Steve Steinberg, hacker, writer, friend (1970-2020)

Steve Steinberg—hacker, writer, father, and my dear friend—died yesterday. He was 50 years old. Several weeks ago, Steve had a terrible bicycle accident. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and didn't recover. Steve's brain was what defined him. He was truly one of the smartest people I've ever known and certainly the most unique.  

As a teenager in the San Francisco Bay Area, Steve was a well-respected member of the infamous Legion of Doom hacker collective. Here's how Bruce Sterling described Steve (handle: Frank Drake) in the book Hacker Crackdown:

[Frank Drake] with his floppy blond mohawk, rotting tennis shoes and black leather jacket lettered ILLUMINATI in red, gives off an unmistakable air of the bohemian literatus. Drake is the kind of guy who reads British industrial design magazines and appreciates William Gibson because the quality of the prose is so tasty. Drake could never touch a phone or a keyboard again, and he'd still have the nose-ring and the blurry photocopied fanzines and the sampled industrial music. He's a radical punk with a desktop-publishing rig and an Internet address.

Bruce perfectly captured the Steve Steinberg who I met in 1993 at UC Berkeley. I was a journalism graduate student taking a small technology writing seminar taught by esteemed New York Times reporter John Markoff. Steve was in the class, although he didn't utter a word for the first few weeks. After the third session, he approached me. "You mentioned you like Wired magazine," Steve said. The first issue had just come out, and the nascent cyberculture was the reason I had decided to move from Ohio to the Bay Area in the first place. "Do you want to take over my column?" Steve asked.

I eventually learned that Steve wasn't actually registered for Markoff's class. He was a Cal computer science grad student, researching parallel processing for cell simulations, and was sitting in on Markoff's class because they were friends dating back to Steve's LoD days. In fact, Steve was a key source for Markoff and Katie Hafner's book Cyberpunk. Steve was also the creator and publisher of WORM and Intertek, the seminal hacker 'zines from which Wired borrowed several section ideas, including Reality Check, the futurist column that he bestowed upon me. Steve never told me why he gave me the keys to Reality Check but it was a lightning bolt for my writing career.

After that first conversation, I basically insisted that Steve and I become friends. And we did. We ate dinner together in the City nearly every Friday night for years. We traded books. I annoyed him with tech support questions. He signed my Master's thesis. We bought our first mobile phones together. We spoke or emailed every day, sometimes more than once. We went on double dates. He stood with me at my wedding. We were buddies.

Upon graduation, Steve became a full-time editor at Wired where he brought true technical and scientific depth to its pages while also penning the Los Angeles Times' "Innovations" column. Always keeping the reader in mind, Steve was a master at explaining highly complex technologies in a way that was not only technically correct but also poetic in its language. Professionally, Steve taught me so much: how to think critically about the future of technology, how to cut through present hype, and that cyberpunk wasn't just something from the pages of science fiction. He lived it.

Like many of his LoD peers, Steve eventually returned to computer security but this time wearing a white hat, launching a penetration testing lab at one of the Big Four consulting firms. Around this time, Wired published one of Steve's last major pieces for the magazine, a cover story about the telecom industry titled "Netheads vs Bellheads." Steve's insights grabbed the attention of Gilder, Gagnon, Howe & Co, a Manhattan investment firm. Overnight, Steve became a stock analyst focused on technology companies. It made perfect sense, really. His job was to interrogate executives at public tech companies and then apply his finely-honed bullshit detector to inform stock picks. In his spare time though, Steve was experimenting with ways to (legally) hack Wall Street using natural language processing, machine learning, and other emerging technologies. He worked for GGHC ever since then and ultimately hired and trained one of the people now running the firm, his close friend James Deutsch.

Steve had insatiable curiosity but his explorations were never shallow. If something sparked his interest, he would immerse himself utterly and completely in the subject. As his resources grew, his living spaces looked increasingly like a home laboratory belonging to a minimalist mad scientist: racks of computers, an electronics workbench, lasers, and an optical table (that also served as a coffee table), and a CNC lathe. Oh, and a futon on the floor. Visiting his home was like walking into a cleanroom in a secret semiconductor manufacturing facility where a DJ happened to be spinning hardcore techno.

Steve had a penchant for designer fashion. For him, it wasn't about the brand name but the aesthetics. He saw fashion as art. At one point, he collaborated with my wife Kelly Sparks, a fashion designer, on a tailored jumpsuit that he thought would be a perfect uniform for his lifestyle. I don't think Steve ever wore it but they had great fun creating it together.

He was incredibly generous. For years, he supported the nonprofit human rights organization Stop Prison Rape. When I asked him why he chose that cause, he told me it was because he remembered as a kid hearing people commonly make jokes about prison rape and he just didn't think it seemed very funny.

Steve was eccentric as hell. He wanted to experience everything in life, but usually just for a moment. For example, he once convinced me to accompany him on a last-minute trip to Iceland with the understanding that we'd only be staying for 24 hours. It wasn't that Steve was easily bored but rather that once he felt he had a sense of something, that was enough. After all, there were always other things to do or see.

Steve didn't have a TV growing up, or as an adult. If the TV happened to be on when he came over to my place, he'd be instantly entranced by the commercials as if they were some sort of alien transmission. He turned me on to Borges but told me he had no idea who the Brady Bunch were.

He kept no personal savings because he worried that it would make him lazy and complacent. Even when he could afford to buy his own place, he didn't because he insisted that owning his home would make it harder if he felt compelled to leave. Steve once bought a high-performance rigid inflatable boat—the kind Greenpeace uses, he pointed out —to see how absurdly fast he could zip under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the Pacific Ocean. He had a huge jellyfish tank installed in his basement so he could find calm watching the rhythmically pulsing creatures. When a magazine wanted to run a photo essay on the loft that he co-designed, Steve flatly refused. "Bad things happen to people who show off," he said.

For the last decade, I think what Steve loved most was being a father. He has two 11-year-old twin boys, Moss and Luka. Inside Steve's apartment right now is an intricate liquid-cooled computer gaming system that he and his sons were building together. Boys, I promise you that it wasn't a chore for your dad to work on it with you. And I know you will grow to further understand the brilliance, kindness, and stunning complexity that your father brought to the world.

From one of Steve's blog posts in 2008:  

I find the best writing almost impossible to read. Partly because I want to savor it; I want to deny it ends. Or, sometimes, it's so provocative it forces me to reconsider everything before I can continue. 

Steve, thank you for living a life that pushed me to reconsider everything.