notes from underground

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Oct 31, 1994, 4:47:40 PM10/31/94

Someone asked for more tunnel stories.

I don't hack tunnels. Well, not obsessively, at least not any more. But I
do (or did) hack buildings. My own obsessions were with large theatres and
churches in Los Angeles. I did outside and inside hacking, until I
suddenly and violently acquired a fear of heights, and then gradually lost
interest in inside hacking, as well. I was a software hacker throughout
the TRS-80 days, and minor humorist and essayist of that period, as well.
At 54 my hacking is confined to golf, but I love and respect the art of
building hacking when it is practiced invisibly, with style, grace, and

There seem to be no other hacker newsgroups but
(alt.2600 is dry, dry, dry), so I thought you might like this.

----- The First Hackers -----

(C) 1990, 1994 by Eric Bagai

Have you ever explored a strange building? I don't mean when you
were a child--I mean now, as an adult. Have you ever thrilled, even
if just for a moment, to being "someplace you shouldn't be"? Perhaps
an empty theatre, a school auditorium, or a large church offered
itself, and you thought you'd just take a look around. You didn't
take anything or break anything, so you didn't feel as if you'd really
broken the law. And you were ready to leave quietly (and quickly) if
anyone challenged your right to be there. But you _really_ wanted to
see what was there to be seen.

If, like most people, you have never experienced this particular
kind of curiosity as an adult (or if this whole subject makes you
bored, itchy, or angry), then you can consider yourself lucky. You
are not a building hacker.

Building hackers are not computer hackers, though there is some
overlap. Computer hackers devote themselves to programming beyond the
apparent limits of a given computer, or to gathering comprehensive
software libraries, or sometimes to the surreptitious entry and
exploration of other computer systems.

This last is what building hackers do--they explore buildings
surreptitiously. The object for a building hacker is to enter, go to
the most secure or obscure part of a building, and leave without being
seen or caught. For those of you who are outraged at this idea, I can
only say that I've never met a building hacker who was the least
interested in exploring someone's residence. Also, only children,
criminals, or the uninformed take things, or scrawl graffiti on a
wall, or trash a building. A hacker would never do any of these
things. A hacker touches nothing, takes nothing, and leaves no sign
of his presence . . . at least, no sign recognizable to anyone not a

This hackers' code is unwritten but self-evident: if you want to
continue to enjoy your obsession you must be invisible and leave no
trace of passage; and if discovered, you must be seen as a harmless
nuisance rather than as a thief or a vandal or an invader of anyone's
personal privacy.

Among building hackers there are inside, outside, and tunnel
hackers. Inside hackers become proficient at lock-picking, alarm
analysis, and hiding. Some inside hackers become so expert that they
may eventually establish themselves professionally as security
analysts. Outside hackers climb the outsides of buildings using only
their hands and a good pair of shoes. To an outside hacker, use of
the technical climber's tools is simply ridiculous. Tunnel hackers
explore areas that most of us never know even exist: the passages
that penetrate office, school, and industrial complexes. These
include both below- and above-ground tunnels and duct systems, and may
extend in a three-dimensional maze for many miles.

Building hackers are not spelunkers, though there is a similarity
to tunnel hacking. The difference lies in whether or not one goes as
part of a team, with the approval of authorities, and with coverage by
_National_Geographic_. Building hackers are also not adventure gamers
gone wrong, because what they do is not part of a fantasy system and
they are not playing a role. Hacking is real.

Hackers often discover each other at school. There they learn or
re-invent the code. They learn how to recognize signs of other
building hackers. And, at school they can develop their skills in
relatively safe surroundings. Some campuses are particularly noted
for hacking, and even expect a portion of each crop of freshmen to be
initiated into it. These schools get press coverage every few years
when someone discovers that students are acting out Dungeons & Dragons
scenarios in the steam tunnels. This artificial popularization of
building hacking can produce pseudo-hackers: people with some of the
skills and none of the drives or ethics of building hackers. Having
no "vocation" for hacking, the pseudo-hackers are easily tempted
toward venting any hostility or anger on the building itself, or they
may simply engage in theft. Most often they just panic, and hurt
themselves or their rescuers.

Many building hackers never realize that there are others like
themselves; that they are not alone. Society certainly does not
recognize their existence, and there are few examples of hacking in
literature: the only ones I've found are in works by Roger Zelazny and
Philip Jose Farmer. Much more visible are the crazed or disfigured
building squatters such as Quasimodo, the Phantom of the Opera, Lex
Luthor, and, most recently, the magnificent figure of Vincent, hero of
the TV series _Beauty_and_the_Beast_. Squatters may be great romantic
or tragic figures, but they are definitely not building hackers.

Why are there hackers? Many older cultures had rituals that
included passage through a tunnel or maze. If those rites were based
on real psychological or spiritual needs, then perhaps hacking offers
a resolution to something our own culture no longer recognizes or
understands. Carl Jung thought that houses or buildings in dreams
were sometimes images or representations of the self; and perhaps what
hackers do is an attempt to explore or understand that self. Whatever
the reason for this obsession, it has long been a part of Western
culture, and will probably remain so for as long as there are
buildings to hack.

What happens to building hackers? There is something about middle
age that seems to make hacking less compelling, less necessary.
Whatever tests and trials there were in hacking seem not as important
as newly discovered ones that have different dangers and rewards and
are, one hopes, more socially acceptable. Like everyone else, hackers
grow up--but I'm sure they never forget.


"The First Hackers" originally appeared in _What_I_Did_With_My_Trash:_
ten_years_with_a_TRS-80_, a collection of essays by Eric Bagai, ISBN
0-943292-24-7, published by Flaming Sparrow Press. "The First Hackers" may
be reproduced for any non-commercial purpose provided that the copyright
is included, this notice is appended, and a copy of the work in which it
appears is sent to Flaming Sparrow Press at P.O.Box 82289, Portland OR
97282, or Copies of _Trash_, which contains ten
other essays, are also available.

-- The joint account/address of Eric & Judith Bagai
aka Smaug & Sibyl
:: Foreworks Publishing :: Flaming Sparrow Press :: The Enigma (editor) ::

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