Hacking And Philosophy: Hacker Crackdown Part I


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.[1] 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:”

  1. The Question Mark, or Golden Vaporware
  2. The Goofy Prototype
  3. The Cash Cow
  4. 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. [2]

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. [3]

[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.”[4] 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

  1. 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?”[5]
  2. [Sterling] notes that “community” and “communication” have the same Latin root as way to explain telecommunications turf wars.[6] 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?
  3. 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.”[7] 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?
  4. 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.


Continue reading [Sterling’s] Hacker CrackdownPart 2: The Digital Underground.


[1] Bruce Sterling, The Hacker Crackdown, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), xiv.

[2] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 13.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Sterling, 19.

[5] Ibid, 19.

[6] Ibid, 15-16.

[7] Ibid, xii.

Hacking & Philosophy is an ongoing column with several sections:

6 thoughts on “Hacking And Philosophy: Hacker Crackdown Part I

  1. Call this Rant a “Social Hack” by telling a side of the story that I may someday give deeper coverage of…

    Each generation too soon forgets what came before and ignores what comes after. **We thought we could change things** so to speak..That was how so many of our parents and grandparents had told their tales to us.

    We caught their dreams in their words and books and life lessons- but did any of us ever get-Wisdom? Dunno, to be honest- some days I feel damned smart for some Hacking Win and other days I get to feeling doomed.

    Doomed- that we will give up with a whimper of apathy-and we Hackers will surrender to conformity. Or NOT… Hey— We’re HACKERS!! It’s a way we LIVE…. Ethically so, hopefully more than not but sadly- Ethics are by unstable references as to what is Wisdom. Subtle stuff like using and PREACHING about Free&Open Source Software is 100% on topic as F/OSS ethics might have kept one of my friends out of legal hell. At best- he should have been “Recruited instead of jailed.

    How the hell did we screw so much up both as Hackers and as a so-called “society?”

    Which even more amusingly -or not- causes fondly recalled books to have presaged reality in overviews that get creepy accurate as “cautionary tales” AkA “blueprints of how NOT to handle solutions in irrationals.

    Many folks involved in what the book chronicles were not one dimensional D20 NPC’s so to speak. We were all caught up in the sheer SensaWonder about these magical realms! Games were games- these..AHH, these… again- Computers and early Networks- THEY were a set of new frontiers that some of our elders were making.. And we dared to explore. Often, some of us did so- sans permissions and yeah- some of us paid for that in many ways.

    Advocating CHANGING, instead of breaking “most” laws is always to me more wise-eh?

    See, the history was largely one of being as our online personas had LIVED it…#deities. And when the knock on the door revealed us as mere humans who BROKE RULES that we’d not even often thought much about…well- it .aroused Very Heavy Legal Wrath…

    That deeply and truly sucked at times.

    Charging someone with laughably grandiose levels of theft for downloading software that “cost” fractions of the alleged “loss” dollars as they did?? Ah, perhaps THAT typifies how absurd ” valuation had/ has become. When intangibles can be “priced” at weapon system hardware levels.

    Skipping my credentials as more than “tangentially” knowing involved folks.. The whole stinking mess was a disservice to our world entire!

    We “should” have applied the fictional Tarnover logic of Recruiting these gifted people. With a change from the Shockwave Rider’s Dystopian hells.

    CHERISHING the Best Hackers as a priceless skill pool might make the nation with WISDOM enough to do so- the economic victors in an all too real future.

