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SOME THOUGHTS ON THE IDEA OF "HACKER CULTURE"

Patrice Riemens

"The Theory of 'Free Software' as the seed of a post-capitalist society only makes sense where it is understood as the exposure of those very contradictions of the development of productive forces which are relevant to the process of emancipation. It does not, however, make sense as a discovery of a format for their deployment out of which would automatically spring forth a better society. And it does not make sense either as the first stage of a process that one ought to follow as if it were a blueprint." ("Eight Theses on Liberation," Oekonux mailing list)

As the new information and communication technologies (ICT) entered our lives and became increasingly important in our daily activities, so did all kinds of knowledge, working habits and ways of thinking that were previously the exclusive domain of "geeks" and computer experts. Even though the vast majority of ICT users are passive consumers, a modicum of technological know-how is more and more prevalent among non-professionals, and these days, artists, intellectuals, and political activists have become fairly visible as informed and even innovative actors in what has become known as the public domain in cyberspace.

"Hackers," also often, but inexactly referred to as "computer pirates" or other derogatory term, constitute without doubt the first social movement that was intrinsic to the electronic technology that spawned our networked society. Hackers, both through their savyness and their actions, have hit the imagination and have been in the news right from the onset of the "information age," being either hyped up as bearers of an independent and autonomous technological mastery, or demonized as potential "cyber-terrorists" in the process. More recently they have been hailed in certain "alternative" intellectual and cultural circles as a countervailing power of sorts against the increasingly oppressive onslaught of both monopolistic ICT corporations and regulation-obsessed governments and their experts. Transformed into role-models as effective resistance fighters against "the system," their garb has been assumed with various degrees of (de)merit by a plethora of cultural and political activists associated, closely or loosely, with the "counter-globalization movement."

Yet, whereas hackers (if we take a broad definition of the term) have been pioneering the opening up of electronic channels of communication in the South, in the North, they initially were held in suspicion by those same circles. Political militants there hesitated for a long time before embarking into computers and the new media, which they tended to view as "capitalist" and hence "politically incorrect." By the mid-nineties, however, "on-line activism" made rapid progress worldwide as more and more groups adopted the new technologies as tools of action and information exchange. The dwindling costs of equipment and communication, the (relative) ease of use, the reliability and security, and the many options that were offered by ICT were a boon to activists of all possible denominations. All this was also a very bad surprise to the people at the helm of corporate and political power, as they saw a swift, substantial, and many-pronged breakdown of their stranglehold on communication and information taking place. For some time, it looked like as if a level playing field between hitherto dominators and dominated had come within sight.

The Net, as a result, became not only one of the principal carriers of political activism, but also one of its major locus and issue. Once they had overcome their initial shock and surprise, the powers that be were bound to react forcefully. And they did, beefing up the "protection" of so-called intellectual property, erecting ever higher walls around expert knowledge and techniques, and unlashing all-round measures of control and surveillance on electronic communications. But resistance against this (re)subjugation of the networks also got organized. Almost by necessity, more and more activists became conversant with the new technologies, which in the given circumstances had to be a hands-on learning process. This process saw activists turning "techies" and "geeks" turning activists and has resulted in activist circles (political, but also intellectual, cultural, and artistic) becoming markedly, sometimes completely, ITC-driven. However, as we will see, this does not ipso facto make them hackers.

But it was equally within the domain of ICT itself that the exponential expansion of both range and carrying capacity of the Internet, as well of that of the related technologies, and all this within an increasingly aggressive commercial environment made experts think again about the consequences of these developments and even reconsider their methods, opinion, and for quite a few of them, their position within the hitherto obtaining order of things. Rejecting the new enclosures that are being imposed on the dissemination of knowledge and techniques by commercial and/or state interests, they are exploring new avenues of developing, spreading, and also rewarding knowledge-building that are not exploitative and monopolistic or even solely profit-oriented. Hence the flight taken by various software programs, utilities and application modalities that have become known under the generic name of Linux, Free Software, Open Source, and General Public License (for definitions, see www.gnu.org).

