One-man show takes on the history of hacker culture

11 Sep 2014

Cathal McGuire confesses he’s not a ‘tech’ person, but his low-tech performance during the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival will explore the foundations of the world wide web and hacker culture.

Most of us use the internet every day without giving much thought to where it came from. McGuire was getting by doing just that until, almost three years ago, he realised he had no idea how this vital communications tool worked or, indeed, how it even came to be.

“Then it occurred to me that I had never seen a show or any piece of art that had taken this subject on in a way that made sense to me – so I decided I’d make the show that I wanted to see about this thing that has transformed the world in my lifetime,” he said.

This essential curiosity was the spark from which grew Always Alone Together, a one-man piece of storytelling theatre that aims to tell a condensed history of the people who hacked the world wide web into existence; humans who connected through machines and found their identity in anonymity.

Though the content is tech-focused, it’s the people behind these developments who are at the heart of the story. People like Joe Engressia who, as a teenager in the 1960s, kick-started what we now know as hacker culture by hacking the long-distance telephone network in the US by whistling down a handset.

“My favourite story in the show is about how a group of Anonymous members took on a cyber-security expert called Aaron Barr and essentially destroyed his life on Super Bowl Sunday,” says McGuire.

“It’s one of those stories you can scarcely believe is true, and it’s a lot of fun to tell.”

Always alone together

Taking on the role of seanchaí, McGuire will recount these tales through a performance based on two rules: no technology (that is, in the on-stage production) and no fiction.

“Everything is true, including everything you learn about me. There is no character to hide behind, it’s just me up there – and that can be a very lonely place. But, since so much of the show and the characters’ experience is about loneliness and about feeling vulnerable, then it’s appropriate (if a little nerve-wracking) to put myself in their position each night,” he says.

Always Alone Together is the first full production to come from Game Theory, an arts organisation founded in 2013 based on the vision of artistic director McGuire.

The title came as soon as the idea emerged, and McGuire believes the tension of those three words conveys a lot about how he sees the online world.

“The show is working on these two different registers: there’s the overarching, historical, factual part of it, and there’s the small, intimate part of it that deals with these people’s lives and the decisions that they made. It just so happens that those decisions had a big impact on why the internet is the way it is,” he says.

Always Alone Together runs 16-20 September at the Black Box, Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.