This week we’re back with Hacker Crackdown: Part II! The caliber of last week’s comments was exceptional, but the level of participation planed off, and I’ll risk a guess: The Mentor’s Manifesto was more likely encountered as part of any given reader’s childhood—or, if not, easily skimmed at just over one page long—and therefore drew more interest. Crackdown, however, is perhaps less familiar. You also needed to read over 50 pages for last week (100 for this week). I list these things not as an apology or a rationalization, but as an attempt to better serve the community by providing accessible content. If you can’t commit to a lengthy reading, that shouldn’t exclude your participation.
This week, I’m adjusting the format to focus on key quotations from the text. Never even heard of Hacker Crackdown? No problem! Stick with us after the break where you’ll find all the relevant issues in a brief outline, then join us in our discussion!
0. From Last Week’s Discussion:
As usual, I’ll begin by addressing some of the comments from last week.
[Dan] raised a useful question about what I contribute to the column. Rather than list my immediate personal opinions on [Sterling’s] work, I referenced [Jenkins’s] response (concerning death of media vs. death of delivery systems). I do feel that my role should include drawing on other important and relevant works, and [Jenkins’s] critique of the Dead Media Project helps illustrate the shortcomings of [Sterling’s] perspective. If I veer too far into a digression, however, I apologize. Please continue to keep me in check in this regard, and I’ll try to keep this week’s response free from too many outside authors.
RE: Q1 (Parallels to Mentor’s Manifesto?)
Most agree that teenagers are prone to mischief, but both [dan] and [Dynamo Dan] explain these instances should be considered in context. We will actually encounter “Manifesto” in this chapter of Crackdown, as well as several references to the [Mentor] and his involvement in LoD. (Legion of Doom)
RE: Q2 (Contemporary threatened communities reacting violently?)
[Quin] brought up the fall of GeoCities, explaining that a number of important resources (relating to the 3D program POVRay) vanished with its dissolution. A lack of clear licensing meant limited online reproduction of the material, and several FAQs found themselves gutted, without functioning hypertext links. As she remembers it, however, there was little resistance from the community; they instead saw the event as inevitable and carefully addressed the problem. Perhaps the drawn-out closure (such as the decline of MySpace and others, as [Quin] mentions) offsets the harsher reactions, whereas immediate loss of—or even threat against—a community produces a more volatile response, (such as [Dynamo Dan’s] mention of recent NSA concerns).
RE: Q3 & Q4
I’ll shelve my comments for the third question until we can get to [Deleuze] (though your comments are certainly worth discussing). The fourth question was directed at anyone who may have directly experienced the events of the chapter, perhaps working in the telco field. Unfortunately, they kept their silence this time!
I. What’s important for this week’s discussion?
As I mentioned earlier, this week’s format is different. I’ve divided the response into three topics:
A recurring challenge for [Sterling] is navigating online rights and, in particular the boundaries of what defines “theft.” Early in the chapter he identifies the Youth International Party (or, Yippie Movement) of the 60’s and the 70’s, as predecessor of the hacker underground. Their distaste of authority culminates in [Abbie Hoffman’s] novel Steal this Book, which advocates an unconventional dismissal of the establishment. Whenever [Sterling] mentions the copying of digital files, he tends to indicate that the law is rather vague and complicates typical notions of theft.
Earlier in this series I suggested the negative connotations associated with illegal hacking activity are inseparable from the positive connotations we prefer to champion. [Sterling] agrees, explaining even he is complicit:
Naturally and understandably, they [traditionally defined hackers] deeply resent the attack on their values implicit in using the word ‘hacker’ as a synonym for computer criminal. This book, sadly but in my opinion unavoidably, rather adds to the degradation of the term. It concerns itself mostly with hacking in its commonest latter-day definition, that is, intruding into computer systems by stealth and without permission. 
