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«Hackers. They seem to be everywhere, landing headlines in the news, founding companies in Silicon Valley and hacker spaces around the world, and at ...»

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(Forthcoming, The Johns Hopkins Encyclopedia of Digital Textuality, 2014)

E. Gabriella Coleman

Hackers. They seem to be everywhere, landing headlines in the news, founding

companies in Silicon Valley and hacker spaces around the world, and at times, facing years in

jail. Despite this presence, they are everywhere misunderstood.

Generally, a hacker is a technologist with a penchant for computing and a hack is a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means (Levy 1984, Turkle 2005). It is telling that a hack, as defined by The Hacker Jargon File, can mean the complete opposite of an ingenious intervention: a clunky, ugly fix, that nevertheless completes the job at hand. Among hackers, the term is often worn as a badge of honor. In the popular press, however, the connotations of 'hacker' are most often negative, or at minimum refer to illegal intrusion of computer systems. These differences point to the various meanings and multiple histories associated with the terms hacker and hacking.

Hackers, especially in the west, tend to uphold civil liberties: free speech privacy, and access. They adore computers and networks and are trained in the specialized—and economically lucrative—technical arts of programming, system/network administration and security research. Some gain unauthorized access to technologies (though much of hacking is legal). Foremost, hacking, in its distinct incarnations, embodies an aesthetic where craftsmanship and craftiness converge; hackers value playfulness, pranking and cleverness, and will frequently display their wit through source code, humor, or both. But once one confronts hacking historically and sociologically, this shared plane melts into a sea of differences that have, until recently, been generally overlooked in the literature on hacking (Coleman and Golub 2008, Jordan 2008).

The term hacker was first used consistently in the 1960s among technologists at MIT whose lives maniacally revolved around making, using and improving computer software—a preoccupation that Steven Levy beautifully dubbed “a daring symbiosis between man and machine” in his engaging and exhaustive 1984 account Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984: 39). Levy unbundled the groups’ unstated ethical codes from their passionate, everyday collective pursuits and conceptualized them as “the hacker ethic,” shorthand for a mix of aesthetic and pragmatic imperatives that included: commitment to information freedom, mistrust of authority, heightened dedication to meritocracy and the firm belief that computers can be the basis for beauty and a better world (1984: 39-46). Levy’s book not only represented what had been an esoteric community but also inspired others to identify with the moniker “hacker” and its ethical principles.

By the 1980s, many other technologists routinely deployed the term “hacker,” individuals enthralled with tinkering and technical spelunking but whose history and politics were distinct from those chronicled by Levy. Sometimes referred to as the “hacker underground,” the standard story goes that they arose in the 1980s, sullying what had been a pristine and legal tradition. What often goes overlooked in the underground's history is that their ethical and aesthetics traditions hail from subversive predecessors, phone phreaks, who existed at the same time as the first crop of university hackers in early 1960s. These phreaks, as they were eventually known, tapped into the phone system to make free phone calls, explored 'The System,' and found each other on phone conferences also known as party lines (Sterling 1992, Rosenbaum 1971, Thomas 2003, Lapsley 2013).

The end of the analog phone network after the divestiture of “Ma Bell” heralded the end of the golden age of phreaking, which was largely replaced with the exploration of computer networks. The marriage between phreaking and computer hacking was represented in the popular e-zine Phrack, first published in 1985 on Bulletin Boards Systems, where hackers of all kinds congregated (Scott 2005, Sterling 1992, Thomas 2002). Hackers published prolifically in diverse genres, including manifestos (most famously “The Conscience of a Hacker”), textfiles (written in sparse ASCII text but often filled with ASCII art, audaciously worded content) and zines (such as Hack-Tic in the Netherlands and 2600 in the United States). Although many of these underground hackers acquired and circulated technical knowledge, for instance, by scouting for security vulnerabilities, they also simply sought forbidden fruit and their actions included mockery, spectacle, and transgression—a politics and ethics distinct from the university hackers of MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford (although there was plenty of pranking and irreverence among these hackers as well and some individuals participated in both domains).

