I’m not an expert on cyber warfare, nor do I play one on TV—or on Twitter for that matter.
I have, though, published academic research about the cultural claims to legitimacy that policymakers have historically used when responding to perceived threats of youth hackers—work, I should note, that popular journalists have covered and properly attributed here and here. And as a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of thoughtful scholarship on how popular culture and technology policy directly and indirectly shape one another.
In doing that historical work on youth hackers, I was thankful for the heavy lifting done by communication scholar Stephanie Ricker Schulte in her 2008 article “‘The WarGames Scenario:’ Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology (1980-1984)” in Television & New Media, as well as her 2013 book Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, published by NYU Press. Schulte argues that the 1983 movie WarGames was more than just fun cinematic fare and a box office smash; it also had serious cultural implications for U.S. internet policy during the Reagan administration. Schulte makes the claim in both the article and her book that WarGames made certain images of cyberwarfare more salient and set the stage for particular solutions to alleged internet security threats. For her work, Schulte received coverage in press outlets such as CNET, won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ 2010 Dissertation Award, and garnered rave reviews in top communication journals.
I say all this to preface the fact that on the morning of February 20, when I read a New York Times article that UVA media scholar (and think piece aggregator extraordinaire) Siva Vaidhyanathan had posted to Facebook, entitled “‘WarGames’ and Cybersecurity’s Debt to a Hollywood Hack,” I was alarmed both by the author Fred Kaplan’s claims to covering entirely new ground on the topic—that ground being WarGames’ cultural influence on U.S. internet policy—and by the glaring omission (at least, glaring to internet and society scholars) of Schulte’s work.
I went to Twitter to bring this oversight to Kaplan’s attention, and also to alert fellow scholars who’ve been down this road before. Loose recycling of academic research into trade books and pop journalism—and the tendency for the academics in question to be women and for the journalists to be men—is a serious and systemic problem with professional and political implications. I wrote about the issue in 2014 when tech journalist Evgeny Morozov penned a New Yorker article on Chile’s cybernetic system under Salvador Allende that heavily minimized the contributions of Indiana University professor Eden Medina and her award-winning MIT Press book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. (Professor Lee Vinsel also helped here and here to describe Morozov’s failings, as well as document additional cases of similar behavior by other journalists.) I couldn’t help but read Kaplan’s piece without wincing—keeping in mind both Schulte’s arguments and this troubling trend of rendering invisible women’s academic labor, specifically critical research about male-dominated fields like computing and gaming.
In response, Kaplan chastised me to “Please read the article, not just the headline”— a response I found belittling, an attempt to undermine my critical literacy skills and dismiss the validity of my objection to the piece. In other tweets, Kaplan claimed “my book has nothing to do with hers (which I hadn’t heard of till now).” Not having heard of Schulte’s book says more about Kaplan though, and his failure to do his research before publishing a piece in the Gray Lady, than about the significance of Schulte’s own. I also never said, as Kaplan insinuated, that he was “sexist” and never once used the term “plagiarism.” Those kinds of responses quickly foreclose meaningful engagement with difficult issues like the public attribution of ideas online. But when someone claims that a book is “completely different” from their own, without having actually read said book, I can’t help but find such an answer, well, incomplete.
To repeat, my read of Kaplan’s thesis in his NYT article is that WarGames was culturally influential to the Reagan administration’s cybersecurity policy. Why would I identify that as Kaplan’s primary claim, besides a cursory glance at the headline? The lede paragraph of the article reads, “Movies rarely influence public policy, but Washington’s policies on cyberattacks, computer surveillance and the possibility of cyberwarfare were directly influenced by the 1983 box-office hit ‘WarGames.’” In the conclusion, Kaplan restates the idea that WarGames “sparked the first public controversy over the tensions between security and privacy on the Internet, as well as the first public power struggle about the subject between the N.S.A. and Congress — a debate and a struggle that persist today.” Even the subtitle on the WarGames film still that accompanies the article reads, “The film led to the nation’s first directive about computer security.” Kaplan may be the first person to write on the topic this week (a week with heightened anxieties about cybersecurity due to tensions between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone of the deceased San Bernardino shooter), but timeliness should not be conflated with novelty.
One could go deeper, reading Kaplan and Schulte’s work side-by-side. For example, Kaplan writes that in 1983, “The first laptop computers had barely hit the market; public Internet providers wouldn’t exist for another few years. Yet [national security decision directive] NSDD-145 warned that these new machines—which government agencies and high-tech industries had started buying at a rapid clip—were ‘highly susceptible to interception.’” Schulte similarly frames her story in relation to the general populace’s experiences, or lack thereof, with personal computers and the internet at time. She writes on p. 489 of her Television and New Media article that, “Although home computer ownership surged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, modem use did not. As a result, in the early 1980s most Americans learned about the internet through popular culture, like WarGames, and news media outlets, before they experienced it personally.”
When a thoroughly researched and well publicized treatment of a narrow topic exists, I believe that anyone writing on the topic—be it a tech journalist or a historian of technology— is obligated to acknowledge the existence of that source. (As a helpful reference, MIT student J. Nathan Matias has written a blog post on acknowledging other scholars’ work for a public audience, and worked with Atlantic staff writer Adrienne LaFrance to analyze gender bias in tech reporting too.) In a highly visible forum like the New York Times or the New Yorker, where one stands to financially profit from plugs for an upcoming mass-market book (as is the case with Kaplan), supplementation of prior work should be made transparent for readers, who are unlikely to come across academic press titles like Schulte’s while mulling about the airport book kiosk. Even if Kaplan’s own primary sources led him in the same direction as Schulte, she scooped him. And in journalism, if you’ve been scooped, you give proper credit to the original reporter. Yet it’s usually well-established men with wide readerships and banked up cultural capital who stand to benefit the most from ambiguous journalistic standards.
In short, the next time I get implored by a male journalist to “please read the article,” I will kindly suggest please citing the work of women whose fascinating and creative scholarship clearly precedes them.