Book Review Cult of the Dead Cow

Back When The CDC Did Not Suck


Back in the mid-nineties, the CDC was at its height. I remember seeing many of their materials scattered about amongst the web, but I particularly remember a piece of software that allowed one total control over a Windows 95 machine–it was appropriately named Back Orifice.

What made them different, back then, was they were combining two things that no one had really thought to do before. They were combining hacking and politics in a very unusual way. The glue that held most of the organization together were nonsense documents that were counter culture and mainly designed to offend pretty much everyone and everything. These were “joke files” but not exactly. They would discuss the latest release and most often mock the value system that led to the release being a necessity.

So I Got This Copy of the Book About Um

So I got this book written by Joseph Menn to read what happened to this motley group of people and I was particularly interested in what they had to say given the backdrop of the political landscape in which it was released. The most interesting data it contained, in my opinion, was what a lot of these guys and gals eventually became. Some of them were working with the Department of Defense. Some of them became politicians. Throughout, there seemed to be a lot of younger kids with computers that had military families.

What The Group Did Well

What this book discusses rather well, in my opinion, is how this group was one of the first to alert everyone to the fact that Microsoft had a very insecure operating system. They did this first by discussing it with those who worked at Microsoft, but when nothing was done they took matters into their own hands and began to release these exploits into the wild. In other words, they were going to force Microsoft to content with the fact their operating system was weak by basically putting the weakness into the hands of people who would exploit it. This is the essence of an arm’s race, and that’s more or less what happened. Microsoft still did not fix the security holes. Rather, in many instances, they just released a new Windows that had some of the same problems if not exacerbation of the previous ones.

What The Book Does Not Do Well

The subtitle of the book says “it is about how the hacking group might save the world”. I had hoped this was hyperbole, but after having read the book I am not sure it is. Instead, this book acts as one part documentary one part “What is the latest liberal political angle”. It is a bit odd, for instance, to see a group of people who were essentially anarchists become congressman. Indeed, there is nearly something quite disingenuous about it all–especially since we know the CDC was arming both sides of the technological political divide–including within the country of China. The feeling is a bit along the lines of if you live long enough you will see everything eventually contradict itself into absurdity. “We hate the man, but we are gonna become the man, after having worked with and for the man, man.”

Parties and Other Social Activities

It is also mentioned that these guys still get together socially and it is interesting that some of them can still do so after all the ins and outs they have been through. A few of them have nervous breakdowns. Some of them leave the group and go predictably into security consulting. Some join companies of their own. However, I guess what I am sorry to see is that in the mid-nineties these guys were about activism and a better world through open technology and information.

One Thing I Learned that I Didn’t Know

One thing that I did learn from the book was how involved certain members of the group were with China. I did not know that they had gotten so deeply involved with attempting to penetrate the “Great Firewall”. Of course, reading this book now and what has happened with elections, technology, China, and the actual CDC, it is a little like reading some sort of strange foreshadowing of the world we inhabit now. The only difference is that we are all older and in many cases a bit more jaded from the onslaught of fake news, mortgages, medical bills, and the ideals that were originally clearly present.

Every Age…

Of course, it may simply be that every age has its idealists until they are ground up like burger meat against the capitalistic system and betrayal. Sooner or later, ideals must confront selfishness and greed. What is the solution when these issues are faced? Do you try to beat um? Do you try to join um? I am not sure, but reading this book made me think about it.

In Total

In total, I would say this book is a somewhat sappy tribute in a silicon valley sense. Some of the history is interesting, and surely some of the stories in it are interesting. I just wish it had been a bit more objective and less trying to persuade me of the underlying politics. I know what I politically believe, and I knew what I believed back in the 90’s too. The rallying points had to do with freedom of information, and an open exchange and a desire to subvert those who would do otherwise. Wasn’t that good enough?

JB Schirtzinger

Jacksonville, USA
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