Welcome back to Hacking & Philosophy! I’ve done my best to keep up with the comments from last week’s article, and your responses and suggestions have been invaluable. Most readers expressed concern over how this column would define “hacker” or “hacking,” and whether the texts focused more on hacking-as-illegal or the hacker/maker culture. Rest assured that all interpretations are welcome, but I have no intention of dwelling on the sensationalized, criminal hacker stereotype, either. Others asked whether we’d be holding our conversation somewhere a bit more user-friendly: a solution is in the works. For now, we will stick to the comments.
Last week, I asked you to read an early document in hacking history: The Mentor’s “A Hacker Manifesto,” also called “The Conscience of a Hacker.” What follows is my analysis of the essay. I invite you to join me in a discussion in the comments: post your responses to the piece, your questions, your objections, anything! Now, lets take a trip back to the 80’s…
I. Why Did I Choose This Essay?
It’s one of the earliest documents that attempts to encapsulate and explain the hacker mentality. The specifics surrounding its origins are a bit hazy: Douglas Thomas cites its publication as 1985, but every other reference to the work (including [The Mentor] himself) identifies it as 1986. The circumstances surrounding its writing concern [The Mentor’s] arrest, but limited information exists on what the charges were or the result of that situation. These uncertainties are, however, largely unimportant, because “Manifesto” gained significant traction; it was widely distributed online and subsequently adopted by readers identifying with its message.
II. Who is the Author?
[The Mentor] is [Loyd Blankenship], who belonged to the “‘2nd generation’ of LOD [Legion of Doom].” He was arrested in 1986 when he “got caught inside a computer he should not have been caught in” and wrote the essay out of frustration; as [Blankenship] explains it, he
didn’t hurt anything, I was just in a computer I shouldn’t have been. And [had] a great deal of empathy for my friends around the nation that were also in the same situation. This was post-WarGames, the movie, so pretty much the only public perception of hackers at that time was ‘hey, we’re going to start a nuclear war, or play tic-tac-toe, one of the two,’ and so I decided I would try to write what I really felt was the essence of what we were doing and why we were doing it.
If you have some time, listen to his talk from H2K2 in 2002 (direct YouTube), where this quotation comes from.
III. What’s Important?
A few of the comments last week saw the word “arrested” in the first line of this essay and/or the title of some suggested texts to cover, which seemed to indicate a discussion of “hacking-as-illegal” rather than “hacking-as-making” or another less-criminal interpretation. That’s not to say these commenters were incorrect to jump to those thoughts. The problem, as outlined here by [Blankenship], is authority figures’ severe misinterpretation of hackers’ intentions. Even in this early essay—which is concerned with issues of legality—there’s an attempt to reclaim “hacking” as a worthy intellectual activity. “Manifesto” is more interested in the hacker’s relationship to technology than with the technology itself, and with justifying a mindset where exploration is promoted rather than condemned.
[Blankenship] spells out his personal motivations as a hacker in each paragraph and follows them with a refrain of some authority’s negative response, such as “Damn underachiever,” “Probably copied it,” “All he does is play games,” and “Tying up the phone line again.” As I mentioned last time, the illegal side of hacker culture is inseparable from a larger discussion of hacking: not only have crimes been committed (and malicious ones, not simply misinterpretation) but positions of authority—governments, news organizations, films & television—have constructed hackers as shady inhabitants of a technounderworld.
I’m going to steal a phrase my friend [Andy McNamara]: hacking and hackers have become a “counter-culture caricature,” where tech-savvy criminals do whatever they please, despite what damage it may cause. In almost direct contrast, however, [Blankenship] seems specifically concerned with taking responsibility for his actions with his discussion of programming:
It [the computer] does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it’s because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn’t like me…Or feels threatened by me…Or thinks I’m a smart ass…Or doesn’t like teaching and shouldn’t be here…
Although technology offers [Blankenship] an alternative to a lackluster education, it’s also the source of the legal troubles he’s experiencing at the time of the Manifesto’s writing. Technology is a pharmakon, a term discussed extensively by [Stiegler] (whose work I hope we will read). Pharmakons are simultaneously poisons and remedies, problems and solutions. This is one of the more interesting (to me) topics here, and I’d like to hear different perspectives on this situation of technology-as-pharmakon. [Blankenship’s] situation illustrates a few examples:
- Technology as liberator: “a door opened to a world…” vs. Technology as oppressor: he’s arrested for hacking / technology was certainly used to identify and capture him.
