Thursday, January 1, 2015

Rise of today's hackers

An excerpt from a recent read:

Most of these hackers [from 1960s and 70s who were once limited to university facilities] would go on to form Silicon Valley start-up companies, lead the open-source software movement, and create small (or sometimes very large) fortunes for themselves. They entered the popular imagination not as hackers but as "computer geniuses" or "nerds."

Their progeny, the kids who would grow up with the PC in their homes and schools, were faced with a different set of problems and possibilities. These young hackers were born into a world of passwords and PIN numbers, created and made possible by the corporations that the old-school hackers had built. These younger hackers had no institutional affiliation and no limitations on access (at least to their own machines). Moreover, they saw that secrecy was a double-edged sword. Secrets can preserve an institution's identity, but, just as important, they can also protect a hacker from being identified. While a culture of secrecy provided for security, it also allowed for a new kind of anonymity, one that could be exploited and used to a hacker's advantage.

With these discoveries, the new-school hackers began to reach out to one another and create their own culture, a culture that expressed a general dissatisfaction with the world, typical of teenage angst, but also a dissatisfaction with ways technology was being used. For teenage boys discovering the ways that computers could be used to reach out to one another, there was nothing more disturbing than seeing those same computers being used to systematically organize the world. Groups of hackers began to meet, to learn from one another, and to form a subculture, which was dedicated to resisting and interrupting “the system.”

Fear was driving the popular imagination, and hackers were delighted to go along with the image. After all, what high school kid doesn't delight in the feeling that he or she rules a universe that their parents, teachers, and most adults don't understand? One thing teenagers understand is how to make their parents uncomfortable. Like loud music, teen fashion, and smoking cigarettes, hacking is a form of rebellion and an exercise of power. The difference rests in the fact that the 1990s represented such a fundamental break between youth and mainstream culture that hacking was unable to be successfully assimilated into the narratives of youth rebellion without being either wildly exaggerated or completely trivialized. Parents intuitively understand the defiance of music, youth fashion, and cigarettes; they did similar things themselves. With hacking, they are faced with an entirely new phenomenon. That gap, between what hackers understand about computers and what their parents don't understand, and more importantly fear, makes hacking the ideal tool for youth culture's expression of the chasm between generations. Hacking is a space in which youth, particularly boys, can demonstrate mastery and autonomy and challenge the conventions of parental and societal authority. Divorced from parental or institutional authority, the PC enabled the single most important aspect of formative masculinity to emerge, independent learning, “without the help of caring adults, with limited assistance from other boys, and without any significant emotional support.” Hackers used the personal computer to enter the adult world on their own terms. In doing so, they found a kind of independence that was uniquely situated. Hackers had found something they could master, and unlike the usual rebellious expressions of youth culture, it was something that had a profound impact on the adult world.

Hacker subculture has a tendency to exploit cultural attitudes toward technology. Aware of the manner in which it is represented, hacker culture is both an embracing and a perversion of the media portrayals of it. Hackers both adopt and alter the popular image of the computer underground and, in so doing, position themselves as ambivalent and often undecidable figures within the discourse of technology.

In tracing out these two dimensions, anxiety about technology and hacker subculture itself, I argue that we must regard technology as a cultural and relational phenomenon. Doing so, I divorce the question of technology from its instrumental, technical, or scientific grounding. In fact, I will demonstrate that tools such as telephones, modems, and even computers are incidental to the actual technology of hacking. Instead, throughout this work, I argue that what hackers and the discourse about hackers reveal is that technology is primarily about mediating human relationships, and that process of mediation, since the end of World War II, has grown increasingly complex. Hacking, first and foremost, is about understanding (and exploiting) those relationships.

In the past twenty years, the culture of secrecy, which governs a significant portion of social, cultural, and particularly economic interaction, has played a lead role in making hacking possible. It has produced a climate in which contemporary hackers feel both alienated and advantaged. Although hackers philosophically oppose secrecy, they also self-consciously exploit it as their modus operandi, further complicating their ambivalent status in relation to technology and contemporary culture.

The oldschool hackers of the 1960s and 1970s who are generally credited with the birth of the computer revolution and who subscribed to an ethic of “free access to technology” and a free and open exchange of information are thought to differ from their 1980s and 1990s counterparts, generally stereotyped as “high-tech hoodlums” or computer terrorists. Historically, however, the two groups are linked in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that the hackers of the 1980s and 1990s have taken up the old-school ethic, demanding free access to information. Further problematizing the dichotomy is the fact that many old-school hackers have become Silicon Valley industry giants, and, to the new-school hackers' mind-set, have become rich by betraying their own principles of openness, freedom, and exchange. Accordingly, the new-school hackers see themselves as upholding the original old-school ethic and find themselves in conflict with many old schoolers now turned corporate.

— Douglas Thomas (2002). Hacker Culture. University of Minnesota Press. Pg. xii, xiv, xx, xxi, xxii.

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