer? Ever experienced the new wave? Next wave? Dream wave? Or cyberpunk?”

It’s all so ridiculous and over the top, like the episode’s writer (one Miranda Barry) just strung together random terms found in issues of Wired and Mondo 2000 — and I love it like I love that scene in Hackers where our heroes fawn over a laptop with a 28.8bps modem and active matrix display.

But my favorite part comes when Stiles’ character is asked where she learned about “all this hacker stuff.” She looks wistfully at the computer beside her, and with a certain longing in her voice, describes it as “a world where you’re judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like. A world where curiosity and imagination equals power.”

I’ve written before about how “magical” computers seemed back in the ’80s and ’90s, long before they became so ubiquitous. Computers (and, by extension, the internet) would make us smarter by granting unfettered access to the world’s information, increase communication and bring people together, unlock our creativity and imagination, and allow new ideas to spread and bypass any existing gatekeepers (e.g., mass media, governments).

And in some ways, all of that has come to pass. But along with those good things has come privacy and security violations, the spread of fake news and alternative facts, harassment and doxing, hate speech, and near-limitless access to explicit and exploitative materials (to name a few). Back in the day, there was a certain utopianism and idealism that was conjured up by those beige boxes sitting on our desks — a utopianism that’s since been dashed as we’ve become increasingly aware of the technology’s dark side.

Most days, I consider the rise of computer and internet access over the last few decades to be a net positive for humanity. (At the very least, it’s given me a career that I enjoy and lets me provide for my family.) Humanity being humanity, of course, we inevitably find ways to ruin and spoil any good thing with our vices, appetites, and biases. But I sure do miss that utopianism, that notion that technology could be the harbinger of a new (and geeky) golden age, of a world where “curiosity and imagination” could reign supreme.

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