The Multifaceted Hacker

By Ethan Zuckerman

Clifford Geertz (1973) opened his seminal “The Interpretation of Cultures” with a helpful concept borrowed from British philosopher of language Gilbert Ryle: “thick description.” Ryle (2009) posits one of the thought experiments philosophers of language are so fond of, asking us to imagine two men winking, one due to an involuntary twitch, the other to signal a co-conspirator.

A thin description, in which an observer notes that both men winked, is incomplete at best, and misleading at worst. A thick description, which considers not just the two acts but an examination of the context, significance, motivation and meaning of the acts is much more difficult to construct, but brings us closer to the “actor’s eye view” of a situation, though Geertz hastens to remind us that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.”

One way to consider the question of whether hackers are a danger to society or a new breed of activist, a question relevant in interpreting the actions of Edward Snowden or Aaron Swartz, is through the lens of thick and thin description. Described thinly, Edward Snowden is a spy or a traitor and Aaron Swartz a thief. A thick description complicates matters and makes clear that Swartz and Snowden each saw themselves as activists, and were embedded in communities likely to see their acts as a form of digital civil disobedience.

In “Coding Freedom“, Coleman embeds herself deep in the free software community to offer a thick description of the practices, motivations, and values of a group whose actions can be rendered opaque by a generation’s worth of thin description through news media fascinated with geeks as criminals. One might think of Coleman’s book, in part, as corrective to an image of hackers constructed around Kevin Mitnick, who notoriously trespassed onto corporate networks to copy their software. Molly Sauter (2013) observes that the New York Times has written 47 articles about Mitnick over the past two decades (and Times reporter Jon Markoff has published two books) constructing the idea of a hacker as someone motivated to explore and to transgress.

Coleman’s exploration of hacker culture—the product of a decade of observing hackers at their terminals and their conferences, at political demonstrations and at play—documents an identity more oriented towards collaborative creation than towards sometimes malicious exploration. (As Brett Lunceford notes in his essay, this may depend on which hackers we are talking about.) At least as radically, Coleman demands we consider hackers not just as people with a set of technical skills, but people for whom coding is an act of creation, a political action, a signifier of community membership and an aesthetic contribution. Invoking Charles Taylor’s notion of the “expressive self”, Coleman sees hackers pursing “an expressive self, rooted not in consumption but rather in production in a double sense: they produce software, and through this technical production, they also sustain informal social relations and even have built institutions” (p.14)

Considering hackers as multifaceted selves complicates the Mitnick-era picture of the isolated, socially stunted hacker as loner, and offers a path towards understanding the “poetic protest” that Seth Schoen engaged in, turning the DeCSS algorithm (used to decrypt DVDs) into an epic set of 456 haikus, simultaneously an act of creative expression and, under the DMCA and other WIPO-compliant intellectual property statutes, an illegal publication of copyright protection circumvention code. Coleman’s examination of Schoen’s poem as protest, literature, humor, political statement, and as an elegant hack (p. 176-9), demands we understand Schoen and compatriots as choosing to create and act on these different levels.

Larry Lessig’s (1999) “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”, a book important to many of Coleman’s hackers, offers a framework to consider this multifaceted expressive self. Lessig identifies four ways in which spaces are regulated: law, norms, markets and architecture (which manifests digitally as code). Coleman explicitly, or implicitly, encourages us to consider the ways in which hackers have learned to manipulate and deploy these forms of regulation.

The Mitnick-centric image of the hacker suggests an ability to transcend regulation by code; Coleman documents the creation of spaces through open source software that enables some types of participation, and challenges others. Richard Stallman and others develop the capability of challenging legal regulations through manipulation of the legal system, inverting copyright to create copyleft in an act clearly legible as a hacking of law. And the maintainers of Debian Linux realize that the “law” of the Free Software Guidelines requires a strong normative component, a set of agreements that allow participation and dispute resolution to proceed in a way that’s less confrontational that reducing conflicts to legal disputes.

If the ability to manipulate markets seems absent or explicitly rejected in Coleman’s book, which partially frames the free software movement as a reaction to neoliberal capitalism, it’s worth considering the context. During the decade Coleman considers, the collapse of a first bubble does little to dissuade many coders from forming or joining venture-supported technology businesses. The hackers she considers may be consciously resisting the addition of market-based tools to their skill sets because so many others have already acquired an understanding of business, much as Stallman acquired a knowledge of law when his colleagues decamped from MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab to the private sector (p. 70).

Considering hackers as expressive selves, asserting themselves in some subset of four realms, raises at least two questions. One is whether hackers’ influence transcends a purely technical realm. The political issues that Coleman’s hackers take on are tightly tied to technical issues, and while projects like Creative Commons have helped hackers see common cause between software developers and filmmakers, for example, much of the political expression of hacker communities focuses on existential threats to the freedom to code: see, for example, the successful campaign against SOPA/PIPA that mobilized the technology community in opposition to proposed antipiracy legislation. If we hope to see hackers transcend a focus on a freedom to create and take on a broader set of political and economic freedoms, as Jo Bates hopes for in her essay, we may look to hackers’ reaction to Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance to see if there is widespread and effective mobilization to protect digital privacy.

A second question is whether hackers’ ability to challenge these four forms of regulation creates a class of citizens that are more empowered than non-coders. Examining a political issue like NSA surveillance, most citizens can demand legal change, can stop using services from internet companies known to have cooperated with the NSA, or can attempt to change the apparently widespread opinion that government surveillance is an acceptable price to pay for safety against threats of terrorism. Hackers have another tool at their disposal: the ability to build tools that encrypt communications and obfuscate metadata. Recognizing the multifaceted hacker identity Coleman describes may mean recognizing limits to a form of civic participation and disobedience for those who don’t feel comfortable creating by using the command line.


Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Lessig, Lawrence. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.

Ryle, Gilbert. 2009. “Le Penseur.” In Collected Papers: Collected Essays, 1929-1968. London: Routledge.

Sauter, Molly. 2013. “Kevin Mitnick, the New York Times, and the Media’s Conception of the Hacker.” Conference presentation at “MIT8: Public Media, Private Media”, May 4.

1 Comment

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

One response to “The Multifaceted Hacker

  1. Pingback: The “good citizen” and the effective citizen | ... My heart’s in Accra

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