This week’s installment of Hacking & Philosophy hits the books with [Bruce Sterling’s] Hacker Crackdown. If you’re joining us for the first time, you should check out last week’s conversation over The Mentor’s “Hacker Manifesto.” Don’t stop with the article, though, or you’ll miss out on the best part!
The contributions from our community are phenomenal, and it’s worth the effort to work through the comments. There are even a few replies from [The Mentor] himself.
Unfortunately, I can’t feature all of the excellent responses for lack of room, but I will recommend a handful that I feel are uniquely important after the break. Onward for more!
But first, a request that we adhere to one rule: be respectful. Be respectful not only of each other’s opinions but also of the author whose work is the subject of discussion any given week. If you’ve never encountered the concept of “Intentional Fallacy,” this is the perfect time to give it a quick read. Hacking & Philosophy is an open discussion, but the conversation is much more valuable and interesting if we avoid reactionary talking points. There’s no need to discuss this further in this week’s comments, either, as that too would distract from the content at hand. Email me directly if you’d like to talk about the direction or format of this column. As always, I value your input. Thanks!
0. My Picks from Last Week’s Discussion:
[Quin] and [dan] were the only commenters to discuss the digital divide at length, which was an issue I raised toward the end of my response last week. Few had the opportunity to escape to the comfort and challenge provided by computers in the 80’s and 90’s, and even today there are entire communities where computers and the Internet barely exist, or are non-existent.
Considering the focus of “Manifesto,” it’s no surprise that a debate concerning education erupted. [Analog] lamented what he feels is the decline of a fascination with learning in the hacker community, but notes that the maker movement seems to have rekindled that passion, and [Talon] offers his perspective as a teacher.
There are several contributions and responses worthy of a mention. I encourage you to peruse the rest of the comments.
I. Why did I choose this week’s reading: The Hacker Crackdown?
The Hacker Crackdown provides an excellent snapshot of hacker culture in the early 90’s, particularly as it concerns early cybercrime. In the first installment of Hacking & Philosophy, many of you replied that you’d rather discuss hacking in terms of creating and innovating rather than hacking-as-illegal activity, but we should be well-read in the latter area for a few reasons. First, I believe the hacker-as-maker and hacker-as-criminal connection is impossible to sever. It’s important to know which events led news coverage and popular culture to affix these negative connotations. Second, you’ll be better equipped to define “hacking” by contrasting your understanding of the term to the events in Hacker Crackdown. Also, I believe this was one of the first books to be offered by its author for free online.
II. Who is the Author?
If you picked up a physical copy of The Hacker Crackdown, you’ve probably noticed that it’s missing something: references. There’s no bibliography, works cited, or even footnotes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. I suspect most if not all of it is quite accurate. It’s been freely available online for 19 years and I haven’t encountered any criticism.
You should be aware that the author [Bruce Sterling] is a science fiction writer, and The Hacker Crackdown is largely aimed at general audiences. Scholars aren’t the only ones who write important books. [Sterling] is primarily a storyteller so you should expect plenty of exposition in Hacker Crackdown as he recounts important hacking events of the 80’s and 90’s. That’s his style, and that’s okay.
III. What’s important?
Keep in mind that this book was published in 1992, when the World Wide Web had just emerged, and the commercialization of the Internet had yet to happen. [Sterling] calls the Electronic Frontier Foundation “a new and very odd interest group,” without further clarification in the introduction, perhaps indicating how bizarre the idea of “digital rights” may have been to an early 90’s audience. These days (and perhaps especially considering the [Snowden] leaks) the EFF frequents not only tech news headlines but pops up almost everywhere.
The first chapter, “Crashing the System,” is primarily a brief history lesson to catch everyone up on some terminology and inner-workings of telecommunication systems. During the Graham Bell section, [Sterling] presents four stages of “the technological life cycle:”
- The Question Mark, or Golden Vaporware
- The Goofy Prototype
- The Cash Cow
- The “Dog” or Death
The stages seem to parallel the “Technology life cycle” Wikipedia entry, which has no real references to explain who developed this description. [Sterling’s] appears to be his own invention, and provides a basic framework that’s accessible to non-technical readers. Maybe someone can explain the origin of or provide some context for these life cycles.
