Harley Hahn Interviews

Home Page
October 1993
April 1998
December 1999
April 2002
November 2002


Harley Hahn
Home Page

About Harley

Harley Hahn's
Usenet Center

Free Newsletter

Send a Message
to Harley

Harley Hahn's
Internet Yellow

Search Web Site

FAQ  |  Site Map

Interview with Harley Hahn

(April 10, 2002)

(The following interview was conducted by Geoff Rotunno, Managing Editor of The Boox Review, and was first published on The Boox Review Web site.)

Introduction by Geoff Rotunno:

"As expected, our recent interview with veteran author Harley Hahn was nothing less than extraordinary.

"We hope you enjoy this, the transcript of our discussion, as well as our review of the book Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity, which is, for our money, the crown jewel (to date) in his collection of best-selling books."

GEOFF ROTUNNO: You've certainly reached the pinnacle as "the best-selling Internet author of all time".

Do you recall either the defining moment or a series of circumstances that led to you picking up the pen to begin a commercial writing career?

HARLEY: I grew up in Canada, and after studying math and computer science at the University of Waterloo, I moved to California to go to graduate school at U.C. San Diego. I then went back to Canada to go to medical school at the University of Toronto.

Eventually, I decided not to be a doctor, and when I moved back to California, I started writing computer books because I needed to earn a living. It was August of 1984, and I had a graduate degree in computer science and somebody I knew told me about an agent who specialized in people who wrote computer books. Within a couple of months, I got a contract to do a series of books for a well-known company. I wrote three books for that company, and that was how I got started as a professional writer.

Last fall I published three books, and the last one was my 28th book, of which 25 have been published by major publishers. Many of them have to do with computers, but more and more, I've been moving away from just explaining computers and moving into society and culture and technology and what it means.

Writers are like sharks: they always have to keep moving or they die. That's how they breathe. Writers always have to keep evolving as artists. I think what you get with a lot of writers is well, they're like dead sharks. So I always keep moving.

Do you remember the day you woke up and realized that you would be "moving" to stay — that you'd found a lifelong career?

It wasn't exactly like that. When I was in grad school, I never knew what I wanted to do afterwards. I didn't think at that time that I wanted to study medicine, but I'm glad I did (and I'm just as glad I'm not practicing as a doctor). But I remember thinking, "What am I going to do when I graduate?" I narrowed it down to two choices: I either wanted to retire — or be a writer. I have written some fiction — I have some stories up on my website — and I've even written some poetry, but most of what I've written (I started when I was about 15) — certainly all the books I've written — have all been nonfiction.

Why is that?

I've always felt the need to explain things to people. Even in grad school, students would come in and ask a question and be frustrated, because I would give them an answer that would take 10 minutes, when all they really wanted was the 15-second answer. I've always wanted to explain.

So if people say to me, "What do you do for a living," I always say I'm a writer. But the really honest answer is that I'm an explainer. My job is to learn a lot of stuff, understand it, think about it and make up theories, integrate it in my head, and then reach an understanding and explain that to people. I am part philosopher, part wise person, and part entertainer.

And that's why your books are so popular?

Exactly. They are fun to read. And there's no bullshit in them. I know that we should express things positively, not negatively, but the metaphor is so apt, because there's bullshit all over the place. Every book you buy has stilted language — or people make a speech and it's bullshit.

I don't mean to say that there aren't books or speeches without merit. But people don't often tell the truth, or say what they honestly feel. I say what I think in a straightforward manner that I think is refreshing because there isn't enough of it in our culture. Everybody's got an edge or is trying to twist something, in order to manipulate how we think.

Why is that?

Because it works a lot of the time — or at least people think it works. People manipulate other people all over the place to get their money. For example, do you remember what it cost the last time you bought gas?