  2. Starting with the question raised in III, about the telephone dying vs being the medium. I think that in the 80s and early 90s, before the monopoly break-up, it was both. Ma Bell isn’t remembered fondly, and was the reason for a large part of the digital divide of the 90s. Again I’ll have to rely on personal experience, but I recall being told that to dial the nearest internet dial-up point or BBS, about an hour drive (20 miles on back roads, 10 on interstate) but in the same area code at the time, cost roughly $0.25 a minute. My parents would call their better off parents and siblings in other states (or other coasts) and let them call back to avoid the huge phone bill of talking for an hour or more. The split of Ma Bell into the regional baby bells didn’t change this; there was still only one long-distance phone company per area. It wasn’t until that changed that the prices started dropping. Another strange effect of the era was that, in some places, calling the house across the street was long distance: we lived a few blocks from the edge of the city line (incorporated city, very weird state stuff) and just down the road and across a bridge was considered county. In-area long distance rates applied for calling anyone across that bridge, because it was county and serviced by a different phone provider (one of the baby bells, I think). It wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the phone books stopped listing the charges for calling from the city into the next door county areas; and when AOL brought a dial-up number to the city in the 90s, those in the county would still be paying long-distance rates to dial 1 mile over the city line. The Ma Bell breakup didn’t do a lot for our area, the influx of other phone providers after deregulation (when verizon moved in) was what changed things.

    Now on to the article. Seriously, the “decibel” isn’t named after Bell; the ‘bel’ is. It’s a metric unit (not SI), and deci- is a prefix. Yes, decibel is more entrenched in common parlance and was defined as the working unit at the tiem, but that’s an error like confusing kW and kWh in the news paper. (Yes, I’m holding Sterling to a higher standard than a news paper reporter. He should know better.)

    On to the points. 1: Teenage boys will be teenage boys. And it doesn’t even just apply to teenage boys, teenagers will be teenagers. Girls just have decades and centuries of sexism and “girls don’t act roudy like that” to mold their odd behavior in different directions. Take one look at a child’s christmas toy catalog and see how many gendered toys (pink/blue, girls only vs boys only in pictures) versus non-gendered toys there are. Anyways, teenage behavior is to act out; what ever manner of acting out that takes. We could argue whether it’s genetic, or social, or a learned behavior encouraged by adults writing entertainment for young adults where adults romanticize their past exploits. Of course there is a parallel, but it’s one that will stretch onward in both directions of history.

    2: The geocities closure is the obvious one to me. As part of the POV-Ray (a raytracer) community, there were a ton of resources on POV-Ray that were only distributed through long defunct and abandoned websites; some were even linked in the FAQs as libraries that anyone might want. The authors of the early days didn’t think to include a license (POV-Ray started on the Amiga, for a reference), less the ability to redistribute their work. So, the usenet community bound together and went after anything that looked POV-Ray like. Someone came up with a list of known sites, I wrote a crawler to trawl those sites and follow links, any mention of POV-Ray got the page and links downloaded to a local copy, someone else did the same manually, and another person spent months tracking down the many authors by name alone to seek permission to redistribute their work under CC or BSD or GNU or any other license. In the end, all but a few works were liberated before geocities shuttered; other people just mirrored sites on other hosts, some with no regard for the original author’s wishes.
    Strangely, there was no fighting in trying to prevent the geocities closure from our perspective. We saw what was going to happen, recognized that it was pretty inevitable at that point (and that these sites hadn’t been on personal domains that just disappear with no notice was a rather nice benefit that we hadn’t recognized for all these years) and we just networked around the problem. Jobs were assigned, scripts were written and patched and patched again to avoid geocities archiving-prevention bandwidth limit, and authors were contacted. I don’t recall (but I’m not going through my local archive of email and usenet to find out) any one attempting to cajole anyone into not closing the site. The community found it’s long-gone members, and just moved.
    The same slowly occurs with MySpace, may occur with Facebook and Google+, and has occured with many other long lost forums (ezboard to yuku to private hosts, or the ezboard fiascos of the early days).

    Perhaps a better community analog would be the file sharing networks at the end of Napster. Suddenly, the laws changed and cracked down on hosting files, which it was claimed Napster did. So decentralization became the buzz-word. EMule and the clones required external search engines for a while to avoid ‘hosting’ anything. But files were still on one host and going to many downloads, so BitTorrent sprang up and centralized the searches to trackers which were “in no way related to the file hosts.” The change to the law can still be felt today, with ISPs throttling BT traffic regardless of origin or whether it’s a *nix ISO or a CC movie/show, or whether it’s a pirated bootleg of a pre-release game or movie screening. And it hasn’t stopped the information from spreading. Strangely, the audiences age for these services has stayed roughly the same over the decades. Analyze the arrests for trackers and distribution, and the age of offenders hasn’t changed much since Napster. Nor the age of the people installing the latest downloading tool. I find it odd that the “professional” black hat community has split to working either government or organized crime, implying an older age than in the 80s, the “professional” white hat hackers and coders hasn’t changed the distribution of age as much.

