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Not all hackers are... Americans

03 Sep 2020

This is the first of a short serie of posts about hackers.

If you were looking at the shadows drawn by a rolling dice over a plain surface, you could not understand what was going on. Depending on the number and relative positions of lights in the scene, the exact shape of the dice, its initial position, its opacity and mass, you would see entirely different shapes drawn on your surface with (apparently) unpredictable movements. Each dice and each roll would project very different shadows so that it would be hard to say anything meaningful about what they had in common. Furthermore, it could even be difficult to distinguish the shadows of a rolling dice from the shadows of a coin thrown nearby the same surface.

I think we can easily agree that if all you had were the shadows drawn on the plain surface you couldn't guess what they represent. More so, if all you could conceive was a two dimensional space.

This is exactly what happens with hackers.

We look weird, contraddictory and unpredictable to mainstream people. It's not just that we don't fit your model: the dimensions you use to describe (and often perceive) reality is a proper subset of those we move within.

As a conseguence, people can't tell a competent engineer from a hacker, much like they can't easily tell a cop from a killer dressed alike.

We are described as a sort of wizards, as geeks, as sexists, as nerds, as criminals, as funny smelling weirdos and as heroes... depending of the shadows that our actions project into the observers' minds and prejudices.

Yet, under usual conditions, many of us look quite similar to the other people in the communities we live. It's quite usual that few knows what we do and well known hackers, like RMS, Snowden, Torvalds or Assange are a tiny fraction of our number. And while they are actually iconic of our behaviours, they are mostly representative under those dimensions that mainstream people cannot see or conceive. And what's worse is that what most people see while looking at them is weird "Americans", while in fact most hackers are not from the U.S.A.

Like every other person, hackers are not just hackers: we inherit and interiorise the culture we live in. But since many of the most visible hackers are actually from U.S.A. (and U.S.A. people usually forget that there is intelligent life outside the U.S.A.), the prevalent narration on hackers confuse Americans's values and hackers' ones.

Such confusion also comes from the language we use these days, English, spread all over the world as a lingua franca through smart military strategies just like Latin was spread during the Roman Empire. But now that we see the States collapsing under their own contraddictions, their cultural hegemony cracks a little and we can see more clearly that... well the "American dream" is actually a nightmare for everybody.
And so we ask: how did it happen that we named hackers after an axe?

Yet some people got tons of followers, pretending to be hackers by exploiting the ignorance they shared with their public and by selling their own propaganda as "hackers' history". Such propaganda sold as well as any fake news, because it was a simplified gentryfication of our nascent culture. Unfortunately such propaganda entered in a powerful feedback loop that deeply influenced young people who wanted to become hackers, exploiting their ignorance to inject itself and replicate as virus.

The result is that actual hackers all over the world are deeply misunderstood.

Forgotten archetypes...

If you look carefully at what qualify hackers' behaviour beyond the tecnological skills and usual focus about them, you'll see that we are as ancient as mankind: examples of well known hackers exist in the history and mythology of people all over the world.

In western culture, Hephaestus is one of the most ancient myths clearly showing most hackers' traits: he built all of the tools and weapons of Olympus (the Gods' infrastructure, in today parlance) and yet he was misunderstood and marginalized by his peers. As a consequence he occasionally used his skills against them, through clever (and sometime dangerous) pranks.

Another clear example of a mythological hacker was Daedalus, imprisoned by King Minos in the labyrinth that he had invented and built (and from which he escaped by using wings made of wax). The myth of Daedalus is partitularly interesting because, thousands years before the invention of computers, it describes two common attitudes of mainstream people with hackers.
Minos lacks the knowledge and skills of Daedalus, but he understand the value of what Daedalus can do. So the king uses the hacker. But then, seeing that he cannot really understand or control the hacker's power, he is so scared to put the hacker into a prison (not killing him because, you know... hackers are too precious).
This should teach hackers to never trust or serve the Power.
Indeed we can all see how the history of Snowden reproduce this ancient pattern.
The other interesting attitude shown by the Daedalus' myth is that of Icarus. Icarus is like the average "digital native": just like Minos, Icarus does not understand the inner working of the technology his father created. But, unlike the Power, he has no fear for what he doesn't understand. That's not just a sort of blind trust in his own father, as Daedalus warn him about the risks, but he doesn't care. He simply think that his father is too wary, too old, too boring, too weird... Icarus shows what happen when people use hackers' technology without really understanding its inner working (thus becoming hackers themselves).

Daedalus' equivalent in Germanic mythology is "the weird and malicious craftsman" Wayland the Smith that, enslaved by a king, kills his master's sons and escapes by crafting a winged cloak and flying away.

But while these archetypes show that the mainstream vision of what we now call hackers is very ancient, our history is even more interesting.

...forgotten history...

Archimedes of Syracuse was killed by Romans after a siege where his inventions protected his own city.

Hero of Alexandria invented the first steam engine... as a prank.

Roughly a century later, in the nineteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we see precious books about magic arts (περίεργα, perierga) burnt "in the sight of all" at Ephesus, by newly converted Christians. The same derogatory term, περίεργοι (periergoi) is used by (the man who pretends to be) Saint Paul to warn about young widows who went from home to home as busybody talking about "things which they ought not".