I do, however, question the extent of “death” that occurs in the [Sterling’s] final life cycle phase. There’s no real discussion of other “deaths” or what causes them, and his use of the term “technology” is quite broad. A few years after Hacker Crackdown, [Sterling] started “The Dead Media Project” to chronicle outdated technologies, and composed a companion piece: the “Dead Media Manifesto.” Here he calls for the documentation of outdated technology and even “hideous media mistakes.” The result is an impressive list of around 600 different obsolete “technologies.” (It’s probably worth a chuckle to learn that the list of obsolete tech was built and circulated via a mailing list: which, according to Wikipedia, lost momentum and died in 2001, thus ending the project).
In Convergence Culture, [Henry Jenkins] challenges [Sterling’s] concepts of death in technology, drawing a distinction between “delivery systems” and “media/mediums:”
The 8-track, the Beta tape. These are what media scholars call delivery technologies. Most of what Sterling’s project lists falls under this category. Delivery technologies become obsolete and get replaced; media, on the other hand, evolve. Recorded sound is the medium. CDs, MP3 files, and 8-track cassettes are delivery technologies. 
The key difference is that mediums retain flexibility and resist expiration:
A medium’s content may shift, (as occurred when television displaced radio as a storytelling medium, freeing radio to become the primary showcase for rock and roll), its audience may change (as occurs when comics move from a mainstream medium in the 1950s to a niche medium today), and its social status may rise or fall (as occurs when theater moves from a popular form to an elite one), but once a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options. 
[Sterling] claims “the telephone has so far avoided this fate [of death],” but I’m not sure it was ever at risk. Is the telephone a medium or a technology? Considering the developments and adaptations from simple phone calls to the implementation of the Internet that [Sterling] chronicles, it would appear that he’s describing a form of media. (There’s also the added confusion that he’s set up these stages as a life cycle, which would imply some form of rebirth.)
My final criticism is that [Sterling] doesn’t quite do an adequate job explaining the shifting public opinion toward Ma Bell. We’re told that the “public service” image deteriorates, but without any real context aside from “Vail’s industrial socialism had become hopelessly out of fashion politically.” Though [Sterling] had previously mentioned Ma Bell’s public demonstrations of burning the property of rebellious, illegal phone companies, he is not clear whether this or other actions contribute to tarnishing the corporate giant’s image.
IV. Questions for this week
- What parallels, if any, did you see between the reading for this week and last week’s “Manifesto?” [The Mentor] is writing during this era that [Sterling] describes. Does the content of “Manifesto” correspond to [Sterling’s] depiction of “clever teenage boys?”
- [Sterling] notes that “community” and “communication” have the same Latin root as way to explain telecommunications turf wars. Communication networks lead to the formation of communities, and removal of those networks harms the community, causing backlash. Are there any important contemporary examples of threatened networks and do they respond in the same way?
- Early in the introduction [Sterling] attempts to map out the distinction between “real,” “cyberspace,” and “place.” His presentation is adequate, explaining that cyberspace is “the place between the phones,” but further down on the same page he claims “people live in it now.” How are we living “between?” I’m not looking for a casual response, but one that seriously considers what spaces are occupied, and how we are engaged there. Do we “exist” in two places? Is it just our brains firing in response to stimuli? Even so, how do we make sense of non-actual places?
- I suspect one of our readers worked for AT&T in the 80’s during the events [Sterling] discusses. Anyone have an insider’s perspective on the outages?
As a side note to question 3: We shouldn’t expect [Sterling] to invoke [Deleuze] in his discussion of cyberspace, but I wanted to. For hours I agonized over composing one paragraph to succinctly explain [Deleuze’s notion of virtuality]. I’ve instead decided to put a pin in it: virtuality deserves an entire article (and probably at least one article on immanence). If, however, you’re comfortable with [Deleuze’s] notion of “the real”, “the actual” and “the virtual” and you’re eager for a conversation about cyberspace and Deleuzian virtuality, please do so in the comments. Otherwise, we’ll make time for it soon.
 Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), xiv.
 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 13.
 Ibid, 14.
 Sterling, 19.
 Ibid, 19.
 Ibid, 15-16.
 Ibid, xii.
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