    3: We each still exist in our own local space. Just because I am a part of this conversation does not place me any closer to any reader, and does not remove me from the needs and desires and restrictions of the locale that I inhabit. Further proof that the means of communication passing, the telegraph/telephone/internet/postal service, does not actually matter except by speed. I can, now, absorb and relate what information I know to wider audiences than in years and decades past, but the information that I can absorb and can relate is still distinct to me and my place in space. A person in the deserts of Africa, or the rain forrests of South America, or anywhere else in the world, even if they are on the internet still are limited by physical place. The Arab Spring is a great example of this: the government cracks down on internet communication and the people who used the internet to organize take to the streets. Some others in neighboring countries try to use long distance radio devices to return some internet access. The physical space is still the predominant one. My mind can not even be said to exist on the internet; my history does not either, though the arguement can be made that posting daily to MySpace or Facebook or Twitter or ServiceDuJour captures a snapshot of our history, it fails to actually capture a snapshot of the mind. It just captures the one moment and the limited details we give it; a photo does not capture the thoughts of all the people in it, and a post does not capture all the thought that goes on outside of it. We are years, and many technological leaps, away from that.
    And I didn’t even have to go quote Proust to summarize that thought. That took some effort, that those reading this will never see. And perhaps proves the abstract summation.

    1. As for phone calls costing a quarter a minute, remember how much a candy bar cost in the 80s and 90s. I remember when a nickle would get me a candy bar at the grocery store, and I’m not even all that old. So, the lower cost of modern calls being 10 cents a minute compared to 25 in the 80s is not just a 2.5X increase in cost that the pennies would have you believe. It’s closer to a 7X cost decrease, using the .gov inflation calculator.

  3. am I the only one that’s a bit confused by your analysis.

    you suggested reading a work, for discussion in open forum.
    then seem to write a piece saying this other work thinks this, or thinks that. the article seems to say more about what others think than what you think.

    RE the death of telephone.
    [ A.G.Bells] telephone already died.
    [A.G.Bells] switching system already died.

    And the technology that replaced that already died. quite a few times over!

    We’re only left with the shell concept, I can talk here and a voice is heard miles away.

    Even when we don’t have telephone handsets any more, we’ll likely still talk, those may be via internet (e.g skype) we still call it a call, even though it’s so far removed from Bells first call, and first telephone object.
    Is a video call still a call, we relate it to telephone call.?

    As an example tape isn’t dead. in so far as we still make magnetic recording devices. surely the link between magnetic platters of a HDD and magnetic tape of the first audio recording devices aren’t so entirely removed? but magnetic spools for recording audio are pretty much dead, even tape spools as a backup medium are dying out.

    It’s a case of “The Telephone is dead, long live the Telephone!”

    as for the discussion points.
    1, sort of… in so far as I see mischief, but, still question whether the mischief of the manual switchers crossing wires is in the same vein as mischief as stealing a service. or illegally accessing devices. it’s be more akin to operators making personal calls. -which so far as we know they weren’t doing?

    2, one word “anonymous”, when their community was threatened they reacted rather violently. I’d suggest that their actions are the most contemporary version in the digital/technology world. kind of feel that if you look for examples in the real world you’ll quickly be falling into a migration/religious debate. personally I don’t really want to go there.

