“Hacking” is, perhaps, the best example of popular culture misreading how computers work.
In other words, if you saw Johnny Mnemonic (or read the much better short story) then you know what the “idea” of hacking looks like.
Hacking in popular culture is physical as if people can swim through code, break through firewalls, and steal other peoples’ data with ease. Hacking ain’t like that and there are some serious penalties if you’re caught doing anything resembling it.
Hackers get knocked down by the authorities, hard.
In the last few years, there have been a number of fairly high-profile cases involving hackers. Lulzsec, for example, hacked into companies like Nintendo and Bethesda Softworks, and released information about each company’s customers. Not a big deal, what would Nintendo know about use that could be incriminating. After hacking into http://www.pron.com (and several organizations like the FBI and Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency) people started to take notice.
This is what the Lulzsec website looks like now.
In an interview with BBC, Jake Davis, the groups self-appointed PR guy, says he regrets basically everything he’s ever done on the Internet.
“It was my world, but it was a very limited world,” Davis said. “You can see and hear it, but you can’t touch the internet. It’s a world devoid of empathy – and that shows on Twitter, and the mob mentality against politicians and public figures. There is no empathy.
“So it was my world, and it was a very cynical world and I became a very cynical person.”
This brings us to the topic of this article. Malcolm Frink, a young hacker, is dancing on a dangerous line.
Hacking in the 90s
For those who might not be familiar with Malcolm Frink, I really can’t blame you.
Super Human Samurai Syber Squad appeared on television in the mid 90s. It stars Matthew Lawrence as Sam Collins, a teen who has the ability to transport into computer systems transforming into Servo.
As this “Syber” warrior, Sam is able to defeat evil viruses and bring calm to the interconnected computers that control basically everything in his world. With his band mates Amp, Sydney, and Tanker he gets into a lot of mischief all at the expense of one guy.
Malcolm is a loner with a surly temperament and a greasy head of hair. He’s also a computer nerd able to, with the help of a computer virus named Kilokahn (voiced by Tim Curry), bring his drawings to life as viruses that can attack everything from nuclear power plants to wristwatches. He’s a troubled youth with a mean streak, but why doesn’t he just change and fly right?
Malcolm’s high school, Young Valley High, sucks. Brimming with 90s positivity, everyone wears sickly neon-tinted clothes with hints of chains and ripped plaid. It’s the perfect example of what the idealized school environment was in that time and place. It has kooky characters, there are always school events, and everyone, for the most part, is normal.
Everyone bullies Malcolm because he’s different.
He wears black, he’s a negative, misanthropic, nihilistic, and he even speaks with a different cadence from the other characters. Negativity had no place in the zeitgeist of the 90s, which is why goth and grunge ran so rampant with teens. Some didn’t feel like the idea of everything being ok. They wanted to be different, but in doing something outside of the “norm” they’re discriminated against.
Every episode of the series begins and ends the exact same way. Sam and his friends are at school, and they do something to deliberately mess with Malcolm. In “An Un-Helping Hand”, Sydney walks up to Malcolm to ask what he’s doing. Malcolm, who seems genuinely happy at her inquiry, tells her about his drawing of Custer’s Last Stand. At the same time, Sydney is recording his voice and when she gets back to her table with Sam, Tanker, and Amp she begins to mess with him using her 90s synthesizer.
When Malcolm gets up to demand they stop, the group tags up against him and Tanker, the big guy, threatens him with a beat down. What’s worse is that Sam comes to Malcolm’s defense, but where was he when Sydney was messing around with his voice? He was laughing with everyone else.
It’s a bait-and-switch, so long as Sam is there as Malcolm’s pseudo-friend, the rest of the group can entertain themselves with his suffering. What’s worse is that the only person Malcolm can find any solace in is a sociopathic computer program that manipulates him into doing his bidding.
That’s like if you had a bad day in high school and when you got home someone – who you really, really trust – told you to burn a car and you did it. Malcolm doesn’t just let his cyber pranking stop at stupid things like taking over Sydney’s watch, but he eventually participates in acts of cyber terrorism.
You’re a terrorist Malcolm! Barack Obama would have you sent to a very dark place.
The lesson of every episode isn’t that Malcolm Frink is a bad guy, the lesson is that Sam and his group shouldn’t have bullied him in the first place. Yet in every episode, both groups fight one another. One attacking and the other retaliating. And really, what does Malcolm do deserve being bullied? Sure, he’s antagonistic towards their fun-loving attitudes, but he isn’t harming anyone on his own. He’s the victim of bullying.
Yet let’s take a step back from this literal reading.
Opening the tome of 90s bullying
Malcolm’s relationship with Kilokahn isn’t real. The “Syber World” doesn’t actually exist.
High school youths face an immense amount of pressure from other students. In his cyber world of hacking and monsters, Malcolm finds a place where he can be seen as a ruler, a hero like Servo. It’s a fantasy that guides symbolic nature of Malcolm’s interactions (rather than it actually happening in the real world) with the cyber Sam, Sydney, Amp, and Tanker.
In “An Un-Helping Hand”, Malcolm confides in Kilokahn that he’d like to get some sweet revenge on the group. Malcolm’s evil mentor provides a solution in the form of a virus that can hack into Sydney’s wristwatch that can make her do anything from pickpocketing students and causing harm to herself and those around her. With a virus controlling her arm, how can she possibly live a normal life? Muahahaha-hahahahahahaha.