De prime abord, these developments suggest that given these technological settings and socio-economic and political circumstances, convergence was bound to take place between the actors involved, meaning a merger between hackers and (political, cultural etc) activists since they were spreading the same message, and operated in parallel ways under similar threats. Unfortunately, this interpretation is as unwarranted in its optimism as it is precipitate in its formulation. Following a line of reasoning aptly called by the Dutch "the wish is the mother of the idea," such interpretation is based on the assumed relation, not to say equivalence, between individuals and groups, and between pursuits, motives, and methods whose affinities and linkages, even when viewed under the designation of "new social movements," are far from evident. In fact the alleged congruence is inherently unstable since it is contingent, and the supposedly common positions between those two groups are often absent altogether, and sometimes even contradictory. Whereas it would be excessive to portray hackers and activists in terms of "never shall the twins met," the idea, asserted by many a political activist and certain "public intellectuals," to the effect that their coalescence is both natural and inevitable is equally outlandish. Not only does it run roughshod of the sensibilities of "authentic" hackers - and it does so unfortuitously - it also misrepresents reality hence giving rise to erroneous hypothesizes and unwarranted expectations.

"Hacker culture," a concept one often encounters these days among networked activists, purports to represent this playful confluence between tech wizardry and the moral high ground. Hence, "Open Source" is fast becoming an omnibus framework and a near-universal tool-kit to tackle very diverse social issues, such as artistic production, law, epistemology, education, and a few others, which are but remotely - if at all - related to the field of software research and development, and the social environments from which it originates. There is little wrong in itself to this - imitation being the best of compliments - but for the fact that it tends to obscure a sticky problem. Between hackers and activists often looms a wide gap in approach and attitude that is just too critical to be easily papered away. And it is precisely this fundamental difference that is usually being hushed up by the evangelists of what I call the "hackers-activists bhai-bhai" gospel - phrased after the celebrated slogan mouthed by Chinese and Indian Ministers in 1953: "Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai" ("India and China are Brothers") nine years later, both countries were at war. A good, if a contrario, example of a really occurring non-equivalence between political activists applying ICT and hackers is provided by that spurious hybrid known as "hacktivism." "Hacktivism" was originally coined by the Boston-based hackers "Cult of the Dead Cow" (www.cultdeadcow.com), whose tag-line read "We put the hack in activism." It was all about using ICT skills to thwart attacks on liberties by powerful institutions. The group later had to defend itself of guilt by association with respect to recent manifestations of "hacktivism" as Distributed Denial of Services (DoDS) attacks.

Behind the so-called "Hacker Ethic" is the usual, daily activity of hackers. To put it very simply, without going deeper into its precise content, the hacker ethic runs strikingly parallel to the formula "l'art pour l'art." What matters here, is the realization that, unlike activists, hackers are focused on the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of curiosity for its own sake. Therefore, the obligations that derive from the hacker ethic are perceived by genuine hackers as sovereign and not instrumental, and always prevail above other aims or interests, whatever these may be - and if there are any at all. This consequently makes the hackers movement to be wary of any particular blueprint of society, however alternative, and even adverse to embrace particular antagonism (some hackers, and not minor ones, are for instance loath to demonize the Microsoft Corporation). Hence the spread of political and philosophical opinions harbored by individual hackers, without any loss of their feeling of identity and belonging to the "movement" at large or even their particular group, is truly astonishing, and very unlikely to obtain within any other "new social movement." In fact, the militant defense of individual liberties and a penchant for rather unegalitarian economic convictions one encounters in tandem among a good many hackers has provided for bafflement among networked political (i.e. left-leaning) activists coming to be better acquainted with their "natural allies." Yet it is neither fortuitous nor aberrant that the Californian transmutation of libertarianism enjoys such widespread support among hackers.