Yes, okay, but it didn't really say "$1.65" on the sign, did it? It said "$1.65 9/10", and the "9/10" was in tiny numerals, to make it harder to see. Normally, people would consider $1.65 9/10 to be about $1.66, but at gas stations, the signs are designed to trick our minds into thinking of a number that is lower than the real price.

Although this seems like a small thing, it is an example of the type of bullshit that we see everywhere, because a lot of companies and lot of marketing people think that it works. For example, my publishers sell my books for, say, $19.99. Why don't they just say $20.00?

I don't think that this type of marketing really works, because I don't think people are that dumb. However, because everyone is used to misleading information and tolerates it, it has become ubiquitous.

Now, I don't say that I have a monopoly on the truth. However, when I write and when I give a speech, I do come out and express my ideas exactly as I see them. There is no hidden "9/10" or misleading "$19.99" — and that is what people respond to in my books.

Of all the books you've written, do you have a personal favorite?

Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages and Harley Hahn's Student Guide to Unix are up there, but Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity is probably the one. In this book, I took topics that are normally dry, and normally not explored very much (beyond the technical advice) and I explored them way beyond what most people would expect, and I breathed life into them.

I just got email today from somebody in Los Angeles (whom I don't know) which said, "I just finished reading your Internet Insecurity book and I'm going to buy three copies for a friend and two relatives." That's just the thing a writer likes to hear because writers — unlike other professionals who provide a service — never get to meet their customers. So it's really nice to get something like that.

When did you get the idea to write it?

Jeff Pepper, the Prentice Hall publisher, asked me if I wanted to write a book for them (we did some books in the past when he worked at McGraw-Hill). He asked me if I wanted to write one on computer security.

I thought, "What do I know about computer security?" I knew I had learned what I needed to keep my own computer safe, but I'm sure he was probably thinking of a book that would be full of technical information that would be bought by computer professionals who were in charge of protecting networks. I didn't know any of this stuff.

That's never stopped me from writing a book, because I can learn whatever I need to know — but frankly, I find that type of book kind of dull and boring. I can see how people might buy it as a reference book, but it would really not turn out to be that interesting. So, I just started writing to see where it would take me.

"Internet Insecurity" refers to the feeling of low grade anxiety and worry that we all feel with respect to information technology and modern systems.

How did you come up with the title?

It took a long time to find the right title. Three of us — my editor Greg Doench, my chief-of-staff Lydia Hearn, and I — spent hours discussing possible titles, trying to capture the ideas in the book. Finally, we came up with Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity.

The superficial idea was that you could feel some insecurity about your computer's connection to the Internet, and here's a book that might help you assuage that insecurity.

What I came to realize, though, was that the insecurity did not refer to the actual computer connection, but to that feeling of that low grade anxiety and worry that we all feel with respect to information technology and modern systems and big companies and forces that influence our lives that we cannot control. Not just computer companies, but big business in general: credit reporting agencies, governments, the organization where we work, and the social structure of where we live. That's what I have come to think of as Internet Insecurity, and in the book, I go very far afield in talking about it.

It's a fact that really redefines this book because it is not just a book about computer security.

That's correct. It talks about history and politics and science and psychology and philosophy and biology and relationships and money. The chapter on money is one of my favorites.

What I did was write a history of money, starting from the idea of barter, going through the invention of coins and paper money, and inflation and deflation and government control. From barter, all the way to the modern monetary system, where literally, on some days, billions of dollars are created and destroyed electronically in a way that most people don't understand — in order to balance the system.

Earlier in the book, I covered a lot of other unusual topics, such as why Americans run around the world acting like cowboys. Later in the book, I talked about the biological basis for relationships. In between, I talked about privacy, philosophy, history, psychology, and so on.

What do these topics have to do with "Internet Insecurity"? The only thing they have in common is they are all forces we really don't understand — and they are all discussed by me in the same book.

So, everybody was surprised — the people who published the book, the people who have bought the book, and the people who have reviewed it.