Have you ever tried to hack into a wristwatch?
It literally cannot be done. I know suspension of disbelief and so on, but in every episode right when Malcolm logs onto his computer at home the narrative begins to derail. At this computer, reality takes a backseat and the fantastical nature of his imagination takes over.
Instead of the events actually occuring, Kilokahn and Malcolm’s interactions take on the qualities of a fanfiction-like daydream.
At one point in the episode, Tanker attempts to remove the evil wristwatch and gets knocked out in the process. Even with a full-strength punch knocking someone like Tanker – who stands head and shoulders taller than most students – into a locker would require super-human strength. And when she tries to take it off herself, the virus attempts to strangle her to death. Watching it in the show is kind of amusing as they struggle to control her arm, but reading my description make it sound more like a grotesque snuff film.
The wristwatch, a piece of technology, becomes the focal point of Malcolm’s revenge. As someone who understands computers and electronics, he knows that this piece of silicon and copper is something his fantastical viruses could latch onto, but in reality he is unable to actually do anything about Sydney and the group. She’s off the grid. No Internet, no connectivity.
Malcolm’s ability to hack into unhackable objects is a clear example of his imagination taking over reality. Sitting at his computer, he is more likely writing a fan fiction of the lives around him rather than actually sending viruses created from drawings into electronics. These viruses figuratively allow Malcolm to take revenge on his fellow students in ways that is narrative apropos. In other word, the punishment fits the crime.
Stepping back from a literal reading of the show – wouldn’t Slavoj Žižek be proud – provides us insight into the real problems Malcolm is facing. Rather than the cyber world being a physical place and his revenge against Sam’s group occurring in reality, his vengeance is more representative of the adolescent frustration he feels on a day-to-day basis.
Malcolm’s relationship with Kilokahn is the result of his inability to confront his oppressors in the real world. Kilokahn is his alter ego that facilitates his retreat into fantasy, into his computer, and so on. The world that exists within Super Human Samurai Syber Squad is divided into the real and cyber worlds, but Malcolm is slowing becoming more obsessed with his virtual reality.
Malcolm’s mind can cope with this reality so long as he is able to exert total control within the fantasy. Something as simple as control over Sydney’s arm allows him to make her stop manipulating his voice and hit his oppressor, Tanker, as he was unable to in reality. However, Sam’s image in his mind acts as the omnipotent mediator, as he does in real life.
Servo stops Malcolm’s viruses from totally destroying his images of Tanker, Amp, Sydney, and Sam because they cannot exist in one reality and not the other. Servo is the guardian that keeps both worlds in check so one does not take over the other. Sam stops the conflict, but never helps as he does in the real world. This is a path of ruin for Malcolm, and he doesn’t even know it.
Some advice for Malcolm Frink
Hey Malcolm, things get better.
As someone who has faced a lot of the same challenges you are facing right now, I can tell you that reaching university, or college in the United States, will be the best thing that ever happened to you.
People like Tanker, Amp, Sam, and Syndey will be there too, but you can choose who you interact with and within the world of higher-education you will find people who think like you do, look like you do, and who will accept you for who you are. In high school, you don’t get a choice on who are your classmates, but when you get older that gets easier.
Think about what you’re doing at your computer at night, Malcolm. You have a unique ability in the early 90s that most grown adults today wish they had spent time learning. With the ability to code, draw, and use computers you have an invaluable skill set that will take you far in life. The future is bright.
However, I need you to do something. Find help. Kilokahn isn’t real. He’s a figment of your imagination and the fantasies that he brings you into are unhealthy. Imagine if that nuclear power plant meltdown was real, imagine if you actually used your computer skills to create that. There’s a sense of power that fantasy gives to you, but in reality you’d likely end up spending the better part of your life in jail.
The fantasy that is the cyber world is a coping mechanism for you, and there are people out there who can help you move on from that world and into the real one that exists outside of the screen. Imagine if that virus turns into a knife and that revenge you seek turns into something that you truly regret.
The world needs smart, sensitive, and different people like you.
Even when I was younger, Malcolm Frink was the character I sympathized most in the show. He was characterized as being almost comically evil, but there was a kind of desperation in everything that he did to get attention from the others.
Recently, I sat down to watch the show’s Christmas Special that we have on VHS at home. It’s a funny episode that doesn’t really involve Malcolm, but something important happens. Kilokahn tells him that Servo lives within a 6 mile radius of his home. Malcolm’s antagonist is nearby.
He reacts like any 90s villain might, he makes a slit-across-his-throat hand gesture and smirks, but below the surface you can only imagine what’s going through his mind. When he learns Servo = Sam, the two world combine and Malcolm realizes that he’s been living in a fantasy world. Of course, the characters get a case of amnesia and forget it even happens, but it provides clarity to him. Somewhere deep inside of Malcolm there is hope that Kilokahn will one day disappear.
Anyway, I’ve said pretty much all I can say about this 90s show. Below, however, is an episode I really hope you’ll watch. It’s entitled “What a Rad World”. It takes place in an alternate reality where Sam takes the role of Malcolm in the real world.