Review of "Hacker Culture", by Douglas Thomas

In his book "Hacker Culture", Douglas Thomas describes the hacker culture of today as a "boy culture". He describes this culture as a culture of technology and how relationships between other hackers and other people are affected by the use of technology. Thomas defines technology as a cultural phenomenon which tells us primarily about human relationships and the manner in which those relationships are mediated. Additionally, he defines the technical as that which is concerned only with the instrumental means by which those relationships occur. Hacker culture constantly negotiates the relationship between the technical aspects of the machines themselves and the cultural value of secrecy.

Thomas shows the boy culture of hackers in a number of ways. Hacker hierarchies are based on showing one's technical skill. Like kids on a playground showing off their collection of baseball cards, hackers will show off their digital conquests: how many systems they can hack, a virus they wrote, or a piece of proprietary information they stole. Also, disagreements are often resolved throught a series of virtual violent episodes, with hackers or groups of hackers attacking each other's systems or reputations. Shows of agression and "trash talk" are very common between hackers trying to one-up each other. Also, a separate form of language has developed (leet-speak) in the same way slang would in any other child culture.

Hacker culture is a subculture tied to the larger, parental culture. It is resistant to that parental culture, typically questioning and defying forms of authority. In general, online culture is a youth culture, comfortable with technology and computers. The online culture uses technology to express fashion, music, and literature. Hacker culture does this as well, but the use of technology goes even farther. In addition to using technology in relation to other members of the subculture, hackers attempt to affect the relationships other subcultures have with the technolgy and with each other. Essentially, as with much youth culture, hacker culture is at conflict over boundaries and authority and the desire to control both.

Hackers do what they do for two main reasons. First, they show their control over technology by learning about, modifying, and using technology. Secondly, they desire to play with the ways in which technology mediates human relationships. This includes everything from vandalizing web sites or creating viruses to social engineering their way to secret data from a corporation. The most powerful hacks hackers find are those based on human interactions with each other and with the technology.

The parental culture reacts to the hacker culture in a number of ways. First, the parental culture commodifies the hacker image. It positions the hacker as a threat against which one needs protection. Doing this takes away any ambiguity revolving around hacker culture. Hackers are seen as a "bad" thing that the "good" people must fight against. Also, the difference between the hacker and the end user (non-hacker) is trivialized, naturalized, or domesticated, making the hacker "meaningless exotica". The hacker becomes more of an aberration or side-show freak than a cultural power.

Hackers end up being seen as criminals. There exists a hyperbole in popular law enforcement that shows hackers as a stronger form of criminal, even if their crimes are the same as those performed by people without computers. Law enforcement and the media will characterize hackers as master criminals, gang members, or terrorists. Though a gang culture exists within youth culture, this hyper-criminalization extends hackers farther away from youth culture.

Hackers live in a world of secrets. The more secrets they know, whether is be secrets of the technology they use or the hidden information they find while using the technology, the more power they feel they have. In many ways, this power is very real outside the subculture, since the activities of a single hacker could affect the entire Internet. Hackers will always try to find secrets. Many will be successful. Countermeasures, policies, and procedures minimize the exposure of those secrets, but the culture of secrecy those things are attempting to protect will be constantly attacked by the culture of the hacker.

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All contents Copyright 2004, Daniel Adinolfi.