I learned about hacking in the woods.
I didn’t learn about computers in the woods, of course. I grew up with computers. My uncle, a journalist, would kick down his old computers to me as he upgraded. So even though I was born in 01989, my first computer was an Apple IIc (discontinued 01988). Its entire memory lived on five-inch floppy disks and it had a monochrome monitor. It was my favorite thing ever.
I learned to program BASIC on that machine. I learned HTML on a Windows 3.1 rig, made a Pac-Man clone on 95. I lost my LimeWire collection trying to install Linux from a CD in a library book. I made my first GeoCities page at the age of twelve. I grew up with computers, programming, internet. I’m a digital native. But I didn’t really learn to hack until I went off-grid.
Stardate 02012, the year that Terence McKenna had predicted an exponential increase in novelty and the subsequent phase shift of global society, I moved to a remote wilderness commune in Northern California. They had goats, gardens, wood stoves and outhouses. They also had an open membership policy, which was perfect for my plan.
I had spent the last few years studying memetic engineering, both in college and in daily life. I had veered dangerously close to becoming the sort of “applied psychologist” that we around here call dark wizards , but my experiences with anarchist organizing had hardened my heart to to the corporate influence machine. I was a Crimethinc kid, an Adbusters aficionado. So when Occupy Wall Street ignited across the country, I dropped out of school to join what I naively thought would be a digital revolution like the Arab Spring.
With no institutionalized leaders, no explicit policy goals, and no formal logistical structure, Occupy was a perfect petri dish for memetic engineering. It was a sandbox for culture. Thousand-person marches could be conjured by a rumor. Libraries and art studios and soup kitchens were founded by teenagers with tarps in the parks. Street kids and professors bumped elbows, politicians and criminals pretended like they had just met. I made myself useful at the info booth, took notes at meetings, delivered mail and packages to the different working groups as it arrived. I found kindred spirits, scholars and scribes and posties, and we formed a micro-cult of pen and paper and stamp.
After the movement was beaten into submission, we stayed together. We caravaned across America, visiting former Occupiers and activists of all stripes. I was looking for a Permanent Autonomous Zone – my time in the Temporary Autonomous Zones of Occupy and the Rainbow Gathering had been the most free, creative and portentous of my life. I wanted to see how long a container like that could last, and what sort of spirits would arise.
That fall, as the woo-woo parts of my social circles geared up for the Whatever Singularity At The End Of Time, I moved to the woods. That was where I learned to hack.
I’ve written about this place before – it’s a social laboratory, an experimental community where everyone’s doing their own mad science fair project. I went there to learn about sharing, about effort, and about the coordination that makes human societies possible. I expected to learn forestry and cooking. I didn’t expect to learn circuitry and chemistry and engineering.
What I found, deep in the mountains, was an appreciation for the technological stack that modern humans take for granted.
We had almost no internet. One computer, literally in the attic, attached by cables to a satellite dish from 01997, was all we had. Every month, our bandwidth allowance would reset, and immediately drain away as some sun-fearing newcomer hid in the attic bingeing YouTub. Without fail.
We had a great library, although when I arrived it was literally a heap of books with people were sleeping on top of them. I organized and reshelved them all, building a mental map of the commune’s collective memory. When our hippie-rigged life support systems inevitably broke down, I would resort to dusty books and reverse-engineering instead of waiting half an hour to load Wikipedia. It was an environment that forced improvisation.
Our systems were human-scale: micro-hydroelectric wheel, solar panels, drip irrigation, a broad iron stove that doubled as a water heater. They were nothing like the complex, intertwingled infrastructure of modern civilization. Nonetheless, they failed often and needed constant attention. So I hacked them.
Over time, I found myself specializing in these systems, not just because they were interesting, but because no one else would do it . Well, to be fair, a couple other people were on my side, people whose skills were at least as good as mine. But there ten times as many people who not only didn’t know anything about the technical systems that kept them alive, but didn’t care . They knew only that things worked until they didn’t, and when something broke they would literally just walk away and never tell anyone .
The who-knows-who-cares attitude wasn’t the worst, either. As you might expect, the distant mountain commune also attracts a certain amount of that repulsive creature, the anprim. Anarcho-primitivists are generally laughable hypocrites, writing their manifestos against agriculture and industry while wiping Cheeto dust off their laptop keyboards.
In the woods, it kind of makes sense to fashion your own clothes from the skins of the things you kill. Sure. But germ theory didn’t somehow get reverted just because you read Zerzan, so you still can’t leave piles of rotten flesh in the sun by the kitchen door. One syphilitic fuckmonkey literally took a flying kick at the circuit breaker box (which has to be the least effective direct action ever, even by anprim standards). The systems that kept us alive – wood heat, gasoline chainsaws, plastic pipes, hot water and soap and the sign that says WASH YOUR HAND – these meant nothing to the kids role-playing the end of the world. They inhabited a fantasy where their hunting and gathering prowess made them superior to the other 7 billion humans on the planet, and yet they couldn’t build a water filter to save their lives.
So eventually I left. I felt I had learned what I could from this autonomous zone, and realized that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life arguing with anti-vaxxers and goldbugs. In the quest to disconnect from the planet-eating monster machine, we had neutralized all the power we had to change things. From the commune I couldn’t protest, couldn’t communicate, couldn’t connect with allies. Yet I wasn’t free, or safe, as I remembered every time a drone slid silently through the sky overhead. I was just sidelined.
When I returned to the world-city, I thought aliens had invaded. The smartphone, which I had last seen as the novel tool of Occupy, had taken over the world. The bodies of my fellow humans now crawled with technologies. Smart watches gripped wrists like manacles, headphones slithered through specialized slots in hoodies, and everyone walked with the distinctive gorilla-arm, head-lowered pose of the phoney. The black mirrors had landed.