November 25, 2007
A Review of Hacker Culture
by Douglas Thomas
University of Minnesota Press
This is a fine book that already seems antique, and not just because of the Commodore PET on the cover and the centrality of WarGames and Hackers to the discussion of the cultural situation of hacking. Not because of any dated analysis, either: there are good arguments in here about the importance of secrecy in hacking, the way the hacker becomes a locus for technological anxiety, and questions of the body in the digital realm. The book seems to raise the question, though: Where have all the hackers gone?
Computing and the Internet now seem to be fully productized and anything but an “electronic frontier.” Eternal September hit long ago like nuclear winter. The very concept of a long-distance call has almost been forgotten by most phone users. The computer-savvy obediently turn to iPhones for world wide access, to make use of whatever applications have been developed by Apple, Inc. in partnership with AT&T – all other uses being prohibited. Quite an irony, considering that the two Apple Computer founders first went into business selling phone phreaking equipment. Once hackers, now hacked.
If unlocking cell phones – something that is available as a commercial service and hardly requires any ingenuity to execute – is modern-day hacking, today’s version seems a long way from either being heroes of the computer revolution or serving as minions of the dark side. I cleared out of Vegas a few days before DefCon, so perhaps I missed my chance to correct my impression. But maybe not; as that Forbes article records:
Dead Addict says that many of the hackers that gave DefCon its renegade reputation in earlier days have now grown up and, like himself, launched legitimate careers in security with big-name tech companies.
This trend was around before the 2002 publication of Hacker Culture. Thomas took note of it, and discussed how hackers are caught between opposition to and employment in the corporate world. One of Thomas’s most interesting points is that hacker culture is a form of boy culture, where affection is expressed as aggression and where disobedience is valued. I wish this current, which runs throughout the book, had been explored in real depth at some point, the way that notions of hacker punishment and surveillance are. It might explain where hacker culture has gone – boy culture is still around, and computer technology is still around, but where did the hackers do? To develop open-source software? To play Madden?
The connection between boy culture and hacker culture makes for an interesting insight, anyway, and adds to the useful exploration of the media portrayals of hackers and their framing (no pun intended) in the legal system. Hacker Culture even has a decent, if qualitative, explanation of how buffer overflow attacks work and how hackers explore them to discover exploits. I would have liked more of this sort of description, and links between particular hacking techniques and the cultural and subcultural contexts of hacking, but what’s there is certainly worthwhile and hopefully will be a precedent for future work connecting technical specifics to broader cultural concerns.
This is a book about the cultural situation, legal consideration, and media representation of the American hacker. It must be noted that it is not a detailed history of hacking, either of the good “wizard” sort or the purportedly dangerous criminal sort. Steven Levy’s Hackers and Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown are two good books that go into more detail about how different sorts of hacking happen and what consequences they have had. Hacker Culture is particularly good as a follow-up to these two. Through the figure of the hacker, it explains a great deal about American popular perceptions of technology and anxieties about technological change. This makes the book particularly valuable, whether the hacker is destined to be considered a 20th-century figure or whether he, and maybe by now, she, will make the leap past Y2K to offer a creative, playful alternative to the monoliths of corporate technology.