Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
(Arthur C. Clarke, qtd. in Hafner and Markoff: 11)
Twenty years ago, a small fraction of Americans had access to computers, but now almost the majority of families own one (42.1% in 1998, source: Falling through the Net). Ten years ago hardly anyone used the Internet, now 26.2% of households do (Falling through the Net, 1998). Computer technology has gained an increasingly powerful grip over society. We are witnessing the emergence of a new economic system where information is more critical than production.
Most people understand little, if any, how computers work. For them, computers are magical devices with rapidly expanding mysterious powers. And if the actions of neutral computers acting on their own were not distressing enough, society must also deal with a growing number of deviant, possibly malicious, computer users known as "hackers".
What is hacking? Actually, the answer is very muddy as there are multiple groups competing for the hacker status. I will base my work in the history of hacking – the actions of hackers. This paper will explore the different discourses surrounding conflicting definitions of "hacker," identifying why and how they try to promote their definition at the exclusion of others. These discourses include the hacker discourse, juvenile/cracker discourse, nostalgic discourse, law enforcement and computer security discourse, and the media discourse.
Finally, I will address the role that computer hackers can play in resisting the newly developing technopower elite. The word "hacker" has power. The discourses surrounding defining "hacker" are important since whichever discourse wins will be able to invoke the hacker status for its own purposes. Thus this discourse conflict will decide whether hacking is an important source of resistance to the ruling class, or merely an annoyance.
My "Hacking" Background
"No, Ms. Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head..."
Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike
I might be a hacker. In grade school, I always finished my work early and had plenty of free time to entertain and educate myself. I did math problems in my head, was told to show my work, and corrected the teacher when she or he made a mistake. The teacher did not always believe me. In grade five I was voted the least popular kid in the class. I was a social outcast. That same grade my family bought a computer (IBM XT). Eventually I was spending much of my free time either using the 1200-baud modem to call computer BBSes (bulletin board systems) or playing games. I took my first computer class in grade 11, where I assisted the best programmer in the class in writing a 1300 line drawing program (in Turbo Pascal) with a mouse interface. It was beyond anything I would ever have to write as a computer science major. Since high school, I have written over 10,000 lines of code (in Turbo Pascal) just for fun.
In college a friend told me about how he had easily found, by manually dialing, a couple of our college’s long distance phone codes. I proceeded to use a war-dialer program to identify them all, though sticking to my ethics I never used any of them even as a test. Whether I was, or am, a hacker or just a "hacker-wannabe" (a.k.a. a "lamer") depends on your definition. The ambiguity of my status is due to the conflicting discourses on hacking. This paper comes from my various life experiences with computers and activism, but most of all because one of the thousands of files I downloaded, was an electronic book about techno-rebels: Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown.
What is Hacking?
Juvenile Discourse, Black Hats, and White Hats
Juvenility and Carding
Problems with the White Hat Hacking Discourse
Problems with the Nostalgic Discourse
Law Enforcement and Computer Security Discourse
The Legal Discourse
Problems with the Law Enforcement Discourse
Hackers as Resistance (illegal and legal)
Limitations to Resistance