The Figure of 'The Hacker'
I was recently reading up on some contemporary materials for a book project I’ve been working on and came across some work on a curious figure – the computer hacker. The work I’ve been reading tended to posit that – initially, at least, the hacker manifested differently across three different periods, each of which was technologically determined.
The first is the mainframe hackers of the 1950s and 1960s, a group using complicated machinery and almost exclusively connected to a small number of elite technical universities. The second is a group of ‘hardware hackers’ in the 1970s who helped to revolutionise computing. The third is the ‘software hackers’ of the 1980s, who came along with the rise of home computing and who helped in the proliferation of various programmes, extending the range of what computers could do.
Across all of these generations one of the significant continuities is that it is, almost without exception, a pursuit of youth. For some such as Steven Levy, that led to a set of values being associated with hacking that were all inspired by a kind of adolescent idealism about what these new technologies could achieve. At the heart of this philosophy was a belief in universal access to computers, a belief in the freedom of information, a general sense of anti-authoritarianism, a belief in that hacking should be a technical meritocracy, and an idea that what they were doing was, at it’s very best, an art form. Taken as a whole, this approach is what Levy has dubbed the ‘Hacker Ethic’.
As anyone knows nowadays, however, computers are big business, and it seems that there is always a tension at work in texts that deal with these kinds of figures between the Hacker Ethic and the demands of corporate and consumer culture. This reached a turning point in the 1980s when the home PC revolutionised the industry, massively increasing the customer base (and potential profits) in computing.
There is another side to the hacker, though – this time, a social menace. In this instance the focus is less on the adolescent idealism of the young person and more on the idea of a delinquent ‘youth’, a figure in which our fears about data security and subversion through information theft manifest. Here, a lot of this again seems to be generationally driven, since it was younger people who initially had the kind of skills to bamboozle older generations – and short of learning the new technologies, little that the older people could do about it. Their perceived antipathy towards private property (particularly where that relates to technology and information) saw a mainstream, middle class tendency to demonise the group emerge.
The first major cinematic treatment of the hacker went some way to reversing this trend emergent in news media. Wargames was released in 1983 and even in the 1990s, to technologically inclined teens it was an important movie. It stars a young Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a teenager who comes close to starting a thermonuclear war when he mistakenly hacks into a NORAD Supercomputer, code-named Joshua. The entire premise of the film is far-fetched, right down to a teenage boy from Seattle being able to convince a military computer that nuclear war was a no-win scenario by playing rounds of tic-tac-toe. The main point, however, is that the hacker here is able to do good – though there is a way of seeing the narrative as him nearly starting war via hacking, the film’s real critique is in making such systems entirely automatic in the first place. David Lightman is just a typical American teenager with a brain and enough of a moral compass to save the world from destruction.
As the technologies underpinning it become more integrated into our everyday lives, perhaps we might expect the hacker to became less of an object of fear. Once people understand computers, what they can and can’t do, the bogeyman – the youth who can manipulate them like a huckster manipulates playing cards – will disappear. Or perhaps the more of our data is given up to databases, the more we will see anxiety about these figures return. It is intriguing to think of the effect that events and organisations such as Wikileaks, the Ashley Madison leak, GDPR and the selling off of data might have on future instances of figures that share a common root.
For more, see Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1984) and Rob Latham, ‘Teenage Mutant Cyborg Vampires’ in Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University