Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “Hacking ‘Agrippa': The Source of the Online Text”

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, “Hacking ‘Agrippa': The Source of the Online Text.”

The pages that follow are excerpted and adapted from a chapter-length discussion of the electronic text of Agrippa in Kirschenbaum’s book Mechanisms: New Media and the New Textuality (forthcoming from MIT Press). Kirschenbaum notes: “Mechanisms addresses itself to the textual and technical primitives of electronic writing, with special attention to the qualities of erasure, variability, repeatability, and survivability for electronic objects.” This text offered for the UCSB Transcriptions Project’s The Agrippa Files site only. Not to be reposted elsewhere without the author’s explicit prior permission. Copyright © 2005 Matthew G. Kirschenbaum.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum teaches in the English Department at University of Maryland, College Park, and is Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). His blog is at http://www.otal.umd.edu/~mgk/blog/; he may be contacted at mgk =at= umd =dot= edu

The first trace of text from “Agrippa” (the actual poem){1} on the public internet I can isolate is 21 May 1992, 16:05:30 PST, when Tom Maddox—fellow cyberpunk, Gibson confidant, and then USENET stalwart—began including the line “I swear I never heard the first shot” in his message signature file. It was tantalizingly attributed to “Wm. Gibson, ‘AGRIPPA: a book of the dead’.” Pointedly perhaps, his post that spring day was to a thread on rec.arts.books that had arisen in response to some advance publicity for Agrippa, then being erroneously described as a short story. Maddox continued to use the line throughout the summer and fall, but dropped it immediately after the events described below placed the text in general circulation.

The full text of “Agrippa” did not become available online until the morning of Thursday, December 10th, 1992, when it was uploaded as a 10-kilobyte ASCII file to MindVox, an edgy New York City-based electronic bulletin board and internet service provider run by Patrick K. Kroupa, alias Lord Digital.{2} Itself a kind of interface between what Alan Sondheim has aptly called the darknet and the clean, well lighted cyberspaces soon to come, MindVox was an ideal initial host. The first public acknowledgement of its presence there does not appear to have come until a day later, when users who logged into the board’s crowded Vox forum—the place for news of general interest—would have seen the following from “The Chemist,” on December 11th at 09:00:07 AM: “It’s online right now, no explanation, there it is.” It was not until the day after that the person who claimed chief responsibility for the exploit was heard from:

From: templar (Templar)
Posted: Sat, 12 Dec 1992 11:40:09 AM
Subject: AGRIPPA

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present, after much controversy, the full text of William Gibson's AGRIPPA to the users of MindVox first!

Look for it in the uploads directory...

Enjoy...

—T {3}

The tight chronology here is significant. On December 9th, the night before Templar’s copy of the text first appeared on MindVox, at the New York City arts space called The Kitchen, Kevin Begos had contrived to stage an elaborate networked multimedia performance, something akin to a release party and gallery opening for Agrippa, including plans for an electronic simulcast involving other gallery spaces and the internet. The complete prototype for Agrippa was on display, and the centerpiece of the evening was a recorded reading of Gibson’s text by magician Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame—Jillette was an avid computer hobbyist—accompanied by a big-screen projection of the poem scrolling off to oblivion. An NPR story about Agrippa, which featured snippets of Jillette’s pre-recorded reading, had aired earlier in the day. (This was not a complete rendition of the poem, however, as is sometimes reported, and so it was not in fact the first public broadcast of Agrippa.) In the transcript from the show the host, Tom Vitale, is quoted as saying: “Author William Gibson and publisher Kevin Begos both figure that some hacker will crack the self-destructing code and copy the disk or that an unauthorized taping of one of tonight’s events will eventually be transcribed and passed along on computer bulletin boards.”{4} This was to prove prescient. By the next morning “Agrippa” was already on MindVox.

It propagated rapidly after that, starting with FTP servers and anonymous mailers. Its progress was only slightly slower in what would have been the expected venues on USENET news and listserv email. A garbled copy of the text (a botched cut-and-paste job from the original MindVox file) had been sent to the FutureCulture listserv and then to alt.cyberpunk as early as December 11th, but was not further circulated. A corrected copy was then posted to FutureCulture, and by December 13th the following message had appeared in the alt.cyberpunk newsgroup: “Re: all the requests to post/send AGRIPPA…. It is on ftp sites…it is available via auto-mailers…. The real version is propagating, the incorrect version does not seem to be. Thus, there is no reason to publically [sic], obviously subject onesself [sic] to obvious copyright violations if it is not necessary.”{5} Further complicating matters was the release, near-simultaneous with “Agrippa,” of a text by Kroupa on MindVox called “AGR1PPA” (note the leetspeak orthography)—best understood as a kind of parody, though its author would strenuously deny any affiliation whatsoever with Gibson’s text. “AGR1PPA” was also widely circulated, and no doubt conflated with “Agrippa” by some unknown number of hapless readers.{6} Meanwhile, over on FutureCulture, then a premier salon for the cyber-chic, Gibson’s “intentions” for his self-consuming poem and its subsequent re-appearance online were being hotly debated. (And in the midst of this some wag began posting phony messages attributed to “William Gibson.”) Within days the text had been spread far and wide across the network and was read by thousands. By early January 1993, a mere three weeks later, the poem was repeatedly posted to alt.cyberpunk and breathless announcements that someone had “finally” gotten hold of a copy were being flamed as old news.

