Beto O’Rourke wants to save us from the future. It looks bleak. Dystopian. Machines are taking our jobs and sucking our very lifeblood. An authoritarian ruler sits on a gilded throne, surrounded by televisions. Perhaps, people say, the rumors are true. That Beto O’Rourke is the One.
As Reuters reported today, O’Rourke was a member of the notorious early-internet hacking collective Cult of the Dead Cow, or CDC, in his youth. Named for a closed-down slaughterhouse in the Lubbock, TX, area, CDC was a group of teens who got up to nefarious activities on the early web. What exactly were they up to? Per Reuters:
Like O’Rourke, Wheeler said, he was hunting for video games that had been “cracked,” or stripped from digital rights protections, so that he could play them for free on his Apple. Also like O’Rourke, Wheeler wanted to find other teens who enjoyed the same things, and to write and share funny and profane stories that their parents and conservative neighbors wouldn’t appreciate. It was good-natured resistance to the repressive humdrum around them, a sort of “Footloose” for those just discovering the new world of computers.
At the time, people connected to bulletin boards by dialing in to the phone lines through a modem. Heavy use of long-distance modem calls could add up to hundreds of dollars a month. Savvy teens learned techniques for getting around the charges, such as using other people’s phone-company credit card numbers and five-digit calling codes to place free calls.
O’Rourke didn’t say what techniques he used. Like thousands of others, though, he said he pilfered long-distance service “so I wouldn’t run up the phone bill.”
What Reuters is describing is known as “phone phreaking,” an early hacking technique the Reuters reporter was so concerned about that he interviewed a government ethics specialist to determine whether a 17-year-old fucking around with phone lines to shitpost with his friends makes him a notorious criminal (it doesn’t).
The Reuters story also noted CDC bulletin boards included some Anarchist Cookbook-esque content, including a pipe bomb recipe that a few kids in Canada hurt themselves making, which led the group to add a content disclaimer to the posts. But by that time, Beto O’Rourke had left the underground behind, he said, shedding his hacker past to embody a different burnout trope in the New York art scene.
Most of O’Rourke’s activity in the CDC, Reuters reports, was less hacking and more writing edgy blog posts—well before sites like LiveJournal were popular—under the handle “Psychedelic Warlord.” Among them is a disturbing short story O’Rourke wrote when he was 15, in which the narrator, a man who has vivid, euphoric dreams, murders people, including two children. It’s...not great, but it also doesn’t seem to be much more than a 15-year-old edge-posting on a message board. The rest of his writing is all over the place: a combative interview with a Neo-Nazi, a vision of a money-free society, even a poem which includes the lines “wax my ass / scrub my balls.”
But naturally, the worst of it is being milked for all that it’s worth by the conservative media machine:
After college, where did his mildly illicit internet past leave him? As a software entrepreneur back in Texas, carrying on the CDC’s legacy through his weird indie band and alternative publishing projects. At some point along his winding path to politics, he also caught whatever disease forces tech dudes to speak only in meaningless platitudes for the rest of their life. Take this, for example, in which the new candidate who would be the One manages to take an interesting facet of his life and suck it dry of any particular significance whatsoever. Per Reuters:
“There’s just this profound value in being able to be apart from the system and look at it critically and have fun while you’re doing it,” O’Rourke said. “I think of the Cult of the Dead Cow as a great example of that.”
For all his early rebellion and counterculture street cred, the adult O’Rourke has regularly made decisions that are not punk at all, to say the least, like his recently reported support for paving over a low-income El Paso neighborhood in favor of an upmarket subdivision. This, to me, is a far more damning indictment of who O’Rourke would be as a leader than his teenage blog posts, making the first hacker president a pretty tough pill to swallow.