Throughout the whole production, I was only kicked out of a house once.
This is actually a very good ratio, considering the number of people, range of locations, and seat-of-the-pants methods I often employed throughout the filming. I would occasionally find myself in a place, say, Washington DC, get a call and learn that my interview had to shift or cancel (either because of work or other factors). So I’d suddenly have nothing to do until the next morning.
One nice part of this process was I had a great phone list of cool people across the country. I’d make a few random phone calls from this list of everyone I had gotten interest from, and sometimes they’d be up for a surprise visit.
Sometimes they were fine with just a social visit, with me showing up and checking e-mail and talking about the work I was doing. They got a chat with me and I got to spend an evening actually conversing with a real person, so everything came out for the best. A happy ending.
Not so happy were a few very small times where the expectations for the interview were simply not translated properly along the way. I have to stress how rare this was. I recall, for example, the time that I had an interview scheduled for 8 in the morning and at 2am, 6 hours before, I was 80 miles from the location. After some quick and foolish considerations, I decided to gun the rental car and just find some place to stay nearby and get an hour or two of sleep. When I got there at 4am, I decided I’d just park in the apartment complex’s parking lot and sleep until 8am.
I still remember waking every 15 minutes, in a car, with morning dew on my face and thousands of dollars of equipment in the back seat, worried I’d JUST missed the interview. When 8 rolled around, I called the subject at his apartment, and he explained to me, quite forthrightly, that his wife wasn’t comfortable with an interview being conducted in the apartment, and could we do it at the Burger King?
“You bet!” I said, controlling my fatigue-driven rage that I had risked myself driving for hours and hours, only to be shut out of the house. I hung up the cell, turned on the car, and rolled on out of the parking lot. Within 5 minutes I was back on the highway, never to be seen in that part of the country again. Ciao!
It’s hard to say if there’s really any “fault” to lay there. I likely didn’t translate how the interview really needed to be conducted in a place I could set up a camera and lights, and the subject didn’t check with his family about an interview. The result was no interview, a galactically grumpy Jason, and a guy wondering what happened to him. A bad situation all around, but like I said, this was very rare; I probably had this sort of bad thing happen less than 5 times, and considering I was shooting for three years, that’s pretty good.
Getting kicked out of the house was a whole other situation, and it was all owing to a misunderstanding which is the point of this whole essay.
First of all, the time between contacting the subject and interviewing him was about 48 hours. This was a mistake; he hadn’t time to bring it up with his family, and he certainly hadn’t any way to really translate what I was up to. Meanwhile, his family basically found out about me when I showed up, and didn’t know what to think of me.
After a tour of his wonderful home, we sat down to conduct the interview. He signed the release form ahead of time (note to everyone in the planet: never do this) and we were about an hour into the interview when I heard a voice behind me:
“What is going on here?”
What followed then is really not something I’m comfortable describing in detail, but the result was: One massive domestic dispute, one documentary guy clinging to his equipment prepared to defend it from an onslaught of fists, a lot of apologies from a near-tears subject about the interview not going on, and a hasty shuffle out the front door I’d been welcomed in a couple hours before, carrying all my equipment with wires and papers bulging everywhere.
Through this little explosion, I am proud of one thing; I pulled the tape with the interview of the subject, took out the release he’d signed and gave both to him. He protested, and wanted me to keep the tapes.
But I said “You only have to live with me for a day; you have to live with your family for the rest of your life.”
“Professionals”, of course, would have taken the tapes, happy to use the “scoop” regardless of what damage and descruction it caused in their subjects’ lives. This is why I’m fine with not being called “professional”.
Naturally, the question you have is what could possibly be on those tapes that was so bad? What would cause people to turn on me and kick me out of their house?
The answer is either odd or completely expected: the subject had gone to prison due to his BBS.
I’d always been hesitant to make one of the episodes of the BBS Documentary be about hackers. This is because of the pure muck-pile that the whole “hacker” lifestyle/culture/mode of thinking has been dragged through in the last 25 years. I think at this point a solid number of folks are positive that hackers turn off heart monitors with iPods. It adds a nice false sense of “rebel” to the term but does little else other than attract a lot of media attention.
A lot. Of media attention. Enough that hackers end up being the only aspects of computing culture that get sizeable documentaries made about them (although gaming culture seems to be catching up). Why would I want to work so hard, just to make another one?
The result of my going for it anyway, HPAC, actually goes in a different direction, focusing on the positive, the people, the stuff that made kids or adults tick when they used “underground” BBSes and how they looked at it all. I think it’s all kind of pleasantly nostalgic, the way I took it on.
And this is without a doubt shaped by who wanted to be interviewed. Almost to a person (with a couple exceptions), these were people who ‘got underground’, dallied around as you might enjoy skating in pools (you know, trespassing), finishing that up, and moving on. High School. Summer camp. The first kiss. Just distant, happy memories. This was antithecal to most documentaries about hacking, so I went with it, and enjoyed doing so. It was refreshing (and I hope it is for the audience as well) to see a bunch of people going “I used to crack Apple II games. That was fun!” Without the “necessary” point of view of law enforcement bearing down going “these kids were responsible for one thousand gabillion dollars of lost revenue. They must be euthanized.” And then frowning.
