The Hacker Underground is dead. Long live the Hacker Underground!
In the most recent issue of Phrack Magazine, I read an article titled “The Underground Myth,” that makes a number of astute points about the demise of the hacking scene of the last few decades.
The author describes a technical landscape in which the technology security industry and a diminishing number of obvious exploits conspired to destroy the scene as it existed throughout the 1980s and ’90s. These elements did not act alone; they were aided and abetted by governments who have taken steps to criminalize computer hacking and by other hackers who contributed to the downfall of the community by dismissing younger would-be hackers.
This article caused me to reflect on my own personal definition of “hacker” and why I think we need more of them.
First, a vocabulary point: Different readers will interpret “hackers” to mean different things; some of these will be more favorable definitions, like lifehacker, and others will be more negative. My definition of the term likely encompasses many of these definitions (though it specifically omits phishers and other lowbrow criminals).
My focus, however, is on people who use things — usually, but not necessarily, technology — in unintended and unorthodox fashions; it is through their ingenuity and repurposing that we all develop a broader base of knowledge. Unfortunately, in this age of ubiquitous despair, “hacker” has a generally negative connotation, and at a time when we need hackers more than ever.
In the past couple of decades, powerful multinational corporations and their legal teams have done some unorthodox modifications of their own; they have pressured legislatures into enacting domineering legislation like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and this most recent PRO-IP boondoggle, and they have taken matters into their own hands as well, producing DRM technology and Trusted Computing.
Indeed, big business has been acting to maintain its customer base in ways that have had major and unfortunate impacts. Rather than future generations of inquisitive hackers, we face a future of incurious consumers who risk running afoul of the law when they engage in practices that would have been accepted — if not encouraged — a generation beforehand. This societal shift has created a cultural imperative to restore and expand the hacker underground.
Graffiti Research Lab has a section of its site that aims to align hackers and graffiti artists, encouraging them to contribute to various unsanctioned public art projects (vandalism?) together. It encourages the members of these subcultures to collaborate and produce art for art’s sake. It also encourages readers to install Linux and specifically advises against seeking any financial rewards. The idea for collaboration and the artwork are great, but advocating art for art’s sake is a missed opportunity for sticking it to The Man by replacing that guy altogether.
As much as living in a futuristic Stallmanesque society where money is unnecessary could be novel and fulfilling, rejecting compensation at this stage in the game puts the carriage ahead of the horse. Monied interests have undue influence because they have successfully coordinated and allocated resources to serve their purposes; to blunt their agenda, we need to find ways to starve them financially. Given that they respond to trends by co-opting them, it would be beneficial to position the trend in a way in which it can flourish on its own. Besides, if the hardware manufacturers, hosting companies, ISPs, and spray paint factories are still getting paid, there’s no good reason the people creatively using their products shouldn’t benefit as well.
Rather than attempting to destroy the dominant culture without a plan for the aftermath, we can use our ample skills and resources to begin to supplant it. Rather than facing a choice between rejecting economic activity and selling out, we can choose another option: To create a legitimate and parallel economy that replaces the existing one.
Various music scenes have had their own successful ecosystems, but these tend to languish when the bands hook up with major labels. Whereas in the past, major labels have been the only entities who could reasonably distribute music far and wide, the Internet has remedied that problem. Despite this remedy, the cultural shift away from centralization has been slow to follow, in part because of the influence the large media and technology companies have had over the law and product development.
With Linux and open source technology, we have freedom that can and should be exported to as many industries as possible to foster a new generation of hackers, both on- and off-line.
In this new millennium, with technology more accessible and widely used than ever before, the resources are available to educate the general public and wean it off its heavy reliance on and bias toward concentrated power. Whereas in recent decades, “hacking” has meant surreptitiously gaining access to computer networks or getting free long-distance phone calls, legislative and litigative overreach have created an environment where the prevailing economy itself must be hacked.
In areas where powerful and monied interests have created a proprietary oligopoly that has served few at the expense of many, it is incumbent on us to replace it with a decentralized economy that uses Linux and other open technologies in order to distribute wealth and resources more broadly and equitably. Whereas law and operability have created roadblocks and adversity, we can act today to ensure a brighter tomorrow filled with more opportunities (on better hardware with more bandwidth) by hacking culture itself.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, “Hackett and Bankwell.”