I wrote this paper for a class called “Technology and Self-representation in Literature and Film”, way back in 1994.

Hack Technology and Matte-Black Technology in Terminator 2

The world of James Cameron’s Terminator 2 is a dystopia of nuclear holocaust and the near-extermination of the human race. The film posits this fictional future as a consequence of the development of ever-higher technology, especially artificial intelligence. At the same time, the film’s heroes make use of technology to defeat the technological threats, problematizing the anti-technology theme of the movie. Both the good guys and the bad guys use technology to accomplish their projects, but they use different technologies and use them in different ways. We can divide the realm of high technology into two subsets: “matte-black” technology—sleek, inscrutable, cutting-edge, brand-name technology; and “hack” technology—the technology of hobbyists: black-market, modified, functional, and ugly. In Terminator 2, these two forms of technology are aligned along (and also define) a dichotomy between authority figures and renegades; figures of authority use matte-black technology, but renegades use hack tech.

The renegades in Terminator 2 are the good guys—John Connor, Sarah Connor, and the T101 Terminator—and their technology is hack technology. In the scenes in which John Connor is introduced, we see him listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses, disobeying his parents, working on his dirtbike, and robbing an ATM. He is characterized as a rebellious teenager, intelligent and technically knowledgeable but undisciplined. John works in hack technologies, using them as instruments of his revolt. When his foster mother tells him to clean his room, he responds by turning up his tape player. He tunes and repairs his dirtbike, working “under the hood,” and revs the bike’s engine to drown out his foster father’s admonitions. He robs the ATM with a jury-rigged computer device, undermining the matte-black technology represented by the ATM, a portal into the authoritarian world of finance and financial accountability. By subverting the technology of authority, John subverts the body of authority itself, defining himself simultaneously as hacker and renegade.

Sarah Connor is also a rebel: a guerrilla fighter, a mental patient, and a hack technologist. To keep in shape while incarcerated, she upends her bed frame as a chin-up bar. She manages her escape from the mental institution with a paper clip, secreted away and modified to suit the task of unlocking her restraints. And when she takes Dr. Silberman hostage, she threatens him with a syringe full of drain solvent—she adapts pieces of found technology into a weapon. On the other hand, Sarah’s captors (the doctors and orderlies in the mental hospital) empower their authority and control the patients with matte-black technology. They use pharmaceuticals, video cameras and videotape, and the maze of hallways and locked doors in the asylum to support their jurisdiction. Later in the film, we see that Sarah has sequestered an arsenal of old weapons and vehicles near the Mexican border, in preparation for whatever battles she and John may need to fight. This desert outpost is a hack landscape, littered with broken machinery that has been plundered for parts.

Miles Dyson begins the film as a matte-black technologist, but turns hacker by the end. He is characterized as an upper-middle- class family man, a dedicated worker. His office at CyberDyne is a landscape of technology which complements the desert compound. It is filled with surveillance equipment, complicated double-key locks, keypads and keycodes–the instruments of authoritative control. When he, John and Sarah, and the T101 go to the CyberDyne office to destroy the lab, his matte-black technology fails him, as his key-card stops working after the silent alarm has been tripped. But the Terminator is ready with hack technology: saying “Let me try mine,” he blows open the vault door with a grenade launcher. Later in the film, as Dyson dies of his gunshot wounds, he performs a quintessential hack by using a piece of his destroyed prototype processor (which is, in fact, matte-black) to set off the improvised explosives and destroy the lab, recycling the remains of a technology and improvising a new function for them.

The clearest example of the distinction between matte-black and hack technology can be found in the two Terminators. In Terminator 2, the T101 is old technology, last year’s model. He has been stolen and modified, reprogrammed by the resistance group of the future, converted from a SkyNet-controlled killer into John Connor’s protector. This Terminator is characterized in the visual language of anti-authority: he dresses up as a biker, rides a motorcycle, and wears dark glasses, to the tune of “Bad to the Bone.” He likes big guns, and he’s not afraid to fire them at police officers. He breaks things, he transgresses boundaries, he does what is necessary to execute his program. In the scene in which John Connor calls his foster mother on a pay phone, the T101 smashes the coin box to get a quarter for John, flouting the societal mechanisms of commerce and security, and exemplifying the expediency of hack technology, in this case himself.

The T1000, on the other hand, is a cutting-edge design, an “advanced prototype,” as the T101 tells John. He is sent by SkyNet, the body of authority in the future, and in the present he assumes only roles of authority with his mimetic capabilities: the police officer, John’s foster mother, the guard in the mental hospital, and finally Sarah herself, who has a position of authority as John’s mother. As compared to the T101, the T1000 works stealthily and quietly, with an aesthetic grace and smoothness. While the T101 is being blown to pieces in the firefight, his clothing and outer flesh destroyed, the T1000 is only temporarily deformed, and flows elegantly back to his original shape, his hair undisturbed and his uniform well-pressed.

In Terminator 2, hack technology is technology which is controllable. The renegades in the film are in control of their technology, and battle against the matte-black technology which controls them. They understand their machines; they can disassemble them and investigate them. The T101 Terminator is knowable—he has an outside and an inside which can be discovered (as we see when he dissects his hand to show to Miles Dyson)—and thus can be manipulated. Moreover, as John Connor discovers, he obeys orders. He represents technology as a tool, an extension of human willfulness. The “liquid metal” T1000, on the other hand, is inscrutable, presenting an unbreakable silver facade. He cannot be taken apart; when his body is frozen and shattered in the steel factory, the pieces continue to exhibit organized behavior, and rejoin one another. The film thus expresses a polarity between knowledge and secrecy, and aligns knowledge with hack technology against the secrecy of matte-black technology. John learns his hacking skills from Sarah—she disseminates technical information to him—and the our source of technical information about the T1000 and the history of the future is the “detailed files” of the T101 Terminator. But the technology of authority involves secrecy: doors, locks, keys, and the panopticon-like surveillance cameras, as well as the stealthy and unknown T1000. The renegades’ means of control is knowledge, while the authorities use secrecy and the withholding of knowledge for control.

Hack technology is valorized over matte-black technology because it is the province of the good guys: the Connors and the T101. So there is good technology and bad technology, and the film’s anti-technology message is refined through this distinction. Moreover, the good guys are the renegades, and the authority figures are enemies. The film’s message thus has a political component, valuing a libertarian and anti-authoritarian ideal of personal freedom and knowledge. Terminator 2 explores the fear that technology will lead to loss of freedom, loss of control and loss of knowledge, while acknowledging that all of these qualities can be enhanced through technological means. The conflict is not expressly man against machine, but machines under human control versus machines out of control, machines under their own control. This specific fear of a self-controlled machine is played out in the references to artificial intelligence: we find out that SkyNet is based on a neural net processor, a “learning computer,” and that it “becomes self-aware.” The threat, as in Frankenstein, is a machine which no longer obeys its creator, and in fact replaces it.

The hack technologists in Terminator 2 take their place next to the heroes of television shows such as Macgyver and The A-Team as creative, constructive people building things out of the recycled trash of the modern era; they use technology not as it was intended to be used but instead as they choose to use it, and save the day through their efforts. They are the masters of their tech instead of its servants. They use technology (and they are technology) but they know what they are using and how it works.