And to a person, they basically are happy memories that they mention in their interviews. Sysop of OSUNY finished up his time with his hacker BBS, passed it along to some friends, and moved away. The Freeze got away from Apple II cracking, did some programming, and ultimately got into sales and marketing of inexpensive computer parts… and made a mint.
But in doing my research (and remember, I was researching this for years), I found many more stories, stories that were sad, infuriating, incredible, all around how people went to jail or had their lives basically ruined by BBSes.
Why didn’t I “tell the full story” and try and shoehorn these stories into the documentary? Well, for a little bit, I definitely did, with bonus material about the Ripco BBS seizure and a police “raid” on the SDF BBS, as well as general mentions of “busts”. But I didn’t go through blow-by-blow stories of some of the more henious crimes/situations because:
- The people who went to jail didn’t want to speak about it.
- The story was so complicated, it would need its own episode.
- I was just feeding into the lurid crap at the expense of the “non-commercial” stories where people just had a good time.
- The endings tended to be ‘And then they picked up the pieces of their broken lives and were doing pretty fine until you showed up with your camera, you media wang.’
What I think gets lost in the world is how absolutely horrible prison is. I don’t mean “boo hoo, I can’t watch my big screen TV” or “now I can’t go to the mall, wah”. I mean, take this approach:
Imagine that, in a week, you will have to go away. Away for a long time. Years. All your stuff, everything you own, that has to go somewhere. If you’re lucky, you have family who can put it into storage, but obviously not all of it. Your furniture, your books, your objects, they can’t come with you. It’s kind of like you died. Also, you probably owe a lot of money, because you hired someone to try and make it so you didn’t have to go away. But you do, and now you also owe them money. Maybe you can sell some of the stuff, your stuff you have to now get rid of, but it probably won’t add up to enough to pay off what you owe.
You are going to go away to a prison. In the prison, you will be locked up with bad people. They are often sent there because they keep hurting other people, people not unlike yourself. Your schedule is regimented, your sleep is fitful, and you are, generally, miserable.
You are in your early 20s. Maybe your 30s. Maybe you have kids and they’re growing up fast, but now you won’t see them outside of the box for years. Other people will raise them. If you’re younger, you’ll be raised somewhat by this box, this prison. You will be, in many ways, both alone and never alone.
Once you are out, by the way, you will be a different person. Your friends are years older, probably never really your friends again. If you had skills, they’re out of date (prisons are horrible about teaching people skills to help them when they get out). Your social skills are kind of weird too, since you were locked up in a highly regimented, vicious environment of people of your own gender for years. You are not trusted by many people, because you are an ex-con. You are, even though the walls are gone, alone and never alone.
Now imagine you are here, you are like this because you ran a BBS in 1991. Because you connected to a computer on a modem line whose administrator account had the password “computer”. Because you had a copy of “Print Shop” available for download, and it was downloaded a dozen times over two weeks. Because you had dirty pictures up for download.
In the early 1990s, there were a rash of BBS-related cases where people were arrested for BBS stuff, stuff that now, even 10 years later, wouldn’t raise too much of an eyebrow, and they went away for years and years.
I found a lot of these old cases, found the people who were behind them, talked to them or family members that now screen contacts by people like me. And they told me to get lost.
Many were understanding of my approach, and that I was an OK guy who, if not right-headed, was at least right-hearted. But they turned me down, often emphatically. They turned me down and made it clear: Those days are over. We are not going to discuss those days. That person, that part of that person is dead.
It opens old wounds to bring that stuff up, even if there are lessons to be learned. Even if I think that there’s something important to be brought up in recounting these stories, it is very mean to poke someone’s slowly-healing life with a stick and go “does it hurt? does it still sting?”
Because it does.
Prison does not rehabilitate. It decimates.
I see terms of prison suggested in current law and they are astounding. Five years, five years for videotaping a movie in a movie theatre. Twenty years for discussing certain types of drugs. Twenty years. That is, for all intents and purposes, a death sentence. The person that comes out is not the person coming in. The old person is gone.
As a “professional” I suppose I could have barrelled through, demanded to tell these stories, used re-enactments or “experts” or otherwise slogged in the story without the permission of the subjects. But I didn’t make this documentary so I could cease sleeping peacefully. I did it to tell stories that should be told that were waiting, by the subjects, to be told. There’s hundreds of hours of footage; I wasn’t starved for stories.
I was going to go into detail here, about some really amazing examples of people whose lives were changed forever by BBSes, for the worse, and who carry with them the scars of a time that many have forgotten.
But not today. Some other time. I lose days to anger remembering what was done to these people. And DEFCON is coming up and I have to explain in my talk why documentaries have to be done.
But the next time some ill-thinking huckleberry swings around “put them in jail for years” over some infraction or behavior they do not approve of, I wish, just for a moment, they could feel the hell they propose to send others through, for nothing.
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