Scoundrels or Saviors? 8 Notorious Nerds On Trial

Maximum PC Staff

We decide: Scurvy dogs or merely edgy?

Every hero is a villain, every villain a hero. Truth is that even the greatest people in history had at least a hint of the dark side within them.

Today we look at an assortment of men inside—or merely tied to—the tech industry. Some are merely controversial, others are clearly of the bad seed variety. But do they deserve their status? How evil are they?

We come to conclusions, from Assange to Zuckerberg. Come along for the ride.

Julian Assange

Hero to many and villain to many more (he's been labeled a high-tech terrorist by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell), Julian Assange is nothing if not incredibly controversial. Purportedly hacking computers by his mid-teens with a group calling itself "International Subversives," Assange had little interest in implanting viruses, annihilating data, or stealing cash. He instead felt the need to expose information - and even then only dicey corporate and government information he personally figured needed to be exposed. Whether that made him a truly bad guy depends very much on who's doing the judging.

But in WikiLeaks, Assange has a far more formidable weapon—the subterfuge of others. Since its official launch in 2006, the "not-for-profit media organization" has gathered and released hundreds of thousands of anonymously submitted media bits—usually documents, but oodles of video and audio segments, too—often to the obvious detriment of the organizations from which the media was obtained. Through WikiLeaks, the world has seen footage of apparent civilian massacres, critical corporate and government cover-ups, documents that approve assassinations, confidential climate change information, and much more.

Today, Assange is both reviled and worshiped. He's been temporarily jailed, threatened with treason, and—it would appear—chased by the Pentagon. And let us not forget that whole allegations of sexual misconduct thing—a situation some say is a purposeful frame job. Yet he's also been handed numerous awards and distinctions and was selected as Time Magazine's Reader's Choice 2010 Person of the Year (third place went to—cough—Lady Gaga).

Ultimately, it would seem Julian Assange is an imperfect man doing potentially perilous stuff that he believes is righteous work. Pompous? Yes. Questionable tactics? Yes. Villain? Er…maybe a wee bit.

Gerald Blanchard

We've all seen those movies where the impossibly adept, impossibly intelligent, and often impossibly handsome master-thief plans and executes, with split-second precision, the most daring of escapades. He's not out to physically harm anyone, and he's just so damned…exciting that we can't help but pull for him as he so cunningly sticks it to The Man. A villain? Of course. He is a thief, after all. But a somewhat loveable villain just the same.

Born in the cold Canadian prairie town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Gerald Blanchard would become the real life manifestation of just that. He was a master of disguise, concealing his identity on countless occasions during the course of his travels. He was fearless—parachuting in total darkness into a Viennese castle to steal a priceless diamond-encrusted pearl, then later rappelling from the walls of that very castle. And he could slip from custody or even the oncoming threat of custody seemingly on a whim. Police cruisers, police stations, jails—to Blanchard, they were mere challenges.

But more importantly for the purposes of this article, Blanchard was a high-tech whiz. His mother has since claimed that even as a kid, he "could take anything apart." And before he'd reached his teens, he was not only disassembling devices but building them too.

In time, Blanchard's passion for gadgetry only grew, as did his taste for thievery. He would learn how security devices work, then he'd set out to defeat them. In one instance, he surreptitiously installed pinhole video cameras and listening devices in a recently constructed bank to learn the lay of the land in advance of his theft. When the day came, he looted the ATM room, stole the hard drives containing incriminating surveillance footage, replaced the bank's camera equipment with his own, and did it all so carefully that investigators initially found nothing amiss.

Described by Canadian police as one of the most sophisticated criminal masterminds they'd ever seen, Blanchard eventually served several years in a prison from which he could not escape, and is currently somewhere between a halfway house and his supposed new, legit career as a security consultant. To which we say, "Yeah, sure."

Though Blanchard's generally high-tech exploits have a certain roguish charm, the fact remains that he's stolen a lot of money from a lot of people. Moreover, he's been loosely linked with terrorism. And for that, he is a mid-level villain, at the very least.

Larry Ellison

Co-founded and Chief Executive of software giant Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison is a ridiculously wealthy man. Indeed, he's currently ranked as one of the ten richest dudes on the planet, regularly pulling in an annual salary in the high eight-figure range.

And he knows it. In fact, some might say he flaunts it.

Ellison owns cars—a full blown stable that includes a McLaren F1. He owns aircraft—a whole bunch of aircraft, big and small. He owns boats, though he's recently sold the most famous—the 500-foot behemoth named Rising Sun—to fellow moneybags David Geffen. His principle home (one of many) is valued at a bazillion gazillion dollars, and features a concert-worthy sound system so incredibly powerful that it purportedly uses a drained swimming pool as its subwoofer.

Good god, man, have you no shame?