    3, Cyber space doesn’t exist as a physical space, it’s impossible to go to cyber space. you can’t see, touch or smell cyberspace.
    However as a virtual meeting place it clearly does exist, lots of people now “live” online, that is to say that their life is conducted on-line, they buy food talk to friends, meet partners even get married. the entire world is interconnected, of course they are really living in front of a computer that is just simply a link to other people.
    I exist here, in this community, reading comments and responding, I use a nickname, (not dissimilar from my real name), Is this cyber space?
    as a ethereal concept, yes, this is cyber space. however we know it’s not, it’s a series of inter-connected wires that get me here, and at the end of it there is a server, my conversation and presence is actually a series of magnetic domains on a spinning disc somewhere. it is physical somewhere, but by the time it is physical, it’s not cyber space, it’s a wire, of a processor, or a disk platter.
    And really when I say it’s a series of interconnected wires that get me here, I of course mean my ideas, not me, not my voice, not my presence as anything more than a few characters on a page.

  4. These are my answers to the 4 questions posed by Josh, in case anyone’s confused about what these points, uh paragraphs or whatever they are, are:

    1. Some parallels, I would say. A good understanding of boyish pranking, although from a different angle (from a more mature perspective). Also, the cry for understanding the possibility of innocence: [quote] A world where the telephone
    system had not merely crashed, but, quite likely, *been* crashed
    — by “hackers.” [/quote] from page 15. It turned out to be nothing of the sort, but an innocent mistake.

    2. Oh absolutely–the recent leaks about what the NSA was doing. The absurd thought occurred to me that some people feel more secure knowing that the SSL certificate on a website is *not* signed by an authority, but rather a self-signed snake-oil-type apache cert. A self-signed (or at least not “authority signed”) certificate might actually come to mean that the private keys are less likely to have been lent out (under a gag order!) to a government agency for eavesdropping.

    Another thing on question #2, is how facebook and other social networking suddenly seems less useful, perhaps damaging to some, when schools and employers etc demand password access people’s accounts. Facebook is practically worthless to me (even though I have nothing to hide!) because of the tabloid-sleaze reputation it has gotten.

    3. It’s all still ultimately a physical place, as @dan finally gets to in his answer to #3. The world just became a “smaller place” relatively speaking. The first people to shoot with bow and arrow effectively extended their reach to a greater distance than say, the people who only swung a club. It’s all the same to me. The caveman community probably looked on in amazement at the new bow and arrow’s effectiveness the same way that the modern community looks on at [name any new development in technology].

    One thing I get so weary of is the notion that new-fangled technology somehow exempts the law-breaker because the existing laws don’t seem to cover the new kinds of crimes. Some people think they can get away with a new kind of “murder” just because the letter of the law doesn’t mention it. Just because cyberspace seems mystical and magical doesn’t exempt us from respecting it as a real place. Most people actually do understand this, you hear phrases like “he’s on facebook right now” or “I met someone on facebook” but then pretend to forget it (or lapse into stupidity and temporarily forget it) when they get enamored with the remoteness and [perceived] anonymity that the network provides, go belching out bile, and then act surprised when the feds come knocking.

    Sterling talks out of both sides of his mouth on this in the Hacker Crackdown, and it’s obvious that the reality of computer networks as a “real place” had not yet fully dawned on everyone even in 1992. [quote] trouble in cyberspace was no
    longer mere mischief or inconclusive skirmishing, but a genuine fight
    over genuine issues, a fight for community survival [/quote] but then later, [quote] Cyberspace is *not real!* [/quote] (I’m open to the possibility that Sterling plays the devil’s advocate and was only writing from the perspective of a mischievous person and not making those statements as his own opinions. That’s just one example.)

    Maybe there is a fine line between “real” and “physical” but I don’t agree that numbers and words on a screen are not real. It might have still seemed surreal in 1992 but this is 21 years later and should be plenty of time for everyone to have come to grips with the reality of cyberspace. (I could be mistaken about that, haha)

    Having said all that, I should offer the disclaimer that I’m not using the term “real” in the sense of meaning “true”. There is another definition of real that means genuine, i.e. real vs fake. Please, it would be a waste of time to debate whether or not cyberspace is fake and imaginary. If so, I didn’t write this and you’re not reading it, but rather just exists simultaneously in everyone’s imagination, LOL.

    4. I didn’t work for Bell but I perfectly remember that day in 1990. I was in Minnesota and yes everyone was talking about how it must have been the hackers.

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