Who are creating these computer programs that disrupt the lives of millions of people around the world in the name of love? Why are they doing this to us?
When the author or authors of this virus get nabbed (and you can bet they will be; the fbi is eager to show off its newly deployed National Infrastructure Protection squads), chances are they will be young men. David Smith was 31 when he pleaded guilty to distributing the Melissa virus. "Mafiaboy," the Montreal youth charged with disabling cnn.com in February, is 15.
Because most viruses require little in the way of programming skills, real hackers deride the "script kiddies" and "packet monkeys" who carry around tattered copies of The Giant Black Book of Computer Viruses, instant-message each other and hang out on Internet Relay Chat, trading bits of renegade code and bragging about their exploits.
They are curiously contemporary symbols of technology — these anonymous, alienated warriors who have been simultaneously building and tearing down the architecture of the most amazing subculture on the planet: the Internet and the World Wide Web. The members of this brainy, quarrelsome culture understand better than anyone else the inner workings of the systems that now run the world. They are perhaps the first group of young people to know so much more than the adults ostensibly responsible for them.
But few people outside this culture understand very much about them — not their unnerved teachers, not the phobic journalists who write about them, not the politicians who prattle on about Web porn.
As a Web columnist, I get e-mail from these young men every day. There is a hostile streak in this new universe, whose mailing lists and chat rooms are filled with "flames," insults and virulent confrontation. Some of the e-mail that comes in is riveting; some is fairly savage. It's a rare day somebody doesn't urge me to die. When I respond, my correspondents are often surprised and apologetic. They didn't, they tell me, think I would really read their message.
Like anyone who dashes off an angry e-mail, the flamers and the virus writers often don't see the consequences of what they're doing. They are simply lashing out at what they often perceive as the big, greedy, distant, corporatized world. They don't quite grasp that the entities on the other end are human beings whose feelings can be hurt and whose personal and work lives can be disrupted.
This disconnect can be costly, as the last week has proved. When police finally bust into some suburban home or college dorm somewhere in the world and haul out some terrified teenagers — or former teenagers — in front of a horde of reporters, you can bet we won't be seeing any modern-day John Dillingers. More likely we'll see some gifted, alienated kids — powerless in their real adolescent lives — who couldn't resist the temptation to use technology to make themselves, even briefly, more powerful than they had ever imagined.
Media critic Jon Katz writes a column for the website Slashdot.org. His most recent book is Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet Out of Idaho