- Technology as a form of personal expression: “This is our world now… / the beauty of the baud.” vs. Technology as restricted, institutionalized: authority figures dictate what can and cannot be done with computers
- Technology as impartial: “We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias…” vs. Technology as Concealed Prejudice
I want to briefly discuss the third example, because most texts skip over what I see as a glaring misconception: that the Internet is the great equalizer, eliminating all traces of race, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. with its veil of anonymity. It isn’t. The early years of the Internet were filled with an optimism for leveling cultural playing fields; most of the positive sentiments were popularized by the Grateful Dead’s [John Barlow] as a means to both eliminate privilege and promote larger, universal goals of exploration and education—goals that [Blankenship] would certainly agree with. The problem with this interpretation, however, is limited access and pervasive colorblindness. [Blankenship’s] discussion of his childhood reveals the privileges he experienced early in his life. When asked about his first encounter with computers, he responded:
We moved from Austin right before the summer between my 5th and 6th grade years of school (early 1976). When I got to San Marcos, I didn’t know anyone, and started hanging out at the Southwest Texas State U. computer lab in the college library. It was populated with Pet-10’s, CompuColors and some early Apple II machines. I mostly played games on them (Artillery, etc.). The place my mom worked had a giant PDP mainframe, and I got to meet some of the sysops. They showed me a game called Star Trek on it that I loved. I got them to print out the BASIC source code for it, and taught myself BASIC by porting it over to the Compucolors. The first computer I actually owned as an Apple IIe that I got in either 1979 or 1980.
This account seems to place him in an upper-middle-class demographic: he has access not only to university computer equipment but machines at his mother’s job. Further, he owned his own computer at age 14-15. Think globally. How many people had access to a computer in the 70’s and 80’s? Here’s a better question: How many people had access to electricity and running water in the 70’s? Today? The championing of racial and cultural equality breaks down when you consider most computer users in this time period are white males living in developed nations. We should add [Nakamura’s] Digitizing Race to our list. Here’s the relevant quotation:
When we look to the post-2000 graphical popular Internet, this utopian story of the Internet’s beginnings in popular culture can be told with a different spin, one that instead tracks its continuing discourse of colorblindness in terms of access, user experience, and content that is reflected in the scholarship as well as in the nineties neoliberalism’s emphasis on ‘moderate redistribution and cultural universalism.’ 
I won’t delve into a discussion of Whiteness and Colorblindness here, other than to say claims of equality that dismiss the role of race or culture (as “Manifesto” does here) typically obscure a larger truth, perpetuating an insidious problem. This is a subject that needs its own post.
These are genuine questions, not merely a “these should keep ’em busy!” talking points list, so I’m eager to hear your replies:
- Does [Blankenship’s] “Manifesto” resonate with you today, or does it seem outdated? Does it speak to your interpretation of hacker culture?
- Computers seem to swoop in and rescue [Blankenship] from the frustrations he expresses throughout the essay: he’s too bored with school because it doesn’t present a challenge, but computers do. Is this era the first to need an advanced challenge beyond public education? That may seem like a silly question, but who are [Blankeship’s] precursors—individuals fed up with a disconnected education system? What challenges do they seek out?
- Have schools made any strides toward accommodating the needs of students like [Blankenship]? If you listen to his talk from H2K2, he seems specifically concerned with the shortcomings of public education. At one point he explains that the solution to the problem is a larger financial investment in schools and educators, but that any attempt to ask for more money usually kills the conversation with officials. Is the situation really that dire?
Read [Bruce Sterling’s] The Hacker Crackdown: Introduction & Part I: Crashing the System
I’ve decided the best route is to press forward chronologically (in terms of publication date), and [Sterling’s] work is available for free online at a few locations. See the “External Links” section on Wikipedia. See you then!
 Douglas Thomas, Hacker Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 245.
 “Elf Qrin Interviews The Mentor,” http://www.elfqrin.com/docs/hakref/interviews/eq-i-mentor.html
 Loyd Blankenship, “The Conscience of a Hacker,” Panel at H2K2 (Hackers on Planet Earth) New York, NY, July 13, 2002. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tEnnvZbYek
 Andy used the phrase counterculture caricature to describe the misrepresentation of gamers and game violence in the media, and how these portrayals often insist on a causal link between game violence and real-world violence by the player, despite numerous studies proving the opposite. See Anderson, Ferguson (direct PDF link), and/or Kutner and Olson.
 Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 29.
 Fred Turner, From Countoerculture to Cyberculture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 14
 The quotation is a direct claim of ownership: “The first computer I actually owned…” but I realize this description could refer to a family-owned computer that was not solely his. Regardless, few families owned a computer in the late 70’s early 80’s.
 Lisa Nakamura, Digitizing Race, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4-5.
Hacking & Philosophy is an ongoing column with several sections:
- October 28th: Hacking & Philosophy: An Introduction
- November 4th: The Mentor’s Manifesto
- November 11th: Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown: Intro & Part I
- November 18th: Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown: Part II
- November 25th: Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown: Part III
- December 2nd: Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown: Part IV