Hackers and Hacking: The forgotten culture

Published on November 30, 2012 at 15:49 GMT Share: Twitter | Facebook

There have been significant journalistic and popular writing on hacker culture, the most notable of which has been Bruce Sterling's "The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier," and Katie Hafner and John Markoff's "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier." Beyond these, there is a dearth of scholarly work on computer hacking.
Reminiscing the original computer hacking culture

There have been significant journalistic and popular writing on hacker culture, the most notable of which has been Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, and Katie Hafner and John Markoff's Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier. Beyond these, there is a dearth of scholarly work on computer hacking.

New technologies evoke a variety of reactions, not the least of which is fear. From coverage of the Kevin Mitnick case to cyber-terrorism, the popular press plays upon fear around new technology in order to deliver an audience to advertisers. The result? Disinformation, and, at worst, manipulation. And it's been going on for a long time.

The hacker criminal

In 1996, Joel Snyder, columnist of the now defunct Internet World, was subjected to a mail bomb: an attempt to flood his electronic mailbox with hundreds of email messages. This attack was waged by a self-styled hacker who disagreed with one of Snyder's columns, which painted the commercialization of the Internet in a positive light.

Snyder writes of the distinction between "true hacking" as it used to exist and the new digital "terrorism" of his attacker:

The complex and convoluted world of computers and the Net has always excited people, generally young people, to explore the boundaries of the system. The word "hacker" was first applied to people who pushed the limits of the technology, who developed clever ways of doing things or using computers in ways designers never imagined.

He continues:

For most hackers, the intent is not to vandalize, break laws, or terrorize. It's to learn and explore.

Within Snyder's and others' construct of hacking, the act itself, though sometimes illegal, was necessary in order for the hacker to learn. Those days, Snyder implies, are now gone; it is time for the philosophy of the hacker to mature along with the technology. Individuals who use the moniker of hacker in a way in which it was never intended are not true hackers, not like in the early days as they are imagined by Snyder and his ilk.

The Hacker Ethic

It was Steven Levy, in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, who was responsible for popularizing what Snyder only touches upon: the "Hacker Ethic," a loose collection of libertarian and techno-utopian principles which seemed to percolate out of the computer hobby in the 1970s and form the basis for notions such as Snyder's, that of the existence of a "true nature" of hacking.

Levy is also clear about the origins of the term "hacking" early in the book. Of the first "hackers" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he writes:

. . . [T]he word "hack" had long been used to describe the elaborate college pranks that MIT students would regularly devise, such as covering the dome that overlooked the campus with reflecting foil.

Levy tells us that Apple's first product was a "blue box" for circumventing long-distance telephone calling charges, and that Bill Gates's first commercial software product was pirated extensively by computer hobbyists, much to his chagrin. Levy paints Steve Jobs and other early personal computer developers not just as hackers in the "classic," utopian sense, but also as "dark side" hackers engaged in quasi-legal acts.

The crackdown

Less than a decade after Levy, cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling constructed another notion of hacking in his book The Hacker Crackdown: an activity of the young, the inventive, the aggressive, the misunderstood, the persecuted.

Sterling quotes what is perhaps the best-known hacker text, "The Conscience of the Hacker" by "The Mentor":

This is our world now . . . the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore . . . and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge . . . and you call us criminals. We exist without skin colour, without nationality, without religious bias . . . and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe that it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

But is Sterling's view ultimately different from Levy's? Both Sterling and Levy present the hacker as something akin to a stage in a cycle of maturity. Just as Levy's coders were forced to move into a the "real world" of business ethics, so do Sterling's protagonists: the members of the hacker groups Legion of Doom and the Masters of Destruction have moved on, either to well-paying coding and consulting contracts, or to jail.


With all this writing about hackers, one might begin to think that they are like the Carthaginians of the ancient Mediterranean: their history written only by their enemies. But there is a significant body of writing by hackers available, if one wishes to look for it.

While academic writing about computer hacking is not common, there are literally hundreds of texts from hackers themselves. In fact, almost the entire construction of "hacking" by hackers takes place in text: the cool ASCII of email, Usenet, and the UNIX command. It is within a textual space that hacking is, for the hackers themselves, built.

Comments (1)

January 1, 2013 at 00:52 GMT

Impressive content............ Cool.

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