Virgil Griffith discovered the allure of hacking in 1993, while slumped at an Intel 80386 system in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was 10, and he was on a lose streak at Star Wars: X-Wing. To hit the leaderboard, he’d necessity a fleet of superstar wingmen, but this is the only way had one X-Wing fighter that could comprise its own in the game’s World War I-style dogfights. Desperate times call for desperate measurings. Excavating around in the game’s code, Griffith found that each pilot had its own file, so he cloned his good fighter. Copy and paste, photocopy and adhesive, transcript and paste–fully 20 times. This dedicated him, he told me year later, “a plentiful supply of the best wingmen from then on.” Players without Griffith’s workaround were out of luck.
Those brave pilots, gouged from the game’s code, seemed to serve as Griffith’s guardian angel in the next few years, during which he lived by the hacker’s creed: Enlightened cheating is the highest form of gameplay. You don’t beat the TIE fighters. You beat the game itself.
While in college at the University of Alabama, Griffith discovered a chink in the ID card system that let students cadge cafeteria banquets. In 2007, shortly after graduate, he invented WikiScanner, a service that uncovered the IP addresses and ideological biases of anonymous Wikipedia edits.( In one case, he revealed that people from agencies in the US Senate were trying to fix their reputations, where others from Diebold, the company that made insecure voting machines, were employing Wikipedia for corporate propaganda ). He was on his style to black-hat status–and the circle of Julian Assange–when he discovered something even better than hacking: science.
Griffith is now a 34 -year-old research scientist at Ethereum Research in Singapore, where he works on improving the company’s blockchain, a big part of the global infrastructure that allows for procure exchanges of property and currency online. With essential software, he wrote in an email to me, “failures simply aren’t acceptable anymore.” Examples he cites include controlling nuclear reactor, electricity grid, microchip manufacturing. “There is a trend in software growing away from the’ hacker’ jury-rigging into a mature realm, where things are’ proven’, ” he told me.
The chastening of the proscribe hacker does not make a great campfire narration. Maybe that story is too close to the tedious process of growing up. But with Silicon Valley convulsed by revelations of Big Tech’s security failures, founders’ above-the-law arrogance, and social media’s hospitality to bots, trolls, and hoax, here’s a remedy: honest valuations, business ethics, and the application of scientific technique unmolested by avarice. It’s time for a twilight of the hacker ideal.