For most of my life I’ve associated with those who have a culture built around their interests and pursuits in computer science and information technology. Not uncommon with other communities who find different media suitable or compatible with what they do and what their friends do. For several years I’ve seen this culture change, mold and react to the media they’ve adopted progress and stretch outwards, for better or worse. People in the community either pick up new media and information and use that to build extensions around whats already there — or go along with it without revision, or something in between. We as social technology enthusiasts created an omnipresent hub of possibilities of expression and life within production and creativity. Things like the nerd persona and the stoic programmer, which have been immortalized in the mainstream through the years, are perhaps the most immediately recognizable forms stemming from the hacker and Internet freedom fighter subculture, but theres a lengthy chain of how and why these things developed into identities and generation-defining movements and communities.
When we look at how communities form their shared interests, we’re looking at a branch of evolutionary social application. A creative work or idea generally goes through a subtle consensus trial to determine if its interesting, entertaining, amusing or otherwise defining for the community when someone shares it in a forum of discussion. If it snowballs and reaches enough people as intended, it may very well be seen again and again, sometimes in different or better ways. This is when something becomes a part of a group’s culture: when it is naturally adopted and accepted into the community over a period of time, and becomes a norm to some degree. So an example of this in computer hobbyist culture might be the stylized green text in a computer command line, computers and artificial intelligence being put in a metaphysical situation (as seen in the Wachowskis’ The Matrix) the stylized clothing, lingo and hacking sequences in Iain Softley’s cyberpunk crime thriller Hackers, or a high-tech dystopian future as shown in Ion Storm’s Deus Ex video game series. These things became part of that culture because they matched up with what the nerds in a particular sector found appealing. Simple enough. It builds on itself when it inspires further cultural production from within the community, rather than content from an outside entity to be picked up by the target audience. At that point, the full evolution of a culture has been reached and the process has been completed.
The obvious question becomes how did this formula apply itself to computer enthusiasts? First, people had to start doing things and build a community. This began around the late 1960s to mid 1980s at places like MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, UC Berkeley and Bell Labs at the time where innovation in Computer Science was endlessly up for grabs. Here, the development of UNIX and core computing standards by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie were under way, the ARPANET packet-switching network was created, and the early workings of the Internet were coming into fruition. Along with technical achievements, an ethical framework was being forged by Richard Stallman, a young computer scientist at the time, through the GNU project and its mission and tenants, in conjunction with the common hacker ethic. From here a social basis was formed for hackers to work and live in — a sort of consciousness influencing creativity and productivity. Its at this point that the tone and shape of the community is made, where members of it have numerous interests and freely exchange them in areas of discussion. It is composed of students, researchers and independent intellectuals who do things in the context of their group: programming, studying artificial intelligence, and designing — as well as hacking — devices. Among their cultural favorites are George Lucas’ Star Wars, John Badham’s WarGames, Steven Lisberger’s TRON, and George Orwells’ classic book 1984.
Around this time, circa 1985, there was a political atmosphere growing that would work beside the interests of these hackers, who already had concerns of civil and human rights. The Free Software movement at this time found voices of support across the globe in France by the newly founded 1984 Network Liberty Alliance, who’s precursor had organized against the installation of nuclear warheads in Multangen, Germany. The Alliance spread information on the GNU project and trained participants on similar methods of information technology; one of the early instances of Free Software working with activism. Later in the early 1990s, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a very active and important organization in the field of digital rights to this day, was established in response to a US federal crackdown on the distribution of a technical document laying out the functions of the emergency 911 system. It was thought at the time that technical information of the system being made public would allow for people to exploit the system, so that callers with actual emergencies could not be put through. The scope of those wrongfully caught up in this case, a particularly messy and uninformed one on electronic information, soon raised the concerns and grievances for an informed legal framework for dealing with computers, their connectivity and how information crosses around the world in that system; when we, the hackers, were facing challenges from law enforcement and a society having newly stepped into the digital age — “where law and technology collide”. The EFF brought expertise and a framework for action and speaking out to the table for electronic law.