During the Renaissance, instead, hackers flourished and we can find several polymaths and inventors that explore reality with new eyes and revolutionize several disciplines, such as Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci, among the greatest hackers of all times. And so on, from Gutenberg to Babbage, from Baudot to Torres y Quevedo, from Meucci to Tchou...

...to spread propaganda.

So when we look at the american "hacker" as protraied by the powerful propaganda of O'Reilly we see just a re-branding of something that is much more general and ancient.

Yet the term was born at MIT in the middle of Cold War, while the United States were consolidating their cultural and technological hegemony (even through intellectual property thefts way worse than those that Trump now hold against China), and it was turned into a synthetic identity spreading the American values instead of the original ones. So much that people following those original values are actively looking for better alternatives, such as "maker" or "tinkerer" to avoid both the mainstream misconceptions about "hackers" and the élitism that O'Reilly propaganda attached to the term.

As you know, this was not a new process.
During the Middle Age, between VII and IX century, knights became a huge problem of public order: they usually were second-born to lords with no hope of inheriting the land of their fathers. Well armed and only trained to fight, whenever they were not employed in a war among nobles, they used to raid and rape the peaceful populations working in the farmlands.

The problem was that the blocked society of the time was built around three main roles: those who pray (clerics, nuns, monks...), those who fight (knight and soldiers) and those who work (everybody else).

Peasants were poor and poorly educated, but not dumb: they were aware that their work sustained the whole society, and while unions and cooperatives were far to come, the violences coming from those that should have protected their lifes were inesorably destroying the oppressive narrative they were taught to believe, accept and support.

Sounds familiar?
This is exactly what recently happened in the States after the death of George Floyd.
But while the white Americans élites were caught totally unprepared, while they were totally oblivious to the structural racism that qualified their internal oppressive structure (an oppression that do not harm only blacks and do not limit itself to structural racism), Middle Age men were much more aware that the people around them were the root of their own power and wealth. So when the knights' violence started to incrinate the stability of the triparted feudal system, they framed a new narrative to control them.

By introducing public cerimonies known as Pax Dei, the knight's investitures under the control of the Church and the rhetoric of chilvaric code, the Pope managed to put that dangerous and powerful group under control to the point that they became eager to lose their lifes in Crusades.

In the Middle Age, the new narrative directed knights' violence where it would have supported the establishment, just like the Open Source rhetoric spread by the O'Reilly empire, directed hackers' curiosity to support wealth accumulation and military power.

Evolutive... gentrification

The term gentrification means:

the process of conforming to an upper- or middle-class lifestyle, or of making a product, activity, etc., appealing to those with more affluent tastes

Until the 1970's, the term "hacking" meant any deep interest in computers that manifested itself in programming or learning arcane aspects of the machinery or operating systems. Hackers were weird nerds, but not much interesting.

By the early 1980's, this meaning morphed into a general term of fear to describe anyone who did anything "evil" using computer equipment.

In the United States, in the 80's just like today, "evil" is everything that could negatively affect the profits of the riches. They were scared by people who removed copy protection from video games, got free phone calls or cripple the trust of the working class in Capitalism by showing how easy it was to hack the Bank Of America's Home Banking System.

In 1986 the first legislation related to hacking was enacted, the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Just like the Hopkins' The Discovery of Witches, such text was wielded thousands of times to convict high-profile hackers and low-level criminals alike, in the most recent witch-hunt of American history.

Meanwhile, the mainstream Americans were building their own prejudice about hackers through their most powerful propaganda-device, with films like War Games.

So while some hackers were arrested all over the States, others tried to distance from them, introducing the term "cracker" to mock "the criminals" in the hope preserve their freedom and appear as the good, well integrated citizens they ough to be.

All of this worked as a sort of evolutive pressure, pruning those who challenged the American life-style and supporting those that were happy to subdue to the cultural hegemony of the times.

Then, when "cracking systems" became a well payed job, a bunch of coloured "hats" were invented, to distinguish crackers "hackers" according to the masters they serve.

But what really is "a hacker"?

If you were looking at the shadows drawn by a rolling dice over a plain surface, you could not understand what was going on.

But what if you'd directly ask to the rolling dice?

For sure, describing hackers to people from the mainstream, is just as easy as describing a rolling dice to people that could just conceive two dimensions. Think about it: even if you know what you are and how you reason and behave, it would be very difficult to explain that to a bidimensional alien, however intelligent it could be.

Yet that's what I'm trying to do in this short serie.

After a long and deep exchange with Marco Ciurcina about his essay Etica Hacker?, I decided that the core of our disagreement relies on the "Americanization" of hackers that are, in fact, way more ancient than the United States.

In the next post of this serie, I'll try to describe what a hacker is, outlining the ethical values that characterise hackers as a small set of orthogonal dimensions that can be used to understand our behaviour from a different cultural perspective. In a third post I'll try to clarify how the Americanization of hackers is the root of several misconceptions that led to our marginalization world-wide. Finally, I'll try to explain "why hacking matters" and how it could drag mankind out of Capitalism.

Yes, I'm a criminal. My crime is that of Curiosity.