But seriously folks, when you're this rich and this, er…up front about it, you will get detractors. Yet Ellison is disparaged for more than his ability to attract gobs of money, spend gobs of money, and accumulate more high-end toys than perhaps any man before him. You see, he is, in a word, antagonistic.

Ellison openly and creatively disses his rivals. He's the king of hostile takeovers. He regularly outspends his competitors and emerges unapologetically triumphant because of it. He stomps on the competition and comes away smiling, and he's regarded by many as an indiscreet womanizer. In the end, Ellison, like Charlie Sheen, enjoys "winning."

But are we to vilify the guy for merely practicing the principles of capitalism to the nth degree? We think not. Certainly no saint, Ellison is merely marginally villain ous .

Bill Gates

Bill Gates has made a lot of enemies in his lifetime. His company has been accused, sometimes quite angrily, of monopolistic, anti-competitive business practices and heavy-handed tactics. It has also been criticized for assimilating technology, or at least assimilating the companies that create that technology, rather than innovating from within. Worse still, it has been unabashedly knocked for buying up new ideas and then extinguishing them—in essence acting as the schoolyard bully.

And let us not forget that Microsoft's trump card, Windows, has long derided by end users, who grew weary in the 90s and the 00s of its security flaws and error-prone clunkiness, particularly when compared to the apparent smooth-sailing of Apple's competing operating system. Though Win 98, XP, and 7 have generally been pretty solid, most every other edition has justifiably received its fair share of criticism.

As for the man himself, Gates is no stranger to searing condemnation. One need only Google his name and an appropriate adjective to feel the contempt by which this man is held in some circles. He's a nerd, sure, but is that reason enough to get the hate on? Not really. We attribute a lot of it to plain old jealousy, though he does seem a bit arrogant at times, and certainly rumors of his questionable inner business dealings abound, particularly in Microsoft's formative years.

That the guy is the subject of more memorable downbeat quotes than any nerd past or present clearly doesn't help. Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy once said Gates is "probably the most dangerous and powerful industrialist of our age." Columnist Dave Barry quipped "there was never a chip that Bill Gates couldn't slow down with a new batch of features." Our favorite? Dennis Miller and his "Bill Gates is a monocle and a Persian cat away from being the villain in a James Bond movie."

And that's the question. Is he a mega-villain? We say no. Very few mega-billionaires assumed their place in life without stepping on a few toes along the way. But far more importantly, very few mega-billionaires give away so incredibly much of their fortune. This isn't some last-minute thing either - he's been at it since way back in 1994, and the guy hasn't let up since. Criticized even in his philanthropy for allotting money as he sees fit, Gates nevertheless has simply done too much good to be considered truly dastardly. A tincture of villainy notwithstanding, Gates is essentially a good guy with all-too human elements.

Jonathan James

On May 18, 2008, Jonathan James wrote a five-page note telling the world he was no villain. He then picked up a gun, walked into his shower, and shot himself in the head. He was just 24 when he died.

It had all seemed so…different eight years earlier, when a 15-year-old James showed off his hacking savvy by gaining access to key computers at high-level organizations such as BellSouth, NASA, and the Department of Defense. Among other transgressions, James downloaded environment control software from the International Space Station—a frightening development that forced NASA to temporarily suspend operation of its computers—and installed a backdoor into the DoD threat analysis system. Ultra-serious stuff to be sure, it resulted in a multi-pronged raid of his home and six months of house arrest, but villainy? Not entirely.

James would later say he was "playing around," claiming his misdeeds were merely personal challenges. Indeed, in some circles, the still very young super-hacker was viewed as somewhat of a folk hero.

James would not pop back into the spotlight until 2007, when he was investigated again, this time for potential involvement in a large-scale international identity and credit card theft operation that had apparently netted its participants tens of millions of dollars. And once more James' home was forcibly raided, as was that of his girlfriend.

Though he was not taken into custody, James faced a stacked deck. He was friends with all who'd been arrested, and he knew circumstantial evidence would soon point his way. Two weeks later he learned the group mastermind, Albert Gonzalez, had been pulling double duty as a fed informer. Concerned over what would happen next, and, says his father, suffering from clinical depression, Jonathan put pen to paper. His last words: "I die free."

Ultimately, Albert Gonzalez was sentenced to twenty years in the federal pen and ordered to repay 70 million dollars. Other members of the gang are likewise serving jail time and paying big bucks out of pocket. We'll likely never know if James was involved or to what level that involvement reached. Villain verdict: Incomplete.

Joseph Konopka

How could we possibly loathe a dude who nicknames himself "Dr. Chaos" and assembles a collection of lackeys he dubs the "Realm of Chaos"? Why, even the thought of it conjured up images of Get Smart.

But this chaos was no laughing matter.

Born in De Pere, Wisconsin in 1976, the future Dr. Chaos, a.k.a. Joseph Konopka, was by most accounts the typically troubled, withdrawn child that later in life becomes a monster. Yet time has a way of mellowing personalities, and by his 24th birthday Konopka had seemingly ironed out some of his difficulties. He'd found himself employment in the tech world as a computer system administrator—clearly the very antitheses of chaos—and was apparently an upstanding citizen.

