The Anthropology of Hackers


Editor's Note: Pasty kids with greasy hair typing on command lines. Dark villains of the networked world. Security magicians with odd political beliefs. We have a lot of ideas about who hackers are, but very few people have actually tried to seriously investigate the anthropology of one of the more fascinating social groups to emerge at the end of the 20th century. NYU's Gabriella Coleman studies their culture, an odd brew of faith in freedom of information and traditional liberalism, along with a generous salt-and-peppering of nerdiness and counterculturalism. In the latest edition of our syllabus-as-essay series, Coleman guides us past the stereotypes and into the many hideouts and projects of the hacker underground.

A "hacker" is a technologist with a love for computing and a "hack" is a clever technical solution arrived through a non-obvious means. It doesn't mean to compromise the Pentagon, change your grades, or take down the global financial system, although it can, but that is a very narrow reality of the term. Hackers tend to value a set of liberal principles: freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers; some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies (and much, even most of hacking, by the definition I set above, is actually legal). But once one confronts hacking empirically, some similarities melt into a sea of differences; some of these distinctions are subtle, while others are profound enough to warrant thinking about hacking in terms of genres or genealogies of hacking -- and we compare and contrast various of these genealogies in the class, such as free and open source software hacking and the hacker underground.

Since 2007, I have taught an undergraduate class on computer hackers at New York University where I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. The class opens a window into the esoteric facets of hacking: its complicated ethical codes and the multifaceted experiences of pleasures and frustrations in making, breaking, and especially dwelling in technology. Hacking, however, is as much a gateway into familiar cultural and political territory. For instance, hacker commitments to freedom, meritocracy, privacy and free speech are not theirs alone, nor are they hitched solely to the contemporary moment. Indeed, hacker ethical principles hearken back to sensibilities and conundrums that precipitated out of the Enlightenment's political ferment; hackers have refashioned many political concerns -- such as a commitments to free speech -- through technological and legal artifacts, thus providing a particularly compelling angle by which to view the continued salience of liberal principles in the context of the digital present.

Week One: Introductions and the MIT Hackers

One of the canonical books on hackers is Steven Levy's superb journalistic account Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution published in 1984. The book is famous for defining the "hacker ethic," a set of aesthetic and ethical imperatives that include a commitment to access, meritocracy, and a belief that computers can the be the basis for beauty, even a better world. While in a general sense, the hacker ethic can be said to exist -- in part because many hackers have adopted this terminology -- this benchmark at times acts as the Achilles heel of journalistic and academic studies of hackers; it is often invoked in simplified terms, applied wholesale to hackers whitewashing the most fascinating ethical dimensions that flow out of computer hacking, which are precisely the ethical eddies, cracks, and tides that render hacker action more ambivalent and ambiguous than a crystal clear standard.

Week Two: The Craft and Liberalism of Hacking

Hacking may be contemporary but the logic of its labor goes back centuries for it is a prime example of a "craft" as defined by the sociologist Richard Sennett in The Craftsman. Reading about craftsmanship helps students understand the material and social life of hacking. But in reading the pages of Levy, one also gets a whiff of an ideological scent among hackers, for example, in their hyper-elevation of meritocracy and individualism, both of which have a long and complicated life in the liberal tradition. Since liberalism becomes important in the course later and is hard to define, we start grappling with it early on and we lean heavily on Stuart Hall's piece, "Variants of Liberalism."

Week Three: Phreaking

The canonical (and I think misleading) story about hacking is that was born at MIT and evolved outward from there.  Although MIT was certainly one place where hacking got its start, there were other genealogies in formation at the same time. We thus reappraise this version of history when we pay visit to another class of technologist, the phone phreakers -- the direct ancestors to the hacker underground. In the late 1950s, they started to study, explore, and enter the phone system by recreating the audio frequencies that the system used to route calls. To learn about these technological spelunkers of the phone system, we rely on a few of the early chapters in Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown and on Ron Rosenbaum's riveting Esquire article "Secrets of the Little Blue Box". The institutional independence of phreakers, in combination with some early political influences, such as the the Yippies (Youth International Party), made for a class of technologist whose aesthetic sensibilities and linguistic practices proved to be more daring, vivacious, audacious, and more transgressive than university-based hackers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Stanford.

Week Four: Poor Man's ARPAnet (aka USENET) versus the Internet and the Politics of Technology

Hackers build technology that behaves not only technologically but also politically. To start thinking through this issue, we read one of the seminal pieces on the topic, Langdon Winners' "Do Artifacts have Politics." We use the framework to think about ARPAnet and its successor, the Internet, whose contradictory politics are laid out by Roy Rosenzweig in "Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet." We also read Bryan Pfaffenberger, "If I Want It, It's OK: Usenet and the (Outer) Limits of Free Speech," as it covers some the earliest free speech battles that raged among hackers on USENET, battles that brought into relief the tension between elitism and populism that continues to be a defining mark of hacker sociality.


Week Five: The Hacker Underground and the Politics of Transgression

Phreaking was eventually eclipsed by what is commonalty referred to as the hacker underground, although for a period of time the two co-existed, a relationship signaled by one of the most popular e-zines in the history of hacking, Phrack, which my students read, along with textfiles, churned out in massive quantities by hackers. To learn about the underground, we read parts of Bruce Sterling's Hacker Crackdown as well one of the most definitive academic accounts on the subject Hacker Culture by Douglas Thomas. We supplement this material with a short piece by Dick Hebdige -- Threats, Striking... Poses -- as a way to understand how transgressive subcultures derive pleasure in performing the spectacle that is expected of them.

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Trained as an anthropologist, Gabriella Coleman examines the ethics of online collaboration/institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. She's an assistant professor at New York University.

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