[Note from Harley. The chapter of the book mentioned above is now available online: Understanding Money]

Here are two quotes from the first few pages of Harley Hahn's Internet Insecurity:

"The Internet has a massive influence on human affairs, an influence that has expanded and changed significantly in the last few years"

"As surely as you are reading this, the Internet is humanity's staircase to the next level of human evolution."

These are very big, very intriguing statements, and it's probably not fair to ask you to spend a scant few moments here talking about them when you've spent a whole book talking about them, but perhaps you can whet our appetite just a bit?

I said that I am an explainer and a writer. But if you go one level deeper, what I really am is a synthesist. I look and I learn and I take facts and I synthesize reasoning from the particular to the general. What I do is I look around me and I notice things and I internalize them. I work out a lot of ideas by talking with people and when I write, I make up theories and I try to see the forest and not the trees. I try to see the trends, where we are going and why, and what's happening around us.

The ideas about evolution (in the book) come from actual evolutionary theory. But the physical evolution of human beings stopped a little more than 100,000 years ago. We pretty much look like human beings did 100,000 years ago — except we have better nutrition and public health now — and, physically, we will probably be about the same 100,000 years from now. However, in a social and cultural sense, we have evolved tremendously.

If you took an adult from 100,000 years ago, they could get along in the sense that they could breathe our air and drink our water and eat our food — and if they got sick, the same doctor that helps us could help them. But they couldn't along in the sense that they came from a social system that is vastly unevolved compared to ours. It would be just as detrimental to their health as if they needed vitamins that we didn't have.

So, evolution now is a social and a cultural evolution. It's just as real as a physical evolution. That's what most people don't realize. So when I look at the Internet, I see a huge turn in the road as human beings. I see it as the driving force behind a huge amount of evolution that will take place in the next few generations.

The world has been getting more and more wired and the Internet is the glue that is making it all come together. We don't really know exactly what's going to happen, but to a philosopher like me, I recognize it as being extremely important — way more important than the fact that the Internet can be used to make money.

In 1925, Calvin Coolidge said, "The chief business of America is business." I like to say, "The chief business of the Internet is not business." I think it's a minor part of the Internet. The business of the Internet has to do with the evolution of human beings.

You say somewhere in the book that there is all of this chatting going on, but that it is really not "enough." Why?

Given our inborn, biological needs, we are going to be unhappy if we don't have the connections we need with other people.

People talk for different reasons. Sometimes they talk to pass exact information back and forth. Just about any medium will work for this, because all I might need to do, for example, is convey to you a phone number.

But if we wanted to have a talk about philosophy, then the number of useful ways we would have to talk effectively is narrowed down considerably. I can't publish a small ad in the newspaper about philosophy the way I can to announce a phone number. It's also difficult to have a conversation about philosophy via email.

Now think about all of these 14-year-old teenagers chatting. They are chatting on the Internet to stay in touch. Teenagers have a need to chatter back and forth. They are not making and exploring new relationships on the Internet. They're maintaining existing connections, so they don't drop.

Teenagers have a need to have many acquaintances that they connect with all the time. But adults have more of a need for one primary relationship (plus maybe a relationship with their children) — and a small number of close relationships (with friends) as well. This is really a basic biological need, and I talk about it in the book in great detail.

So given our inborn, biological needs, we are going to be unhappy if we don't have the connections we need with other people. Many people do not have such connections. They want friends and they want a mate. Well, it is possible to meet people on the Internet. There's nothing inherently bad about communicating using the Internet. Communication is how we meet mates and other people. But the problem with using the Internet to communicate in this way is that it doesn't work for human beings.

It doesn't work for the same reason that we can't live on Jupiter. Jupiter has enormous gravity and it has an ammonia methane atmosphere that we can't live in. There's nothing morally wrong with ammonia or methane or higher gravity, but biologically, we were designed to live in a different environment.

