Control Freak: Inside the Mind of a Hacker

Hi, I’m Han-wei and I’m a control freak. There, I said it. But I’m not alone. Most hackers are control freaks too. We’re addicted to the surge of power that engulfs your mind when a program you built actually works…suddenly the mass of metal and wires in front of you, like some ancient, magical simulacrum, springs to action churning on billions of bits till your orders are fulfilled. Or it dies trying. (For those of you who have no clue what this sense of power feels like, this is pretty much exactly the feeling.)

But I’m not here to wax anthropomorphic about a machine (though I have to admit it’s kind of fun). If you want that, you can go watch Bicentennial Man (1999). I’m here to figure out how my career as a computer security guy and my beliefs as a Christian can coexist in a broken world that’s awaiting Christ’s return. You see, I’m worried that if I don’t set aside time to think about these things now, I’ll slowly forget that there should be coexistence. I’ll begin to neatly separate the two halves of my life. I’ll start making immoral choices about how I do my job. Or perhaps I’ll simply end up selling out. No bueno.

So let’s get started. I mentioned above that I’m a control freak, and that this is a common reality for most hackers (clarification: by hacker, I mean the not-evil definition of the word. A hacker is “someone who builds novel or well-designed things”). Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984), which chronicles the first developments of the hacker culture at MIT, to the early stages of Jobs’ Apple, to the first few gaming companies, constantly refers to this drive for greater and greater control: “Once you had control, the godlike power that comes from programming mastery, you did not want to let go of it.” The book is filled with stories of the men and women who fell captive to its spell. Some hackers used programming as a way to avoid an otherwise awkward social world with perplexing rules that seem to be ever changing and irrational. Others believed that computers would be the ultimate equalizer, marking the end of government and oppression. But at the heart of it all was the understanding that these machines contained untapped power that was available to anyone who was willing to learn how to use them.

There’s a special connection between the desire for control and technology – and I think everyone can relate to this. We like stepping on the gas pedal. We like buying things with two-day shipping on Amazon. It’s unreasonably fun to say “Siri, call home.” Technology offers the promise of control, and for the most part, we take the bait without a pause. Hackers merely experience this promise in its pure, unadulterated form: while you sorry folks muddle with your iPhone 5s and all the genie-like limitations that come with it, we can literally make a computer do anything. We have access to the Special Knowledge, and that knowledge is addicting in the extreme – control freak indeed.

As is usually the case, what happens at work doesn’t stay there – my tendency to want control over technology bleeds through to other parts of life. I live most of my life as a control freak. I hate owing people anything, because it gives them some sort of power over me. I freak out when I have health issues. I avoid asking for God’s will to be done till the last possible moment because I want to solve things myself.

Fundamentally, I have a deep fear (or suspicion) that God is not in control, and that if I don’t seize the reins of my life now, or seize the reins of power, or manipulate people to get what I want, everything will go careening off a cliff. Here’s what Bertrand Russell had to say about fear: “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Perhaps he was intentionally responding to Proverbs 9:10 (or Psalms 111), or perhaps it’s just a very interesting coincidence: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

How can I live my life as if I believed God was truly in control? Would my decision-making process look different? Would the way I do computer security look different? Would anyone hire me to do security if I told them that “I used to be a control freak about security, but now I believe God’s in control?”

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