The Pretty-boy Hacker: Lucas Wolenczak
As a teenager, I learned about computer geeks through Jonathan Brandis’ role on SeaQuest DSV. Blue-eyed, blond-haired, and metrosexual, he was a marketable hacker created by network television in response to the growing presence of the internet in the mid-90s. Lucas Wolenczak’s mainstreaming of cyberpunk resembles the slickness of our modern, advertisement-laden World Wide Web. Furthermore, Jonathan’s attractiveness makes the viewer sympathetic to Lucas on a journey that leads to supporting corporate and military structures.
Brandis admitted to being “the farthest thing from a computer genius”; he doesn’t resemble his cyberpunk predecessors. For instance, Case—the drug-addicted hacker from William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer—is often told he “looks bad.” Lucas utilizes hair gel, sports an earring in the season two premiere, and often wears the most memorable piece of nineties fashion: the flannel shirt. During a romantic encounter, a female hacker said she “expected brilliance, not cute” from him.
The teen idol’s cuteness is a kind of marketing that other hackers have railed against. In the 1986 “Hacker Manifesto,” The Mentor writes: “my crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like.” Persuasion based on appearances is not valued within the cyberpunk community. Less than ten years after the publication of the “Manifesto,” Brandis’ looks were my—and other young women’s—introduction to hacking culture.
SeaQuest and The X-Files both started in the same year—1993—but The X-Files offered less-pretty hackers, The Lone Gunmen. Frohike and Langly are far from Hollywood’s stereotypical heartthrobs, and Byers is plain in comparison to the show’s stars. Frohike even comments on Scully’s attractiveness (“She’s hot”) in the episode “E.B.E.” This seventeenth episode is the first time the hackers are introduced to X-Files fans.
Alternately, Lucas is the only character that appears in every single episode of SeaQuest’s three seasons. In the pilot, Admiral Noyce assuages Captain Bridger’s concerns about Wolenczak’s age by saying, “the kid’s a genius.” Bridger eventually replies, “He needs a haircut.” Brandis’ trademark locks (like Gillian Anderson’s red hair) are conventionally “hot”; he is more of a pretty boy than Byers, Langly, or Frohike.
However, Lucas has competition for prettiest hacker: Angelina Jolie as Kate Libby. The movie Hackers was released in 1995, near the end of SeaQuest’s ’93-’96 run, and featured the slightly edgier Kate, or “Acid Burn,” on the signature lips of Jolie. She compounded my teenage love of cyberpunk. The plot of Hackers can be compared to the first season SeaQuest episode “Photon Bullet”; both consider the role and responsibility of hacking. And both use attractive computer geniuses to bring these conversations into the mainstream.
“Photon Bullet” introduces Lucas’ online identity: “Frankenstein.” This “hacker’s tag” refers to the popular culture reference of the monster, not Shelley’s alchemist. As such, it hides the pretty boy behind an ugly face.
The episode reveals the opposite to be true of Lucas’ idol, Martin Clemens, or “Mycroft.” He claims to want to make the world a better place through “social engineering” (hacking the World Bank), but it is revealed that Clemens is actually trying to atone for an assassination he orchestrated over the internet while employed by the CIA. As a government-funded hacker, Mycroft crossed an immoral boundary; as the head of Node Three, he proposed a moral, but illegal, action.
Hackers offers a different twist on “selling out” as a hacker; Kate and her less-than-memorable partner, Dade (Jonny Lee Miller), put aside their hacking duel to confront “The Plague.” This hacker is trying to use his position as a computer security officer to insert a salami-slicing worm that steals money from his employer, Ellingson Mineral. The Plague’s illegal program is contrasted with the “elite” hacks of Dade and Kate—pranks and infiltrating a Gibson (supercomputer).
“Righteous” hacking includes skill, ingenuity, and adherence to the “Hacker Manifesto,” which is quoted several times in the film. On the one hand, their contest is to “get one back for Joey,” or to defend their friend who has been set up by The Plague. This anarchist “hassling” is playful and seems in line with the “Manifesto.” The final hack is to counter The Plague’s smoke-screen virus (which hides the worm) that will cause real oil spills; “hacking the planet” is saving the planet from pollution.
On the other hand, the producers of Hackers could be seen as “profiteering gluttons,” a quoted line from the “Manifesto,” because they use Angelina Jolie’s sex appeal to mainstream cyberpunk. By thwarting The Plague’s plan, Kate and her hacker friends keep Ellingson Mineral in business; they support corporate industry instead of committing The Mentor’s “crime” of “curiosity.”
Unlike the strictly personal gain of The Plague’s worm, the World Bank hack does not benefit Mycroft, but instead seeks to help others. Lucas acknowledges the potential benefits of Mycroft’s plan, but fears that mathematical errors could result in anarchy. “It’s too complicated, we’ll never be able to contain the variables, even if it is morally right,” he says to his new hacker girlfriend. Frankenstein feels a future “social engineering” failure is more monstrous than the current world that “sucks.”
He seduces the viewer into believing that the instability of the hack overweighs the possibility to create “an end to war,” that “chaos” is too high a risk. Lucas judges the corporate banking structure to be the lesser evil and believes change can be achieved from within. He has seen Captain Bridger work within a military organization (United Earth Oceans)—sometimes in opposition to his superiors, including Noyce—to create peaceful solutions to global issues. The Mentor would read these organizational ethics as supporting the “profiteering gluttons.”
However, Lucas argues for a more personal, community-based solution, which contradicts the “Hacker Manifesto.” He says that the World Bank hack is “not human” and that “you can’t help someone, until you know who they are.” On the other hand, The Mentor goes online and claims to “know everyone here… even if I’ve never met them, never talked to them.” While he believes that the internet erases “skin color” and “nationality” and therein makes everyone equal, it seems that Lucas thinks one must understand the real world effects of racial and ethnic discrimination in order to create sustainable change. Virtually eliminating difference is not enough; one needs to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.
While the humanity of an online revolution will continue to be debated, the fact remains that Lucas and Kate brought these conversations to the mainstream by making cyberpunk attractive. When I was taking a break from readings for AP Lit and Comp, I perused Bop and Seventeen (please don’t judge me) and fostered a devotion to JB and Angelina Jolie. My teenage infatuation with these actors led to my interest in computers. While Lucas inspired me to probe the literature of cyberculture (like Gibson, Stephenson, and Donna Haraway), other SeaQuest and Jolie fans transformed from teenie boppers to “elite” hackers.
Both beautiful, teenaged geniuses defeat their older, law-breaking counterparts through superior hacking and ethics. Stopping the World Bank hack and the salami-slicing worm are the “cool” actions of the protagonists, but they are also the decisions that maintain order. Frankenstein and Acid Burn have more marketable looks than Mycroft, The Plague, or even Case; this attractiveness sells their quest, which ends up supporting banking and mining industries.
On modern internet billboards, banks run banner ads for online services. Marketing has consumed cyberculture. William Gibson has turned from his Neuromancer protagonist—a speed-addicted hacker—to “skirt thing” clad cool-hunter in Pattern Recognition. And the highly marketable Lucas Wolenczak will live forever in online shrines to the late Jonathan Brandis.
Marjorie Jensen is an educator, writer, and Mills College alumna.