Instead of fixating upon a single point of origin for hacking, juxtaposing distinct lineages allows us to be attentive to multiple origins, distinct lineages, and variable ethics. By the late 1980s, although various instances of hacking existed, the more subversive tradition became the public face of hacking, cemented, and sometimes distorted by, media accounts. Laws, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, enacted in the United States in 1986, became the weapon of choice to prosecute hackers. Since the mid 1980s, the U.S. government has tended to criminalize hacking under all circumstances, unwilling to differentiate between criminal activities, playful pursuits, and political causes.

Some hackers, concerned by the illicit actions of other hackers and negative, sensationalist media portrayals, started to call those who hacked for illegal or malicious purposes, “crackers” (Nissenbaum 2004). The use of “cracker” was a linguistic attempt to reclaim and sanitize “hacker.” Unsurprisingly, many hackers also questioned the term. As more automation tools became available, many also started to use the derogatory terms “script kiddies” to designate those who use scripts to circumvent computer security or deface websites, rather than finding a unique compromise. It is a scornful term (no one would elect to self-designate as such) that demarcates boundaries, signals appropriate behavior, and gives voice to the value placed on ingenuity, inventiveness and self-sufficiency.

To this day, debate rages among technologists: who deserves the title of “hacker”? What constitutes its parameters? Some readily accept variability, while others starkly draw borders.

When asked, most can fire off precise definitions. When interviewed, two hackers distinguished between builders—often found in free and open source communities whose lineage goes back to the university communities explored in Levy—and breakers with whom these hackers identify.

They define breakers as follows:

Di: I call myself a hacker, what I mean is that I apply creativity and technical knowledge to bypassing defenses.

Da : Yeah I’ve heard 'obtaining lower level understanding of a system to bypass systems'… which is a reasonable definition.

As this example demonstrates, to hackers themselves, “to hack” can thus mean distinct activities, from improving the open source Linux operating system to finding vulnerabilities and “fuzzing” for exploits. Some distinctions are subtle, while others are profound enough to warrant thinking about hacking in terms of genres with distinct aesthetics and histories (Coleman and Golub 2008). Free and Open Source hackers —those that have used legal means to guarantee perpetual access to source code—tend to uphold political structures of transparency (Coleman 2013). In contrast, the hacker underground is more opaque in its social organization (Thomas 2003). These hackers have made secrecy and spectacle into a high art form (Coleman 2012b).

For decades in Europe, artists have marshaled hacking aesthetics for the sake of political activity (Bazzichelli 2008, Deseriis and Marano 2008). Hardware has also been part of hacking for a long time. Historically, its most notable manifestation was among the Homebrew hackers of the Bay Area who hacked one of the first personal computer kits, the MITS Altair 8800, and helped fuel a nascent personal computer industry. Today, hardware hacking is exploding, buoyed by the spread of hack spaces—physical workshops filled with tools and computers—across North America and Europe but also in Latin America and China. Though in its infancy, bio-hacking is on the rise, with physical labs a key locus of activity (Delfanti 2013) Some hackers run vibrant political collectives whose names, Riseup and Mayfirst, unabashedly broadcast their technical crusade to make this world a better one (Juris 2008, Milberry 2012). Politically-minded hackers have been at the forefront of developing cryptographic tools for the sake of privacy and whisteblowing (Greenburg 2012). A select number of hackers have gravitated toward Anonymous—an umbrella term used by activists, geeks, and many non-hackers for a range of distinct and often unconnected digital operations— to engage in hacking for the sake of leaking sensitive corporate and government information (Coleman 2012a), extending a longer tradition in hacktivism (Taylor and Jordan 2004). Others —for example, many “infosec” (information security) hackers—are first and foremost committed to security, and tend to steer clear of defining their actions in such overtly political terms, even if hacking tends to creep into political territory. Still, the infosec community is not homogenous, and there is active debate within the group as to whether one should release a security vulnerability (often called full disclosure) or announce its existence without revealing details (referred to as anti-disclosure). A smaller, more radical movement known as “antisec,” is vehemently against any disclosure, claiming that it is their “goal that, through mayhem and the destruction of all exploitative and detrimental communities, companies, and individuals, full-disclosure will be abandoned and the security industry will be forced to reform.” 1 National and regional differences also make their mark. Southern European hackers have articulated a more leftist, anarchist commitment than their northern European 1 https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/Anti-sec_manifesto.png counterparts. Recently, nationalistic hacking—though virtually unexplored by scholars—has spread (Karatzogianni 2006 is an important exception). Pakistani hackers are routinely at war with their Indian neighbors. Chinese hackers are quite nationalistic in their aims and aspirations (Henderson 2007), in contrast to those in North America, Latin America, and Europe, whose anti-authoritarian stance makes many—though certainly not all—wary of joining government endeavors.

