The New Ariadne: In a world of mendacious politicians, giant corporations and impenetrable public bureaucracies, the hacker offers the only credible hope of entering the modern labyrinth. Stieg Larsen's character, Lisbeth Salander, is the archetypal fictional representation of the "White Hat" hacker.
LISBETH SALANDER is the archetypal hacker: a damaged outsider; phenomenally clever; contemptuous of society’s rules; but possessed of an unflinching, if somewhat quirky, sense of right and wrong. Without Lisbeth, the journalist hero of Stieg Larsen’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, could never have brought the guilty to justice. In a world of mendacious millionaires, giant corporations and impenetrable public bureaucracies, the hacker provides the only credible means of moving the plot forward.
In mythic terms, Lisbeth is Ariadne, the Cretan princess whose precious linking threads allow the Greek hero, Theseus, to find his way through the impossibly complex Labyrinth and destroy the Minotaur – the monstrous, bull-headed man who dwells in its depths.
Another forerunner of the hacker is Arthur Conan Doyle’s inimitable consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. There were, of course, no computers at 221B Baker Street, but Holmes’ phenomenal intellect and his ability to access crucial information – seemingly out of thin air – singles him out as Lisbeth’s literary Godfather.
A closer relation, perhaps, is Phillip Marlowe – the hero of Raymond Chandler’s dark detective novel, The Big Sleep. Marlowe is a marginal character who moves more-or-less effortlessly between legality and illegality and yet, in the core of his being, cleaves unerringly to the right and the good. His antagonists are often corrupt authority figures: gangster bosses, bent cops, politicians on the take and crooked businessmen. As a private investigator, operating outside the official structures of law enforcement and justice, Chandler’s hero embodies all the key attributes and instincts of the “White Hat” hacker.
Driving all of these literary characters is a determination to discover what lies behind the locked doors of this world: doors which its frustratingly incurious inhabitants are happy to leave unopened. These play-it-safers caution the naturally inquisitive against asking too many questions and tell them not to go poking their noses into places where someone might feel obliged to cut them off.
Such advice is ill-received by those who remain unconvinced that not everything is as it appears to be. That below the placid surface of the workaday world plans are unfolding about which most of us know absolutely nothing. Plans hatched by people who are as fascinating as they are terrifying: inhabitants of a parallel universe; separate from our own but accessible to those who know which keys unlock what doors.
Think of David Lynch’s cult movie masterpiece, Blue Velvet, in which the chance discovery of a severed human ear propels the hero into a nightmare world of corruption, kidnapping, drug-taking, sado-masochism and murder, the existence of which he’d known absolutely nothing only days before.
It is tempting to dismiss the sort of people who seek to penetrate the veils that mask these alternate realities as tin-foil-hat-wearers and “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”. And yet, it was no lesser authority than Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1874 until 1880, who remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.”
The sort of person who becomes a hacker is the sort of person who hears in Disraeli’s words not simply a revelation – but a challenge. Who are these different personages? How does one get behind the scenes?
In the past one only found out these things by venturing into the Labyrinth, pursuing the Hound of the Baskervilles, interrogating the gangster boss, or hiding in the nightclub singer’s closet. Today, however, top-secret information may be obtained without leaving the room. With a lap-top, an Internet connection, and the requisite knowledge, getting behind the scenes and learning the secrets of all manner of personages – familiar and unfamiliar – is astonishingly easy.
Since January, the real-life investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, has, like Mikael Blomkvist in Larsen’s thriller, been working with his very own Lisbeth Salander. The resulting book has, in the manner of David Lynch, revealed to us the existence of a political world very different from the one those of us who have never ventured behind the scenes imagined. We have been introduced to characters every bit as fascinating and terrifying as Arthur Conan Doyle’s and Raymond Chandler’s.
What remains to be seen is whether life imitates art and the guilty are brought to electoral justice. It’s one thing to discover the Labyrinth exists, quite another to slay the monster at its heart.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 August 2014.