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.