It would nevertheless be a mistake to treat different types of hacking as cultural cocoons.

By the 1990s, hackers of all stripes met during annual hacker “cons” (Coleman 2010) and the number of conferences multiples each year. Technical architectures, the language of codes, and protocols most especially bring together different types of hackers and activities. For instance, as it was developed over the last four decades, the Unix Operating System, has worked to bind thousands of hackers together as part of what Chris Kelty aptly calls a “recursive public” (2008).

While we can say that hacker action and ethical principles share a common core or general ethos, inquiry demonstrates that we can identify variance and even serious points of contention.

Given the multi-faceted, rich, and often controversial political effects engendered by hackers, from the creation of new licensing regimes to exposing the abuses of the surveillance state (Himanen 2001, Söderberg 2008, Wark 2004) and its historical dynamism, it is imperative to keep the variations and full diversity of hacking at the forefront of our inquiries.

Works Cited Bazzichelli, Tatiana 2008 Networking, The Net as Artwork. Digital Aesthetics Research Center: Aarhus University Coleman, E. Gabriella 2010 The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld. Anthropological Quarterly. 83(1): 47-72 2012a Our Weirdness is Free: The logic of Anonymous: Online Army, Agent of Chaos, and Seeker of Justice. Triple Canopy http://canopycanopycanopy.com/15/our_weirdness_is_free 2012b Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls and the Politics of Transgression and Spectacle. In The Social Media Reader, ed. Michael Mandiberg. New York: NYU Press 2013 Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coleman, Gabriella and Golub Alex 2008 Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism.

Anthropological Theory, Vol. 8, No. 3, 255-277.

Delfanti, Alesandro 2013 Biohackers: The Politics of Open Science. London: Pluto Press.

Deseriis, Marco. and G. Marano 2008 Net.Art: L’arte della Connessione (Net.Art: The Art of Connecting) Milan: Shake. (First edition 2003) Greenburg, Andy 2012 This Machine Kills Secrets. New York: Dutton/Penguin.

Henderson, Scott 2007 The Dark Visitor: Inside the World of Chinese Hackers. Lulu.com Himanen, Pekka 2001 The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.

New York:

Random House.

Jordan, Tim 2008 Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jordan, Tim and Paul Taylor 2004 Hacktivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? London: Routledge.

Juris, Jeff 2008 Networking Futures. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kelty, Chris M.

2008 Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham: Duke University Press.

Karatzogianni, Athina 2006 The Politics of Cyberconflict. Routledge: London and New York.

Lapsley, Phil 2013 Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell. New York City: Grove Press.

Levy, Steven 1984 Hackers Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Delta.

Lindtner, Silvia and David Li 2012 “Created in China: the makings of China's hackerspace community.” Interactions 19 (6):


Milberry, Kate 2012 “Hacking for social justice: The politics of prefigurative technology.” In (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. Andrew Feenberg and Norm Friesen, editors. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Nissenbaum, Helen 2004 “Hackers and the Contested Ontology of Cyberspace.” New Media and Society (6)2:

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