The precise manner in which the text of the poem made its way to MindVox does not appear to be widely known and has never been authoritatively discussed. The most common narrative has it that it was cracked or hacked from a copy of the diskette. When the text of “Agrippa” was first uploaded to MindVox, Templar, its custodian, had prefaced it with a brief introductory note in which he presented the poem as “hacked and cracked” by “-Templar- / Rosehammer & Pseudophred.” He then added: “And I’m not telling you how I did it.” Gerald Jonas, in an article reprinted in Victor J. Vitanza’s popular Cyberreader, has since told his readers that it was an “international legion of computer hackers” who had “broken the code” (289).{7} Gibson himself, in interviews, has offered only the vaguest of statements: “[S]omeone got a hold of a copy of the thing kind of early on, cracked the supposedly uncrackable code and posted the poem on the Internet, where it remains to this day. . . .”{8} In fact, contrary to much lore and many colorful claims, “Agrippa” was never really hacked or cracked at all, at least not in any strict computational sense.

I have received two accounts of what really did happen. The accounts differ, and I have no way to reconcile them. According to Kevin Begos, a group of NYU students representing themselves as documentary film-makers attended the December 9th event at the Kitchen and video-taped the big-screen display of the text that accompanied Penn Jillette’s recorded reading of the poem.{9} Presumably this group included the person known online as Templar or his affiliates. They then transcribed the poem from their tape, and, within hours, had gotten the text file uploaded to MindVox. This is Begos’s understanding of what happened, and it would seem corroborated by a public posting from Templar himself, years after the fact, in which he refers to the work’s “first public unveiling in Manhattan” and states “that’s where we got the original copy and posted it.”{10} Yet Patrick Kroupa, one of just a few people in a position to really know, discounts this version of events.{11} His story, which I am not at liberty to disclose, intimates that a betrayal of trust had earlier yielded the file that eventually found its way to MindVox, and that the posting was withheld until the morning after the proceedings at The Kitchen out of respect for the work.

In the introduction in which he claimed credit for the hack Templar had airily written that the text of “Agrippa” was a “challenge, or dare . . . the latest golden fleece of the hacking community.” And so it was, a black box figuratively as well as literally, a perfect-pitch technological glyph that seemed to call out for some delicate or artful solution to be its Rosetta stone. If in retrospect the process by which the poem was brought to light seems anti-climactic—no late night bout of eldritch cybernetic jujitsu, no mainframe supercomputers burning away at the encryption with the incalculable energy of their massively parallel clusters and clock cycles—it’s also a situation thoroughly anticipated in the staccato rhythms of Gibson’s own prose, in the opening lines of the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” published ten years earlier:

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible.{12}

By all accounts the hacker known as Templar was a very technical boy. Here he had gone crude, regardless of which version of events is to be believed. Yet he had not necessarily behaved inconsistently. “Information wants to be free” was a rallying cry of the computer underground, and Templar made it clear in his posted remarks he meant no disrespect to Gibson—in fact, he urged those readers who could afford it to consider spending the money to purchase an authentic copy. Nor had he necessarily lied or been disingenuous in his use of the terms “hacking” and “cracking.” Broadly speaking, these activities do not need to involve a computer, and refer more to a lifestyle ethos than any specific technical procedures. In fact, all of the actions that have been ascribed to Templar are consistent with such venerable if dubious cracker practices as “shoulder-surfing” (looking over someone’s shoulder as they type a code or password), “trashing” (scouring trash containers for sensitive documents), and “social engineering” (verbally conning someone out of information you want). Templar’s tactics may have been crude, but they were not anything less of a hack for being low-tech. Indeed, an important part of the hacker mindset involves using the minimum effort to accomplish the desired result, and a brute force crack of the encryption achieved via privileged access to a supercomputer would not necessarily have been perceived as any more elegant. Or as Gibson would put it in the continuation of the lines above, “These days . . . you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness.” (1)

The online afterlife of “Agrippa” has at least one essential lesson to teach students and theorists of the new media. Despite its being a uniquely volatile electronic object—its own internal mechanisms radically ephemeral by both intent and design—”Agrippa” has proven remarkably persistent and durable over the years. No model of digital textuality that rests upon the new medium’s supposedly radically unstable ontology can be taken seriously so long as countless copies of this particular text remain only a search query away. Nor, as is sometimes claimed, does the text of the poem appear to be mutating or forking. I have examined and collated digital copies from dozens of sources and found no significant variants other than in the style of graphical presentation.{13} (Some of the earnest claims of textual mutation may originate with Kroupa’s AGR1PPA and other parodies; more generally I view them as manifestations of the same strain of technoRomanticism that leapt to embrace the conceit of a disappearing book.)