When human beings evolved, there was no telegraph, and there was no telephone or email or radio or TV or chat rooms. We communicated by face-to-face contact. We are also biologically wired to communicate in this way — we just weren't built to communicate over the Internet.

You and I are talking in person now, but people will read this as an interview. As we talk, you hear more than my words. You hear the tone of my voice — the rhythms and the phrasing — as well as the ambient noise. You can use tools like parentheses and italics and bold letters to attempt to accurately convey all of this when you convert our conversation to written form, but, right now, you have the benefit of seeing what my body language is saying, and you get other clues by watching my eyes or my breathing. These are the extras that are lost when people communicate by the written or electronic word, such as over the Internet. The more you strip away, the more you are missing of the whole experience.

We evolved to need more, and for better or for worse, we live with that legacy. We just can't have good communication unless it is in person. Now you may say, "What about two people who did meet on the Internet, fell in love and got married, and lived happily ever after?" Well, that happens. Two people can meet in any circumstance. But I would say that they didn't have a real relationship, one that was meaningful in an enduring sense, until they finally met in person. Internet relationships are ultimately unsatisfying.

Unfortunately many people haven't learned how to handle such choices, and they trade real relationships for the superficial, misleading and shallow satisfaction of Internet relationships. This allows them to escape responsibility and personal growth. It also allows them to avoid the effort that is required to maintain the real relationships in their life.

Why do people want to escape that?

I don't know that they want to — I think they get sucked into it. Why do people want to sit in front of a box that has two-dimensional representations of life that show them things to look at instead of just going out and doing things?

I think we are slaves to our nervous system and we just get used to it. Some people get addicted. We certainly get habituated to it. A lot of it is because we don't know better, and a lot of it is because very few people have people of wisdom in their life that says, "Hey, maybe this isn't good, maybe you shouldn't be doing this."

So where is all of this taking us? Any predictions?

I don't think it should be acceptable in our culture for adults or kids to spend over fifty percent of their spare time watching television.

I have three predictions. First, there will always be new things coming along offering the illusion of being able to solve problems. Some of them will be healthy. Some of them will not matter. Some will be unhealthy.

My second prediction is that when one of these new things is found to be harmful, within a generation or two, we will accommodate to it and we'll create a cultural morality that will define how we're supposed to act.

My third prediction is also a hope: we need to teach our children that what we expose our nervous systems to and how we spend our social time is very, very important, because, we are affected by our tools more than we like to admit.

There is a saying, "To a man with only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail." I would take that further and say that we are shaped by what we expose ourselves to, and I would like to see an understanding that what we expose our nervous systems to — television and radio with all of the commercials, the Internet and all its uses — should not just be left up to blind chance.

I don't think it should be acceptable in our culture for adults or kids to spend over fifty percent of their spare (non-sleeping, non-working) time watching television. I also don't think it should be acceptable to spend all night in chat rooms or playing Internet network games or with email. Excessive use of the Internet will probably never be illegal, but it should be frowned upon as not being a good way to live.

I would be surprised and disappointed if, a hundred years from now, people will still just want to come home after a day of stress at work and veg out in front of the TV. I think it's just a phase that we're going through — as is this fascination with chat rooms and that sort of thing.

How do you think we'll move out this phase?

Society will figure it out. There was a time when it was cool to get drunk and drive on a public road. Today, we have the ethos in our society that drunk driving is morally wrong. Society has a way of fixing itself.

True, but individual leaders are necessary.

Yes, and I'd like to be one of those leaders. But I can't change society because I'm only one person. This is probably a good thing, because we tend to get in trouble when one person has too much influence. I can, however, write the books and give the speeches that nobody else can.

And what do you want to say?

I want to tell people that they should think; that they shouldn't tranquilize themselves; and that they should look for what endures in life, for long-term happiness.

I want my readers to appreciate that they are being cheated out of their intellectual and emotional birthrights by strong social forces that are manipulating them. I want people to understand that they are living with much less than they need to be, and they do have a choice.