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.

My own experience working with hackers is that, like most people, they change their views as they grow up. That remains true even if they express those politics through technological means. It's important to remember that hackers have a variety of positions, even if there is a general and accentuated commitment to information freedom. Bruce Sterling would have us believe that Julian's Assange's actions are a fundamental manifestation of an unchanging hacker (and very very dysfunctional) personality, one that is simultaneously obvious and "banal," opaque and mysterious ("he's something we don't yet have words for") and effective ("He planned it in nitpicky, obsessive detail. Here it is; a planetary hack").


Now, I won't defend Julian Assange's personality here. In fact, his characterization of Assange as having a very difficult and very problematic personality is well known. It's so problematic that Daniel Domscheit-Berg, intimately involved early on with and WikLeaks, left to help start another organization, OpenLeaks set to be in operation later this winter. His forthcoming exposé of the WikiLeaks organization, I suspect, will do a lot to clear up many of the mysteries around the organization. I suspect the picture won't be pretty, but will likely be more accurate than Sterling's account.

And this brings me to my final point, which I hope will allow me to complicate the story -- however engaging -- told by Sterling. Domscheit-Berg, among others who were involved early on with WikiLeaks could not stand by the authoritarian actions of Julian Assange and left to start a new and distinct organization. But this important fact does not make it way into Sterling's story. For Sterling, all "hackers" and geeky types are fanatical supporters of WikiLeaks. My own experience interacting with many transgressive hackers this winter has been that they cannot stand WikiLeaks or Assange (but that is subject of another post).


There is no denying that there is tremendous support for WikiLeaks among geeks -- although much of it came after the backlash against WikiLeaks; there is no denying that hackers will attempt to impact politics through technological means; there is no denying that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange deserve some critical scrutiny, which is what Sterling dished out. But I am less sold on the idea that the form of exposure so powerfully provided by WikiLeaks does not have some merit.

Personally I find myself sympathetic toward the purported mission behind OpenLeaks. They are seeking to do something similar to WikiLeaks but transforming it by injecting a dose of much needed transparency and accountability. And yet, due to the obsessive media spotlight on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (including Sterling's piece) the public may be led to believe that there is only one way to spread leaks, when in fact WikiLeaks helped to usher a paradigm that can be tweaked and hacked to better serve democratic goals.

Illustrations by the inimitable Exiled Surfer.