I think his most important observation, however, comes just after this comment:
‘hacker’ is what computer intruders choose to call themselves. Nobody who hacks into systems willingly describes himself (rarely, herself) as a ‘computer intruder,’ ‘computer trespasser,’ ‘cracker, ‘wormer,’ ‘darkside hacker,’ or ‘high-tech street gangster.’ 
This distinction is perhaps the key explanation behind why the term maintains its negative connotation. Further, [Sterling’s] discussion is aware (both here and elsewhere) of the digital divide and that white teenage boys dominate the hacker demographic.
Elsewhere Sterling will contrast “hackers” and “phreakers,” explaining that the latter category of phone users do not necessarily possess any particular skills (he does not explicitly invoke the comparison of “script kiddies,” but his comparison is similar). In this sense I feel Sterling begins to blur his terminology a bit too far, especially considering later discussions of other phreakers.
Information as Commodity:
A few other terms pop up to define the hacker, including “elite,” which carries with it a connotation of exclusion: the hacker has toiled to gain knowledge that he withholds from the uninitiated. By the 90’s, information has evolved not only to a position of power but to a position of access (again, relatively speaking; don’t forget the digital divide). Forbidden knowledge is of particular value:
Hackers are very serious about forbidden knowledge. They are possessed not merely by curiosity but by a positive lust to know. The desire to know what others don’t is scarcely new, but the intensity of this desire, as manifested by these young technophilic denizens of the Information Age, may in fact be new and may represent some basic shift in social values-a harbinger of what the world may come to, as society lays more and more value of possession, assimilation, and retailing of information as a basic commodity of daily life.
I find this the most clarifying. It not only helps define “hacker” in terms of the shift in access to information and a zealous desire for it, but this passage directly reflects the musings of [The Mentor]. The mere offer of that knowledge is intoxicating, and comes through a single portal right in one’s home. I’ve been thinking about what prescribes value to any given set of knowledge and how that applies here; I suspect many of the documents mentioned in Crackdown remain freely available and now lack the legal ramifications attached to them in the 90’s. They aren’t relevant to the infrastructure anymore, so who cares? The ravenous desire for information applies when that information is volatile.
Sharing of information is equally crucial to [Sterling’s] idea of a hacker:
The way to win a solid reputation in the underground is by telling other hackers things that could have been learned only by exceptional cunning and stealth. Forbidden knowledge, therefore, is the basic currency of the digital underground, like seashells among Trobriand Islanders. Hackers hoard this knowledge, and dwell upon it obsessively, and refine it, and bargain with it, and talk and talk about it. 
To some extent, Hackaday resembles that trend: perhaps not as volatile nor as forbidden, our community thrives on sharing (and, to some extent, on bragging). Our entries certainly amount to a hoard of information, but the “commodity” tinge may have lost some of its bite. Instead the community has turned toward an Open Source model, which favors sharing over selling and preserving (or collecting and maintaining) over hoarding.
II. Questions for this week
1. How far has our legal system come in better defining digital theft? I ask primarily because I haven’t looked into the issue recently. I know many laws are outdated (yet still invoked). Has the situation become any more clear, and whom does it favor?
2. [Sterling] explains the E911 document’s pivotal role in the authorities’ crackdown of 1990 by carefully framing the perspectives of those hackers involved: they were curious, not malicious. Aside from better securing the document itself, what’s the alternative to addressing critical systems information like the E911 file? Our community often criticizes obfuscation as a weak means of security, but should the entire 911 infrastructure be open source? How do we maintain barriers to entry? (I suspect there’s an argument to be made in favor of the idea behind the “extreme specialization” [Sterling] mentions on page 96).
3. Hackers of the 90’s were notorious braggers, it seems, to the point of getting themselves caught. How much has the culture of bragging shifted over the past 20 years? Obviously Anonymous and AnonOps has reshaped the “face” of activism in a unique way, but anonymity tends to break down and eventually lead to some kind of legal action. Or does it?
Let’s keep pushing through this book: read Chapter III of The Hacker Crackdown, “Law and Order.”
 Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 55.
 Ibid, 56.
 Ibid, 81.
 Ibid, 59.
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