“Agrippa” owes its transmission and continuing availability to a complex network of individuals, communities, ideologies, markets, technologies, and motives. Only in the most heroic reading of the events above is “Agrippa” saved for posterity solely by virtue of the knight Templar. “Agrippa” thus demonstrates what the renowned bibliographical scholar D. F. McKenzie influentially called the “sociology of texts”; and from its example we can see that the preservation of digital media has a profound social dimension that is at least as important as purely technical considerations. Today, the 404 File Not Found messages that Web browsing readers of “Agrippa” inevitably encounter—the result of the file no longer residing on a local server where it was originally indexed by the search engine—are more than just false leads; they are latent affirmations of the work’s original act of erasure that allow the text to stage anew all of its essential points about artifacts, memory, and technology. “Because the struggle for the text is the text.”{14}

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
University of Maryland
mgk =at= umd =dot= edu
 
Notes

1. The title of Agrippa has been variously rendered, and the situation is complicated by the work’s multi-faceted ontology—there are distinctions to be made between the book, the poem, and the work as a conceptual whole. The title has often enough been capitalized (AGRIPPA), a practice originating with the word as it appears in the original ASCII transcript. I do not do so here, but have adopted the convention of using italics to indicate Agrippa the total work—book and poem and concept—and quotation marks to indicate “Agrippa” the literal text Gibson authored.

2. Patrick K. Kroupa, email to author Tue, 17 Jun 2003 12:50:26 -0400. Kroupa states “I got the cleartext at roughly 2am, wrote Agr1ppa at 3am, and released both the next day.”

3. On Fri, 13 Jun 2003 16:23:26 -0400 Patrick Kroupa, in response to my requests, put the complete MindVox BBS back online for “an hour or five.” Templar’s message, as well as the Chemist’s (quoted above) are from its archives, not currently otherwise available on the public internet.

4. “Amazing Disappearing Computer Book.” NPR, All Things Considered. Host Anne Garrels. December 9, 1992.

5. Andy Hawks, post to alt.cyberpunk newsgroup 1992-12-14 19:34:17 PST.

6. “Agrippa” was an instant magnet for satire and parody. In addition to Kroupa’s “AGR1PPA,” there was this aborted version by “Scotto”: “I hesitated / before untying the bow / that bound this book together. / Then I decided, / why the hell not, / it cost me a couple hundred dollars . . .” Andy Hawk’s on FutureCulture spoke of parodying the poem (Wed, 16 Dec 92 16:20:28 MST), and a complete (and rather impressive) leetspeak version was posted to FutureCulture on 21 December by “Zorgo”: “1 HESiTated / bEf0Re unty1ng tHe B0w / tHAt B0uNd th1s B()0K t0g3th3r.” And so on, for all 300 lines.

7. Jonas, “The Disappearing $2000 Book,” in Vitctor J. Vitanza, Cyberreader, 2nd edition (Botson: Allyn and Bacon, 1996 and 1999), 287-89.

8. http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com/display.cgi?id=5140

9. Kevin Begos, email to author Sun, 15 Jun 2003 15:43:24 -0400.

10. Posting on Slashdot.org, Friday February 04, 2000 @06:33PM. See <http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=3790&cid=1307101>.

11. Patrick K. Kroupa, email to author Tue, 17 Jun 2003 12:57:20 -0400.

12. William Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic.” In Burning Chrome (New York: Ace, 1987), 1.

13. Ironically, the sole exception is the copy of the poem online at Gibson’s own official Web site <http://www.williamgibsonbooks.com/source/agrippa.asp>. It contains two obvious typos. The first is in the closing lines of section III: “torqueflite radio, heather and power steering and brakes, new / w.s.w. premium tires. One owner. $1,595.” Presumably “heather” should be heater. The second is in the closing lines of the poem: “tonight red lanterns are battered. / laughing, / in the mechanism.” Presumably the period after “battered” should be a comma, “battered,” as it is any every other transcription I have seen. The punctuation here is blatantly incorrect. Mail to the Webmaster informing him of these errors yielded no response. Given the nature of digital duplication, the typos are noteworthy for their suggestion that the text online at Gibson’s site originated elsewhere than one of the generic copies now circulating on the Web.

14. Randall McLeod, “Information on Information,” Text 5 (1991): 240-281.

posted by editor on 10.18.05 @ 1:16 am | 1 Comment