Notes Unpacking a Library (Cult of the Dead Cow)Text files from networks predating the Internet, circulating like so many tattered paperbacks
“Any old thing hand-written on clothing looks great, it's a bigger act of defiling than having a tattoo.”
There are currently some four hundred documents in the Cult of the Dead Cow archive. The documents are text files—mostly fiction, short stories—published as an electronic magazine from 1984 until the present day. The Cult of the Dead Cow is the name of both the group publishing these files and the publication itself. The files, meanwhile, are numbered (starting from 1) and individually attributed to several dozen authors. Almost all are obscured behind the vintage legacy of an Internet handle. Some names appear again and again—Swamp Rat, Sid Vicious, The Pusher, Obscure Images, Oxblood Ruffin. Others, like Psycoe—author of one of the Cult’s better known files, Sex with Satan—appear only once.
Of the tenebrous and incomplete histories of hacker groups to emerge out of the 1980s and 90s, few have inscribed a legacy as singular or sustained as the Cult of the Dead Cow. This is at least to some degree by design: the Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) was one of the earlier underground groups in the history of networked culture to aggressively and artfully participate in their own mythologizing, history writing and external publicity. The group has relentlessly solicited and cultivated media attention in a self-proclaimed quest for “world domination through media saturation.”
Since cDc’s founding in 1984, dozens of major voices in TV, radio, print and electronic media have reported on the group’s members and activities. cDc’s own carefully organized press archive documents mentions on NPR, NBC’s Dateline, CNN, The Discovery Channel, C-NET, MTV, Forbes, Wired, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Register, The Los Angeles Times, and many others. Their archive references several dozen cDc mentions in book-length works of fiction and non-fiction.
Unlike the more recently favored hobbyhorses of today’s sensationalist reporting on hacker collectives like LulzSec, TeaMp0isoN, and the many manifestations of Anonymous—or the previous decade’s reporting on Hacking for Girliez and the Level Seven Crew—cDc and its members were not covered for high-profile website defacements or protest-oriented denial of service attacks. Rather, it was their original software releases and prolific electronic publishing that nurtured their continued visibility and importance.
The fictions that comprise the cDc text files often seem to be the unapologetic product of twitchy teen fingers. Narratives orbit around extraordinary and everyday confrontations with authority—whether it’s parental, police, or institutional power that’s center. References to high school and its social politics abound. Stories are often related in deeply hyperbolic and sarcastic tones. Humor, while everywhere, is most often painted in dark or morbid colors. The occult and supernatural are evoked in cartoonish satanic figurations. Sex is graphic and loveless, often related with a frenzied, omnivorous appetite in the telling.
Many of their stories are small-order fantasies about the dissolution of social order, death, oblivion. There is no dominant narrative other than isolation.
“Sir, if I lived a good life and kept Kosher, helped little old ladies across the street, do you think I could get a cute little angel to piss on my face every Thursday night in Heaven?”
40, “Sex with Satan” by Psycoe (1988)
cDc’s origin myth begins in the town of Lubbock, Texas—the hub of the state's South Plains, a city with some quarter million residents today. It was there that in 1984 founding members Grandmaster Ratte’, Franken Gibe, and Sid Vicious started meeting in an abandoned slaughterhouse. Their friendship soon took the form of the writing, editing and distribution of text files under the Cult of the Dead Cow label. Predating popular consumer access to the Internet by several years, cDc manifested on the bulletin board system (BBS) scene, claiming the Demon Roach Underground as its original base of operations. You can still see the old numbers for dialing in to Demon Roach Underground and other BBSs on the trailing footers of many cDc text files.
A bulletin board system, or BBS, was a once-popular form of dialup network that allowed text-based communication and file sharing among its users. With a bit of software, a modem-equipped Apple II or similar computer, and a telephone line—you could run your own BBS for friends and strangers to dial up. While a middling mainstream of BBS nodes for polite adult users advertised in computer magazines and elsewhere dominated the national scene—the interlinked FidoNet perhaps the most prominent example—a darker undercurrent was also evolving. Hacking-, pirate- and underground-oriented boards attracted (often younger) users who would log in to share experiences cracking software, hacking the phone system, and learning about advanced and against-the-grain technology use in general.