The existence of such "ideological" positions has its reflection in the daily and usual activities of hackers, which are generally characterized by an absence of preconceived ideas and positions. Despite the avowed "end of the great narratives," this is not the case with political activists, since they do have objectives and aims that precede their actions. Hackers, on the other hand, are usually happy with the "mere," but unrestricted, pursuit of knowledge, which reduces their "political program," if that can be so called, to the freedom of learning and enquiry, and thus would seem to fall very much short of demands for justice, equality, emancipation, empowerment, etc that are formulated by political militants. Yet they seem to be content with it, and there are good arguments to think that such a program, as limited as it may sound, is essential, not subsequent, to the achievement of the better society we all aspire too.

This being said, the points of convergence between the activities of hackers and those of (political) activists are many, and they increase by the day. It is becoming more and more evident that both groups face the same threats, and the same adversaries. As expert technological knowledge - especially of ITC - that sits outside the formally structured (and shielded) domains of corporate or political power gets evermore vilified in the shape of "(cyber)-terrorist" fantasies, paranoia, and finally, repression, while at the same time this very expertise is increasingly being mastered and put to use by the enemies of the neo-liberal "One Idea System," stronger, if circumstantial, links are being welded between hackers and activists. And these linkages are likely to deepen and endure in the same measure as the hostility and risks both groups are likely to encounter augment, it is worthwhile to analyze what unites as well as what separates them.

"Hacktivist" activities (and I am mostly referring here to the handywork of three groups, Electronic Disturbance Theater, Electrohippies and RTMark), well advertised by their authors, but also gleefully reported in the mainstream media, are illustrative of the gap that parts activists from hackers. The former usually view "hacktivism," which exploits the innumerable glitches and weaknesses of ICT systems to destabilize the electronic communication supports of "enemy organs" (government agencies, big corporations, international financial institutions, "fascist" groups, etc.), as a spectacular form of resistance and sabotage. The latter (generally) take a much dimmer view, considering these activities as ineffective and futile, and moreover, in most cases, technically inept as well. Such activities (or antics) endanger the integrity of the network which hackers consider to be theirs also. "Denial of Service" attacks, irrespective of aims and targets, amount in their eyes to attacks on the freedom of expression, which they seem to respect in a much more principled manner than most political activists.

The truth is, that by abetting "hacktivism," activists implicitly admit that the net has become a mere corporate carrier, to which they have only a subordinate, almost clandestine, access, as opposed to be stakeholders in, and thus sharing responsibility for it. This constitutes their fundamental divergence with hackers, and it is not easily remediable.

Political activists are also, almost by definition, inclined to seek maximum media exposure for their ideas and actions. Their activities, therefore, tend to be public in all the acceptations of the term. The range of issues that are covered by their ideals, and the variety of means and methods to achieve the same make they need some form of organization, which is often complex, because of and not despite the fact they strive for distribution and horizontality. The result is that even in the most alternative of circles, an apparatus and leaders appear, whose very informality obscures rather than prevent hierarchies from arising. This does not suit well the practice and the ethics of hackers, which Pekka Himanen has described as "monastic" (www.hackersethic.org). The habitus may be monastic, the behavior of hackers may however, perhaps be more suitably paralleled with the "Slashta," the Polish gentry. There too, we see a desire between equals, that is equals recognized as such beforehand, and hence also elitist. Political activists on the other hand are much more opportunistic when it comes to alliances and associations they engage in.

So does the idea of "hacker culture" represent an effective way to describe and define certain current modes of political activism, especially when those do have a large ICT component? In many instances where the term is being used, to the point of having become one of the "buzz-word du jour," I do not believe so. In many cases, it is the romantic appeal of what is perceived as hacker power and prowess that leads to a superficial adoption of the "hacker attitude" moniker by the cultural and political activists, but not of its underlying methods and values. That does not mean that there exists an absolute incompatibility between those two groups, and there are fortunately cases suggesting the existence of a continuum - such as the Indymedia tech community's pairing of expertise to a "serve the people" type of operation (tech.indymedia.org, www.anarchogeek.com). But it should caution against a facile (and trendy) assumption of an equivalence, and maybe against the confusion-inducing use of the term "hacker culture" itself.


This article first appeared in French in Multitudes, Vol 2, No 8, March-April 2002, and in (an expanded) English translation in Cryptome on June 3, 2002.

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