November 25, 2007

The Lost Boys of Hacker Culture

by Nick Montfort · , 2:05 pm

Hacker Culture cover A Review of Hacker Culture
by Douglas Thomas
University of Minnesota Press
296 pp.

This is a fine book that already seems antique, and not just because of the Commodore PET on the cover and the centrality of WarGames and Hackers to the discussion of the cultural situation of hacking. Not because of any dated analysis, either: there are good arguments in here about the importance of secrecy in hacking, the way the hacker becomes a locus for technological anxiety, and questions of the body in the digital realm. The book seems to raise the question, though: Where have all the hackers gone?

Computing and the Internet now seem to be fully productized and anything but an “electronic frontier.” Eternal September hit long ago like nuclear winter. The very concept of a long-distance call has almost been forgotten by most phone users. The computer-savvy obediently turn to iPhones for world wide access, to make use of whatever applications have been developed by Apple, Inc. in partnership with AT&T – all other uses being prohibited. Quite an irony, considering that the two Apple Computer founders first went into business selling phone phreaking equipment. Once hackers, now hacked.

If unlocking cell phones – something that is available as a commercial service and hardly requires any ingenuity to execute – is modern-day hacking, today’s version seems a long way from either being heroes of the computer revolution or serving as minions of the dark side. I cleared out of Vegas a few days before DefCon, so perhaps I missed my chance to correct my impression. But maybe not; as that Forbes article records:

Dead Addict says that many of the hackers that gave DefCon its renegade reputation in earlier days have now grown up and, like himself, launched legitimate careers in security with big-name tech companies.

This trend was around before the 2002 publication of Hacker Culture. Thomas took note of it, and discussed how hackers are caught between opposition to and employment in the corporate world. One of Thomas’s most interesting points is that hacker culture is a form of boy culture, where affection is expressed as aggression and where disobedience is valued. I wish this current, which runs throughout the book, had been explored in real depth at some point, the way that notions of hacker punishment and surveillance are. It might explain where hacker culture has gone – boy culture is still around, and computer technology is still around, but where did the hackers do? To develop open-source software? To play Madden?

The connection between boy culture and hacker culture makes for an interesting insight, anyway, and adds to the useful exploration of the media portrayals of hackers and their framing (no pun intended) in the legal system. Hacker Culture even has a decent, if qualitative, explanation of how buffer overflow attacks work and how hackers explore them to discover exploits. I would have liked more of this sort of description, and links between particular hacking techniques and the cultural and subcultural contexts of hacking, but what’s there is certainly worthwhile and hopefully will be a precedent for future work connecting technical specifics to broader cultural concerns.

This is a book about the cultural situation, legal consideration, and media representation of the American hacker. It must be noted that it is not a detailed history of hacking, either of the good “wizard” sort or the purportedly dangerous criminal sort. Steven Levy’s Hackers and Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown are two good books that go into more detail about how different sorts of hacking happen and what consequences they have had. Hacker Culture is particularly good as a follow-up to these two. Through the figure of the hacker, it explains a great deal about American popular perceptions of technology and anxieties about technological change. This makes the book particularly valuable, whether the hacker is destined to be considered a 20th-century figure or whether he, and maybe by now, she, will make the leap past Y2K to offer a creative, playful alternative to the monoliths of corporate technology.

2 Responses to “The Lost Boys of Hacker Culture

  1. Jason Scott Says:

    Be sure to check my errata list on that book:

  2. Mark Says:

    What I find somewhat interesting is that the same lamentation about long-gone hacker culture has been present almost as long as hacker culture has. Issues of Phrack dating back to the mid-1980s contain that sentiment, and it was certainly ubiquitous in my BBS days (admittedly during the last gasps of the BBS in the mid-1990s). I’m somewhat skeptical of the mythology, although undoubtedly stuff has changed—but a big complicated mess of stuff, including both technology and culture. In a lot of cases I think there’s been a professionalization of specific “institutions” as people grown up, such as Phrack magazine, which are then just replaced by a new generation of stuff by-teenagers-for-teenagers, which causes the mistaken impression that teenagers are no longer doing anything.

    As far as actual “exploits”, a lot of the tools-of-the-trade of teenage crackers, which consist basically of reverse-engineering a handful of relatively simple cracks that they pass around through whatever the forum of the day is (plus the obligatory passing around of bomb-making textfiles), are still pretty effective. When I was playing around with that stuff in the mid-90s it was pretty easy to get shell accounts on US military servers (prized so you could go on IRC with an hostname) by digging around for common Perl-script programming errors involving failure to sanitize inputs for shell metacharacters. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can still do something comparable these days. An increasing share of effort these days is also directed at cracking hardware devices instead of breaking into servers—there’s a pretty impressive steady stream of people, many of them teenagers, cracking Apple products, DVD encryption standards, and so on.

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