Everyday Hacking

By Alexander Halavais

Hackers are a danger to this society.

I remember, early in my academic career, encountering Herbert Schiller in a mail room. Perhaps it was because I was just surprised, but for the only time in my entire life I was dumbstruck. I had been so taken by his work on the role of communication in American empire, and so utterly convinced that he was wrong about the potential for the internet in that process, that I wasn’t quite sure what to say to him then. Consider what follows, then, as an extreme case of l’esprit d’escalier, a reflection encouraged by Coleman’s Coding Freedom.

To recapitulate his argument, empires are built through their control infrastructure, the communication systems that support them. In particular, the ownership of media by a small number of corporations crowded out any semblance of a public sphere. The “information superhighway” backed by commercial interests, was going make the world into a single giant shopping mall, and fail to meet the needs that people really had to learn and to become politically active. And it would have been hard, especially during the dotcom boom, to have seen his position as anything but prescient. As restrictions on sales over the internet were loosened, a bubble grew up around selling and buying mass-produced items over the web, and national governments not only gradually ceded control to new networked corporations, in many cases they tripped over themselves to give it away.

But always present, and present still, in the technologies that make up networking is the potential for radical change. The reason Ithiel de Sola Poole could write under such a promising title as Technologies of Freedom is not that he saw networked technology as inherently democratic, but that, unlike broadcast networks, they contained the potential for new democratic engagement.

Which brings us to the hackers Coleman chronicles in Coding Freedom and their particular danger to the present order, which may at first seem only slight. If anything, they are defending the practices that came naturally to proto-hackers as hobbyists and academics—sharing widely. It is easy to forget that when Bill Gates castigated his fellow computing enthusiasts for sharing software he helped bring to market (pp. 65-66) it was he who represented the radical position (ownership of software), not those within the community. It is true that the hackers described by Coleman have had to study up on telecommunications policy (what Carolyn Marvin called an “acquired fetish”), and couch their arguments in terms that a judge might find more compelling, but largely they are defending the practices that have long distinguished their milieux. When Stewart Brand was writing about his “computer bums” for Rolling Stone he was drawing on the strangeness of the situation (the use of wildly expensive equipment to play games), but not on the activities or ethos of the hackers themselves. He saw them not as anomalies, but as a vanguard—as an indication of the future normal.

Maybe he was wrong. Herb Schiller would have thought so. Robert McChesney thought so as well. In 1996, he encouraged skepticism regarding the democratic potential of the internet, pointing to the rapid end of what seemed like the emancipatory potential of radio in its early amateur days. The hackers described by Coleman differ in only trivial ways from those who played with radio before its commercialization.

If he was right, how do we resist re-capture by government and corporate interests and become a society of hackers? In the conclusion of her book, Coleman calls out hackers in the F/OSS community, and particularly those working on the Debian project, as exemplars. In the epilogue, she argues instead for maintaining distinctions among innovations in digital organization. There is no question that the specific cases she examines are interesting as examples; the case for their role as exemplars seems more tenuous. Yes, Indymedia—along with a range of other communities and projects—take time to think about licensing in a way that they might not have in the past, and it seems clear that those in the F/OSS community have had a role in this. But do they represent a model worth following for others wanting to create social or policy change? Perhaps not. Just as a number of people have tried to draw on Wikipedia as a model for commons-based production, it turns out that these examples may provide us with guidance, but they are frustratingly difficult to reproduce.

While the communities are difficult to reproduce, the tools and approaches they employ do find purchase elsewhere. These tools, abstracted from where they were originated, allow for a network of such examples in ongoing conversation with one another. The core tool here remains coding, thus an effort to bring coding skills to wider publics. But the most interesting examples have little to do with code. Coleman mentions in passing sites like Slashdot, Kuro5hin, and Reddit. These sites effectively hack social interaction, allowing for mass communication and sharing that was impossible before widespread adoption of the internet. And just as hackers willingly share innovative solutions to programming problems, they seem equally eager to share innovations in social organization–offline and on.

The degree to which these tools enable or constrain social structures is an issue of considerable current debate. While issues around licensing certainly were of import to the IMC, much of their success came about by leveraging existing technologies for both distributing information and managing consensus processes. Likewise, we can look to the use of networked communication by the Zapatista movement straight through to modern uses of Twitter to facilitate protests for examples of how the sharing of tools can help energize social movements, often without generating a new line of code. Coding then represents, perhaps, a special case of participatory culture. To see how easily these tools move from free code to free culture, one only needs to look at the range of topics now supported by the Stack Overflow platform, which originally served as a question-and-answer site for those who write code.

Part of the problem here is the restrictive definition of “hacker.” What are the elements that make a hacker a hacker and is it not found among those who “geek out” in any field? Indeed, as with the parallel drawn by McChesney, it would be difficult to draw a clear distinction between the “hacker” and the “ham.” As I read Coleman’s biographical elements of the hacker, I certainly saw myself in them, but I suspect that if you remove some of the particulars (can a sewing machine stand in for a personal computer?) it is a history that fits the life path of many people who are passionate about creating. As a connected learning movement tries to find pathways for encouraging this kind of engagement, we may find the idea (if not the term) of hacking recognized, embraced, and employed more widely. Hackers see systems and rebuild them wherever they find them. Societies are not immune to a good hack.

Coding Freedom provides us with an outstanding exploration of a single site of hacking, and benefits from Coleman’s deep engagement with the community and analysis of the ethics and cultural dynamics that animate it. It not only presents an interesting example of an engaged, networked community, but an exemplar and challenge to others to produce similar work and—as Coleman suggests in her epilogue—help to build a better understanding of the diversity of online sociality. In the end, she shows that hackers are a danger to this society, and there is nothing wrong with that.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society

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