Those words played over and over in his head like a record with a bad scratch. He knew he was right though. He really did need to take a break. Hell, he'd been on the project only three months and already he had enough data for two papers. "Yeah," he thought, "I guess I deserve a break." That's where he found himself as he shoved his tooth brush into the duffel bag. Bob was taking a vacation. His first, and to Disneyland to boot. He'd heard all about the insane rides and the throngs of people. He knew he could lose himself there, knew that no one would notice that he never talked to anyone else and always ate alone. Indeed, he knew he could get in touch with himself there. Bob was never the type of kid to play in the woods or even play outside much. He preferred to sit and read or watch TV. As far as he was concerned, this trip to Disneyland was a trip into nature, into the real world, a world where Bob had never felt entirely comfortable. It's hard to feel normal in such a place when you're a two foot high, dysfunctional mechanical dog.
For a while, the group floundered. The main problem people face when they decide to form a group is not lack of talent or ability, its a lack of direction and definite goals. We had a bunch of people, several boards and a spiffy name, with nothing much to do. Most of the time in similar situations, groups break up. However, due to our stubbornness and/or stupidity, we stuck it out. During this time (late '84-mid '87), several of us had written t-files now and then. Suddenly it dawned on us, after we had written about 10 files, that we could specialize in file writing. Bill and I talked this over extensively and decided that's what we'd do. So cDc became a file-writing group. There are certain things that people can do in a group context that can't be done as well when working individually, and working with others in a group can be fun. You can, as a group, decide to put forth a message (possibly political) and be more effective with your combined efforts. Those are some real reasons for forming a telecom group.
cDc continued with the file writing, and people continue to join the group and we have become a pretty prolific bunch. In the meantime, Sid-o "retired" from telecom. Last we heard, he was doing lots of drugs and playing guitar in a punk band. Franken Gibe writes an occasional file, but doesn't call out much. I call a few boards, do the minimum necessary to keep my board from crashing, and edit files when there's time. Most of the people in the group tend to be "liberal" oriented, and many of our files have a political or social message in them. We try to have files with good information, humor, fiction, music, poetry, magazine reprints, or whatever somebody happens to find interesting. We think of this as a sort of 'zine publishing, with telecom as the medium. Franken Gibe thought of a good phrase to express our attitude as a group, "telecom as the means, not the end." We focus on the end, hopefully human communications. Most other groups focus on telecom as a technology. That's the difference in our approach, something we're proud of. There's nothing wrong with pure h/p groups and what they do; people enjoy it as a challenge. However, we feel that that approach alone leaves something out. We've been attempting to fill that gap.
As filmmaker Jason Scott Sadofsky chronicled in his 2005 BBS: The Documentary, underground boards naturally engaged new and younger publics who had access to personal computers and underdeveloped telephony networks that could (with some study) be exploited to deliver free long-distance service—helping teen hackers and phreaks avoid parental surveillance via the phone bill as well as the often restrictive charges of long-distance calling itself. Often forced to confront the frustrations of being as yet unrealized actors in a prohibitively expensive telecom marketplace, a natural activity for some teen BBS users became the trade of pirated software and the exploration of computer networks and the phone system—by then a framework still fragmented into an archipelago of unevenly guarded corporate and government infrastructures not yet horizontally linked by the Internet.
Let’s take a moment and try to imagine an historical context for a thorny word. Every generation of hackers inherits a corpus of problems and shared concerns—a state of the art, one could say. Technology’s ever curving narrative of progress seems always obsessing over its own convergences. But the coordinates of each convergence are often legible only from the backward glance of the past tense.
Communications historian Douglas Thomas has described the hacker cultures of the 1960s and 70s in the American context as one centered on the university—particularly places like MIT, Harvard, and Cornell. Graduate students from diverse fields working on university systems solved the problems and built the software that would eventually allow the personal computer to enter the American home. They also developed much of the core software that would enable the mushrooming of Internet infrastructure decades later. “Hacker,” for this generation, was still a term of art—an honorific distinction that had yet to make its way to the popular imagination.
The generation that would succeed these frontier developers would by contrast encounter technology in a domestic setting, sometimes under hostile regimes of parental control and surveillance. Personal computers made access possible outside the steep walls of the university, but often with a substantially different ideological context. As the hierarchical conditions of the domestic arena take the place of the previously academic or institutional framework, a consumer-driven and corporate software environment likewise comes to replace the more open and research-oriented university systems. While the latter seemed to engender collaborative software development and the elaboration of existing systems, the former seemed to solicit reactive subversion and cracking. The new class of ambitious users often felt more policed than empowered by the world of software in which they found themselves.
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