Within him, however, burned the heart of a super-villain—at least according to court documents from his trial two years later. Konopka, you see, was secretly using the Internet to recruit a merry band of adolescent followers—some from the website "Teens for Satan"—to help him on his upcoming crusade. And together, Dr. Chaos and his Realm of Chaos began their campaign.

By his 2002 arrest. Chaos and his misguided minions had not only pirated software and committed several instances of arson, but also disabled air traffic control systems, damaged multiple computers, disrupted television and radio broadcasts, caused 28 individual power failures, and carved nearly a half-million dollar trail of destruction throughout 13 Wisconsin counties.

But that wasn't all. When apprehended inside a Chicago subway storeroom, Chaos was in possession of potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide, two substances critical to the manufacture of chemical weapons.

Still in jail, Konopka/Chaos is, by his own admission, a villain, and we cannot disagree.

William Shockley

Was one of the transistor's three inventors a villain? Maybe not of the Snidely Whiplash variety, but William Shockley was, nevertheless, far from angelic.

Any study of the history of Silicon Valley will point to Shockley as one of its early high tech inhabitants. He was there decades before Intel and Apple and all the other Pirates of Silicon Valley. He was there, several years after discovering the transistor, returning to his childhood stomping grounds to set up a company he felt would revolutionize the way in which his invention was manufactured. And he was there, ultimately, to make a whole bunch of people angry.

You see, Shockley was a brilliant yet heavily flawed man. Enamored with physics from childhood, he voraciously tore into it throughout his youth and eventually nabbed degrees and a PhD along the way. His passion would pay off in the invention of the transistor, for which he would eventually pick up a Nobel Prize. And that's when the cracks in his persona began to show.

Not happy sharing Nobel credit, he sought to prove his place in history was more deserving than that of his peers. To say he became obsessed with doing just that is not an understatement; as time went on he succeeded only in alienating most everyone he'd ever dealt with.

That reputation would follow him into the mid 1950s to the rented Silicon Valley fruit stand Shockley had renamed Shockley Semiconductor Labs. It was here he would attempt to alter the original transistor design into something better. Instead, he would meet his Waterloo.

Shockley initially tried to hire former colleagues to join his crusade, but, quite simply, no one who knew him wanted to work with him. So he opted for a collection of young, bright engineers fresh out of school, eventually assembling a cracker jack staff that included several future Silicon Valley captains of industry—including eventual Intel boss Gordon Moore.

The arrangement lasted all of one year, when eight of the engineers—now known as The Traitorous Eight—quit en masse. Accounts of Shockley's growing paranoia abounded. In one incident, he forced employees to take lie detector tests. In another, he accused his staff of placing sharp objects where people could cut themselves. He withheld information from team members so they rarely knew what they were working on.

When Shockley retired from the electronics industry several years later, he seemingly grew even more malevolent, delving into eugenics (the study of racial differences in human intelligence), lauding extreme views, associating himself with concepts such as selective sterilization, and repeatedly making comments rife with xenophobic overtones. It is said he died alone, estranged from family and friends and a clear-cut villain.

Mark Zuckerberg

In December of 2010, Time Magazine once again chose its Person of the Year. It also gave subscribers a chance to do the same in its Readers' Choice Person of the Year, and they overwhelmingly looked toward WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange. Facebook overlord Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, finished so far back he was a mere blip in the rear view mirror, with 18,000 votes to Assange's 380,000.

Didn't matter. The Time editors had made up their minds. And Zuckerberg won the more prestigious award.

Mark Zuckerberg has done a lot of winning in his relatively short life. Born to a wealthy family, he was a brilliant student, a computer whiz at a time when most kids are discovering TV, and a star of his school's fencing team. He founded Facebook in his dorm room in 2004, and has since increased his net worth by a cool 15 billion dollars. Not bad for a guy still in his twenties.

Could this—the natural resentment of impossibly fast-rising success stories—be the reason Zuckerberg seems awash with haters? It's certainly a start. Add a movie that portrayed him as a mildly arrogant and somewhat treacherous social outcast, and it's no wonder the guy's image is less than stellar.

But an outright bad dude? For that we defer to official Man of the Year runner-up Assange, who now famously said after his non-win, "What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I'm a villain. Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's Man of the Year."

And that may well be it—the impression that Zuckerberg's Facebook tears away privacy, but holds so many of us so addicted that we…just…can't…escape. Targeted ads, data gathering—it's enough to make you wish for the good old days of generic McDonald's blurbs on that TV thing you keep hearing about. And please, do not get us started on Yoville and Farmville and all those other -villes some people seem to live for. Or pokes, "suggestions," and status updates for that matter. Grr.

Mark Zuckerberg—total villain.

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