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Hackers, Order and Control

We may end up with the evasions of theorizing Internet community so popular in the press in the past twelve months: figuring all network users simply as consumers.
Geoffrey Sauer

Issue #24, February 1996

'What governments should really fear
is a communication expert.'
— SubCommandante Marcos, EZLN Leader
'The highway is alive tonight
But nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes'
— Bruce Springsteen

In the 1980s, the term 'computer hacker' become a place for arguments about how people should understand computer technologies — which were rapidly becoming a part of corporate officework and middle-class entertainment across the United States. By 1985, films such as War Games had popularized the idea that young men facile with technology might gain (through computing) access to power. Books like Steven Levy's Hackers popularized the idea that hackers worked together with one another, and held community values that influenced what people do with technology. But though each of these were clear portrayals, they were early attempts to articulate the social conditions of a new generation of computer experts. More debate followed.

The term 'hacker' itself quickly became unclear, because a wide range of people wanted to appropriate it for their own uses. Publicists for computer-industry CEOs like Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor and Bill Gates began to identify them as hackers; presumably, to gain the mystique of 'genius' associated with the term. Technology writers attempted to redefine the term in ways which 'laundered' and legitimized it — in one case actually claiming the word to be a condensed form of 'ha[rd wor]ker.' Young hackers tended to acknowledge more openly (inside the community, at least) the illegal nature of several common hacker practices. But the popularization of the term tended to consist of appropriations from outside actual hackers themselves. So by 1988, the term was less than perfectly clear.

In the early 1990s, a number of efforts to recontextualize hacker communities began to adopt new strategies. Dorothy Denning in her 1990 report 'Concerning Hackers' notes a disparity between two definitions of 'hacker,' and attempts to reconcile them by concluding that all definitions boil down to experimentation with technology: 'A hacker is someone that experiments with systems...[Hacking] is playing with systems and making them do what they were never intended to do.' (3) The dramatic growth of the Internet, however, has made inclusive definitions like Denning's problematic for 'hackers' who actually interact with one another online — since, according to her definition, anyone who feels s/he works 'hard' and 'innovates' with 'technology' may be a hacker. And Denning's work has met with diverse responses when she has been involved with hacker communities, for example in the debates last year among hackers who oppose 'Clipper' cryptography. Some participants in the debates were frankly derisive of her understanding of the issues. Denotative efforts such as Denning's give hacker communities few ways to differentiate their diverse interests, and there should be no doubt that people who are good with computers can disagree with one another.

This isn't to say we should accept the libertarian and individualist theories popular among hackers, though. Today's hacker communities are profoundly social places. In the 1980s small groups did establish themselves across the ARPANET to collaborate and share new techniques for making computer systems 'do what they were never intended to do.' Some of these are well-known today, such as '2600' and 'C.u.D.' which have migrated to mailing lists, usenet newsgroups, world-wide web pages and other public sites. But many of the practices 'hackers' used in the 1980s are still illegal today, and public sites are often poor locations for the discussions of value to them. Popular and professional writings about the Internet in the past eighteen months have dramatically increased public awareness of 'disorder' online, focusing upon illicit activities to a degree never found before. Several writers who had written utopian accounts of the Internet in the period 1988-1992 have recently recanted: for example, Clifford Stoll, in his 1995 Silicon Snake-Oil argues much more pessimistically about Internet community than he had in The Cuckoo's Egg.

But community is useful online, especially to people who spend a lot of time there. Systems of circulation and distribution are inordinately complex, and communities that make sense of the complex institutitonal interrelationships which form the Internet would be valuable to people who work there. Frederic Jameson in his book Postmodernism argued that people need 'cognitive maps' of the social terrain on which we live. Hackers need groups to help them make sense of the online social, because cyberspace is simply so damned complicated that it would be hopelessly confusing to anyone to 'map' alone.


But they face the problem that definitions of who is or is not a hacker are difficult, because there are few social tools to understand community anything near flexible enough to cope with the problem hackers face.

This problem isn't exactly new. Denis Diderot wrote an open letter in early 1761 about his novel D'Alembert's Deam, which he had circulated among confidants the previous year. It states:

I have heard in recent weeks from people I never expected to have heard of the novel that it is being discussed in salons throughout Paris. I am concerned that word of the text (which is being attributed to me) will add to my problems with the censor and will slow our publication of the Encyclopedie....If you want to encourage more texts like D'Alembert's Dream, you must consider the dangers to authors of circulating their writings so widely, and I would ask you consider not circulating that text at all.

Diderot's predicament was that arrest or interference awaited those who wrote against Church-sanctioned views, but that he wished to circulate his work among like-minded colleagues. Using salons to circulate copies tended to keep texts within the community, but — understandably — as the boundaries of that community were unclear, he became increasingly uncomfortable.

The Internet has brought contemporary writers and theorists to some of the issues Diderot faced. I would like to look at the issue from the perspective of Diderot-like practitioners, seeking to articulate the problems of operating within nondominant modes of thinking and behavior. The locus of the battle is in language, for already-proposed solutions to the Diderot problem are to redefine legality or to refine the definitions of community membership that comprise the focus of contention. There is currently one underground 'hacker' organization that publishes a journal of technical information useful to hackers, named C&N. I would like to discuss C&N because of the introduction which appeared in the September 1, 1995 edition:

NEVER mention this list (or any part thereof) in any public or non-secure transmission. Specifically this includes non-elite BBS's and the internet (all areas no matter how private you think it is-it isn't), CompuServe, Genie, AppleLink, and the other commercial/public networks. NEVER leave this on a storage medium in a non-secure/ non-elite environment. Never use this list in public.

