Who Are You?

Hacker Handles, Magickal Names and Goth Aliases

by Kai MacTane

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All over the freak community, people are changing their names. Pagans, shamans and mages have been taking on magickal names as part of their spiritual paths for millennia. Goths and punks frequently shed their mundane names in favor ones like Raven, Lucretia, Spike, and Slash. And hackers go by handles that may become famous, from Phiber Optik or Cap’n Crunch to the more respected RMS and Cmdr Taco.

(I’m leaving out the character names taken on in the SCA and other gaming communities, because those are understood to refer to characters outside the player’s “standard” personality, while the types of names I’m discussing are considered to be replacements for the name bestowed by parents at birth.)

Why do we do this? Are our legal names so atrocious? Do we hate our parents that much? And perhaps most importantly, are the various freak tribes doing this for different reasons, or are they all variations on the same reasons?

At first glance, a magickal name, whether worn by a hermetic or chaos mage, a Neopagan, Wiccan or any other mystical/magickal practitioner, would seem to be rather different from the handles used by hackers (of both persuasions) and the colorful aliases used by goth-punks. After all, those folks are going after spiritual enlightenment, exploring the boundaries of reality and stuff like that, right? They’re way different from the computer geeks and those freaky-looking people in the black and the spikes! Right?

Let’s face it, there are at least as many rogues and rascals among the ranks of magecraft and mysticism as there are in any other field of human endeavor, with the probable exceptions of sales, politics and law. Indeed, some of the greatest magicians, mystics and religious personnel in history have been complete scoundrels — and let’s be honest, Paganism is no exception to that! Indeed, both Aleister Crowley and Gurdjieff, though not Pagan, were rather proud of their ability to be scoundrels when the occasion called for it.

But perhaps more importantly, it would be a mistake to regard the “mundane” or “profane” (i.e., non-magickal) activities of the hackers and goth-punks as being wholly non-spiritual.

As Eric Raymond has pointed out in some of the notes surrounding his Hacker’s Dictionary, hackers have many specialized words describing specific states of consciousness. While hackers do have a strong component of “engineer” about them, they’re doing more than just “working with computers” or “writing programs and breaking into stuff.” They are, at least somewhat consciously, exploring new and different states of consciousness, ones that are most useful for expressing logical truths in code in order to achieve a particular effect — much like a line from A.E. Waite: “When [the imagination and will] are conjoined... marvellous magical effects may be obtained.” (Full quote.)

Additionally, hackers are well known for “exploring programmable systems” (A paraphrase of Mr. Raymond’s words again, from his definition of “hacker”). While this may not initially seem like exploring the astral plane, or the limits of cosmic reality, consider some of the things that have been said about the links between computers and magick (from a survey of Neopagans conducted in 1985 by Margot Adler for her book, Drawing Down the Moon):

“Computers are elementals in disguise.”

“They are the new magic of our culture.”

“Coupled with modems, computers are the oracles of the future.”

“Symbolic thinking and patterning are essential to magical thinking. Like magic, computers work in unseen ways to accomplish tasks.”

And, the best of the lot: “If you learn the obscure and arcane magic words, you can force a powerful entity, whom many people fear, to do your bidding.”

Besides, just as Neopagans have observed that their magickal practices are much like computer programming, hackers have long known that computers are much like magick. That’s why they have consciously adopted many terms pertaining to magick in their lexicon, from black art to daemon, from casting the runes to incantation. While many hackers are strongly materialist in their beliefs, certainly not all of them are. Raymond himself speaks at length about his experiences with the numinous and the Pagan gods on his web site, and many others practice various forms of Neopaganism (generally quite eclectic) or ceremonial magick.

And what of the goth-punks? It’s easy to see them as simply wanting not to have a “normal-sounding” name. After all, if you’re dressed up in black from head to toe, with ruffles, lace, velvet and silk dripping from every limb, flamboyant as a modern-day Byron, it sounds kind of ridiculous to have to introduce yourself as “Fred”. And a fully mohawked punk, with five different colors in her hair, spikes a foot long sprouting from all over her jacket, and seven piercings in her face, will lose the effect entirely if she has to say, “Hi, I’m Deedee.” It makes sense that these people would switch their names to more appropriate ones, like Simon or Vlad for the goth, or Spike or Sheena for the punk.

But there’s more to it than that, for many of them. Unlike Pagan religions, magickal philosophies, or skill in computer hacking, membership in the goth and punk communities is membership in a subculture based partly on fashion and appearance. Though this might at first seem to be merely an expression of shallow exterior traits, it also means that joining one of these subcultures means electing to live permanently outside the mainstream, in a way that can’t be camouflaged. You can stick a pentacle inside your shirt, if you want, and being a hacker needn’t be visible at all in any way, if you’re careful not to go off on an extended rant at the mere mention of Microsoft. But being a goth or punk very nearly requires that you look the part.

(Note: Yes, there are a few “stealth punks”, and they’re doing good things to change the system — in many ways, they’re purer expressions of punk ideology than the 15-year-olds with spikes in their faces and three-foot-tall mohawks. But they’re also very few and far between, and form exceptions to the rule. And there are weekend goths, usually being such to preserve their jobs, but when they do dress up on the weekends, they’re just as visible as anyone else.)

So, by electing to become a goth or punk — or any other of the visible freak tribes, such as an obvious and visible fetishist — you make the choice to step permanently out of the standard, mainstream, “mundane” world. And when you leave behind the dress, the mores, and honestly, many of the rights, privileges and securities that most people take for granted (such as the right to sit unmolested in a public park and not be presumed to be a public menace), you often wind up having to leave behind many of the assumptions and reality-tunnels that go with that mainstream. You may start to question the reasons for people’s prejudices, and that carries you almost inexorably to questioning your own.

And this, as a sage once said, is the beginning of the path.

Now, I’m not saying that all goths and punks are enlightened, ascended masters. Hell, many goths are simply shallow, catty people, and lots of punks could really use a lesson in consideration for others. And I think very few, if any, of them have thought of wearing outcast garb 24/7 as a spiritual path of any sort. (Indeed, it isn’t really a path, so much as the doorway that can lead to the path.) But it is very definitely a way of stepping into a new life, one outside the accepted norm, much like the berdaches of many Native American tribes, or the casteless fools of the Medieval courts — or, for that matter, shamans anywhere.

And stepping into a new life does call for a renaming. And stepping out of the mundane world calls for a name that sets one apart from mundane societies, where nobody would name their offspring “Morticia” or “Spike”.

And as much as hackers are exploring new states of consciousness and the programmable systems outside their heads, they are also electing to live in (or at least temporarily enter) another world: the world of the computer, the world where pure mind is all that matters and you can look beyond someone’s skin, clothing or appearance and see them as they truly are — one of the goals and the hallmarks of those who have achieved enlightenment.

Like the rest of the Freak Nation, those who take on other names are stepping outside the norm, doing it consciously and deliberately. There’s much more similarity between hacker handles, goth aliases and magickal names than there is difference.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. He’s been involved in Neopaganism, the goth-industrial scene, and hacking for over a decade now. Oddly, he still doesn’t have any kind of cool, l33t name. He has never asked people to call him “Vlad”.