Hackers probably don't look the same way they're portrayed in the media. So, why have the quintessential images of dark, mysterious hackers prevailed?
What do you wear when using an exploit to cause a data breach? A plush velvet tracksuit? An Armani jacket with uncomfortably high armholes? Jeans and a T shirt?
Well, most likely the last. But, if someone were to blog about the threat you pose, the accompanying stock photo will almost certainly show your face in the shadow of a hoodie as you lean menacingly over a keyboard.
It’s hard to lean menacingly over a keyboard, particularly while continuing to type at lightning speed, so kudos to you on that. And, given the empty, dark office behind you, you certainly seem to be putting in a lot of extra hours at work. Maybe if you get a raise you can upgrade your wardrobe.
What things look like vs. how they make you feel
Who is that hoodie-wearing hacker, sometimes accessorized with a sweat-inducing balaclava? He is a threat. It doesn’t matter whether real hackers look like that or not.
An image on a web page isn’t supposed to look like something real. It’s meant to represent something, like the idea of a computer-mediated threat to the safety of your data, rather than a specific individual. The hidden face means “anonymity”—and it’s no mistake that the Guy-Falkes-derived mask of the Anonymous collective often appears under a hoodie.
How does representation become reality?
It’s important to keep in mind that media representations of things end up affecting the way things look in the real world. Organized criminals started talking like those in The Godfather (both book and movie). Doctors used to wear their stethoscopes dangling down the front of their shirt, like a tie, but TV shows like ER showed them worn like a shawl, behind the neck—and doctors followed suit.
So the hoodie-wearing Elliot on Mr. Robot is, in the hall-of-mirrors manner of modern media, a TV representation of a real hacker who is stylistically influenced by media representations of fake hackers.
Still, one aspect of real life is that it keeps changing. And pretty soon the Hacker Hoodie is going to look as out of date as a fedora or a doublet (though more than one real-life hacker has no doubt worn both, though hopefully not simultaneously). Simple style change will force photographers to come up with something new.
But maybe not. Useful iconic images do tend to stick around for quite some time after the reality on which they are based disappears. Rotary desk phones are still iconic for “telephone”. Convicts wear striped uniforms and a ball-and-chain, thieves wear eye masks and carry sacks with big dollar signs on them. Recognizability requires familiarity.
Individuals vs. groups, men vs. women
Cyber-crime is big business. The creators of Philadelphia ransomware sell the software like a regular software package, through a website—and have to deal with cheap knockoffs. Hacking is a tool of national policy for many countries, as we’ve learned.
While many hackers certainly do work alone, the growing threat is from organized groups. Does the prevalence of lone hacker images lead people to underestimate the larger threat?
And, yes, the hackers in these pictures are almost always male, which does seem representative of the actual population. Female hackers are rarer than female programmers, who are still a bit less the 30 percent of all programmers. Are these images discouraging ambitious young women from taking up this potentially lucrative profession?
A plea to the creative class
We live in a creative era where a photograph of someone with a funny facial expression gets modified, captioned, mashed up with other images, tweeted, retweeted, and re-contextualized within hours. Yet the Hacker Hoodie abides.
Someone out there must be able to come up with something...OK, something that can instantly become a new cliché. But at least it can be a cliché that represents our own nervous and conflicted era.
Coming up with a new iconic representation of a hacker would actually make a fun promotion for a company to run, with a prize for the most persuasive and emotionally charged new hacker image.
Meanwhile, turn the lights down, the air conditioning up, and get hacking.