The C&N list and/or portions thereof has been mentioned/posted to/transferred over the internet...more than a few times in the last year or two!!! This has resulted in some developers taking action by re-engineering their copy protection — some even going so far as to trash files on your system if you try to use our information. This is extremely annoying to those of use who actually produce or gather this info. If this continues to happen this list will become useless — we will not allow this to happen as we will simply not distribute it to as wide a channel (by using serialization, encryption and key distribution if necessary) and you (especially the assholes causing the problems) will never see another list again.

Diderot's problem remains; C&N can fall into the 'wrong' hands.

This problem doesn't only affect intellectual communities. Mike Davis writes, particularly well in City of Quartz, about how the political geography of Los Angeles has led to gated suburbs and slums 'fenced in' by pedestrian-impassible highways. These are not subtle mechanisms of enclave. The mass media employ slightly more clever discrimination — divisions between broadcast TV networks like Fox, and cable networks such as A&E or CNN, use the rhetoric of 'consumer choice' to differentiate between 'mass' and 'elite' media cultures. Computer hackers, the avant-garde of corporate capitalism (as the 1960s generation of hackers has demonstrated in their rise throughout the 1980s into management), recognize the possibility of moresubtle mechanisms of differentiation — serialization, encryption, key distribution, etc.

But how are they to think about membership? These people don't know one another by sight — they can't use white carnations or secret handshakes — so what can be done to define the 'safe users' group? Hackers desperately want cultural tools to define more clearly who is 'in' and who is 'out.' And they don't have them yet.

A more recent Diderot, Eric Raymond, has worked in similar ways to unify the discourse around hackers, removing the potential areas of conflict by creating his own version of the encyclopedia. Raymond is the current editor of The Jargon File: An Online Hacker's Dictionary, a 'comprehensive compendium of hacker slang, illuminating many aspects of hackish tradition, folklore, and humor.' That text claims to present the most important values of 'hacker' communities, and argues there exists an urgent need for more denotative stability among computer professionals. The book today has a tremendously large reading audience: my own server, which publishes a copy, serves over five thousand copies per month. It is significant also for its influence on studies of computer professionals which rely on it as an authority about 'hacker' culture. The compelling interest of this work for linguistic and cultural analysts, however, lies in the rhetorics it employs to evangelize for 'hacker' values. 'Earlier versions of the Jargon File,' Raymond writes in the introduction, 'played a central role in spreading the hacker language and the culture that goes with it to successively larger populations, and we hope and expect that this one will do likewise.'

But Raymond's work, like Dorothy Denning's, doesn't serve capitalist market differentiation the way 'enclave' responses like encryption might — producing very specialized and effete markets, the like of which American culture has never yet seen.

The hackers' problem should be of interest to the broader Bad community because the problems faced by the small groups of so-called 'hackers' in the 1980s are today beginning to apply to other groups springing up online, who similarly need to define themselves and delineate 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' community values. If neither Diderot's nor C&N's solutions critically theorize group social relations, we may end up with the evasions of theorizing Internet community so popular in the press in the past twelve months: figuring all network users simply as consumers, as frontiersmen-homesteaders, or as people-who-just-happen-to-be-on-the-Internet, all of which avoid difficulties of identity which arise online.

'Hackers' have realized for years that many of the popular culture's mechanisms have been less-than-helpful in theorizing their problems. Clifford Stoll, well-known in 1988 for his experience with hackers who 'cracked' his Berkeley computer system, published another article in the same journal later that year titled 'On the Risks of Dealing with the Press,' about his difficulties with John Markoff, a New York Times technology reporter who broke the story in the popular press, and who has also been thoroughly critiqued in this month's 'hacker' magazine Computer Underground Digest for more recent sensationalist reporting about hackers. Writers such as Philip Elmer-Dewitt, who worked with Marty Rimm on the startling 'Cyber-Porn' issue of TIME magazine is similarly critiqued by computer hackers, who recognize the dangers of provoking too dramatic or paranoic responses to the problems caused by poor systems of circulation of illicit information online.

As media theorists such as Janine Jackson have explained in some depth, the popular press today need academics as authorities for their representations of online experience. They cannot access 'hacker' communities directly. In a few cases, well-known 'hackers' have come forward to speak directly about their work and experiences-as in the March 1990 issue of Harper's. But these cite 'former' hackers, and are rare. The much-discussed TIME magazine 'Cyber-Porn' worked with a CMU researcher, and in subsequent coverage of the debate, both by TIME and independent sources such as the one at Vanderbilt University, academics such as myself were contacted to contextualize and 'make sense' of the problems and issues involved.

The Bad community began with a critique of liberal humanism in multiculturalism — the callow belief that we all should be able to 'get along.' Those of us who recognize elements of the hacker enclave debates from our own — in many cases more sophisticated — social work, must participate in these debates to problematize Diderot's, C&N's, L.A.'s, and A&E's attempts to respond to liberal humanism with market segmentations derived from dominant culture. If we're going to use the Internet for progressive projects, we'll need better theories of the social.

Geoff Sauer is a doctoral student in Cultural Theory at Carnegie Mellon University. He is currently teaching an upper-division course titled 'Analyzing Internet Culture.' A former hacker, he is the founder and webmaster of the EServer and a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team. He can be reached at <>.

Copyright © Geoffrey Sauer. All rights reserved.