Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on WikiLeaks


As someone whose job is to study hackers, I have nothing but admiration for the journalists and authors who have penned wonderful books on hackers. Bruce Sterling is one of those luminaries and without fail, I always assign a few chapters from The Hacker Crackdown, which reveals in stunning and humorous ethnographic detail the cultural logic of the hacker underground. Given that WikiLeaks can only be understood in light of hacker values and traditions, I was wondering when Bruce Sterling would chime in to connect the dots between WikiLeaks, the organization, and the wider culture of hacking from which it emerged.

He finally did, and like most of his writing, it is a tour de force: lyrical and seductive, thought provoking with many excellent points. It is important to read. But by the end, I felt Bruce Sterling the fiction writer's presence was too strong in painting a problematic, one-dimensional and static picture of the role of hacker culture in the WikiLeaks saga; the gist is that once a black hat hacker, always a black hat hacker.


But first, the single most problematic statements concern not Julian Assange but Private Bradley Manning. According to Sterling, Manning is a black hat hacker in the making whose downfall follows from the fact he was guided by a false picture of hacking. In the words of Sterling, he "believes the sci-fi legendary of the underground. He thinks that he can leak a quarter of a million secret cables, protect himself with neat-o cryptography, and, magically, never be found out."

Putting aside the fact that we still don't know for a fact whether Manning leaked the cables, we certainly don't know much of anything about Manning's personality, desires, or political intentions,  much less his relationship to hacker circles. All we have are some chat logs reported in Wired and shrouded in considerable mystery. Hypothetically what Sterling says could be true and I would not be surprised if it were the case that Manning is "a hacker-in-uniform." However, it seems deeply irresponsible to claim Manning is a hacker when he in solitary confinement unable to respond in any form. In fact, this narrative feels like the erection of the mythological picture of the events, which Sterling is supposedly dismantling.

Now, there is no denying Julian Assange is (or at least was) a bona fide hacker (PDF) and, as I repeatedly heard, astonishingly talented. I do believe that for the most part, once a hacker, always a hacker in some fashion. His commitments to information freedom and encryption are clear indications that hacker commitments fundamentally shape his politics. And yet is he really just a "darkside hacker" whose politics are unchanging and timelessly rooted in cypherpunk dreams? Anyone who has paid attention to WikiLeaks in just the last year can see that WikiLeaks changed strategies and tactics. Assange's political philosophy (analyzed in great detail here) is not one that simply comes from being a "dark hat" hacker, even if it is consistent with it in some areas.

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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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