What those in the hacker community were figuring out would evolve into what we now call hacktivism — blending the forces of an effective interest in computing and ambitious hacking with making political progress and referendum for the better. Its not unreasonable to say that the instinct within hackers reaches outwards at times to touch or change the world around their world: To effect state policy or resolve injustice, and to throw their interests in the ring of public discussion.
What distinguishes then from now is how differently media and information could spread and dominate. Not just in regards to news and what we found in books, but culture and ideas. Summaries of our own consciences spelled out and published in text. If we had to pin down a single, specific part of this discussion, to define where the landscape changed radically and where we stepped back and said “whoa”, it would certainly have to be the time shifting to where anyone could create a blog, or register a website, or sign up for Facebook or Twitter and share yourself unfiltered with the universe. This allowed for the most amazing and widespread growth of content, communications and relationships that was previously impossible in human history. And because of this remarkable phenomenon, we witnessed new areas in Sociology, specifically how we react to information at a high rate, emerge from the great rock we were chiseling at.
The conventional model for information which worked through newspapers, books and word on the street was static, and thus limited in accessibility and reach. This made media comparatively slower to develop and change over a period of time, which people were used to. But a little while after computers became connected around the 80s and 90s and we created ways of sending content back and forth, the old model became the new stone tablet as we embraced something beyond previous anticipation. It afforded everyone the ability to start a newspaper online or publish a book, and have comments and ideas shared through social networks effortlessly. It nullified the dependency on someone with the knowhow to start a new paper or column; everyone could do it themselves easily.
This kind of event is part of what I’d like to call “Media Acceleration”. The point at which data as everyone knows it transitions from being a singular, limited form to being something instantly obtainable from anywhere. When we apply this part of the formula to creative media and watch that run its course in communities, and the variable for circulating information and data is replaced with forming cultures, the result is the computer hobbyist community in the early 2000s. A few years beforehand, when UseNet was the goto medium, you could see a few recurring themes and references in threads, different jokes and types of people who congregated in different areas, but nowhere near in size compared to how references from new movies, TV shows and music, amusing original content and jokes were pouring out just a few years later, and how some died out quicker or lasted longer than others. The solidifying of the Internet meme — the great pillar of online humor, file sharing, imageboards and social news all came into existence and perfection around this point: perhaps the most vibrant, free and beautifully chaotic period in Internet history. I don’t think many people know how much of a big deal this was and still is, or how much we took it for granted.
Having obtained a massive culture, numerous things to fight for among those passionately online were inbound once more. Hacktivism makes one hell of a comeback at this time. Springing out of 4chan around 2006, when they weren’t raiding habbo hotel for fun (lulz) or bringing down a Neo-Nazi radio host, a new confederation of Internet vagabonds was weaponizing anonymity and mass demonstrations against the Church of Scientology for cease-and-desist letters against critical publications of their organization. They form a global audience against the church and expose various incidents of corruption and harassment, called Project Chanology. Their disorderly confederation is called simply Anonymous. Here begins the embodiment of the trend of causes and activism online, something once brewing slowly in the 90s, while the concept of remaining anonymous affords voices to be everywhere because they are nowhere centrally. This would be seen again in the case of the Manning leaks and the support efforts during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution a few years after Chanology.
This is particularly important because not only did it shine light on a far better method of releasing and spreading information, but it did so with the cover of anonymity, and thus security, up front. One needs only to trust in or join the efforts of the millions who are passionate about truth and justice, and seeing those prevail over the Internet.
Culturally, it has augmented the Hacker Ethic revered in the 1980s — to explore and test the limits of computing, and to share information with the intention to bring good into the world. A newer iteration found itself under the ethic’s umbrella: To use speech and tools online to combat injustice and fight for human and digital rights around the world.
At the present time, we are witnessing and building history as we speak. The contemporary hacker community continues to reflect its original principles in a modern setting. Virtually all free and open source projects emphasize the importance of community and the freedoms to revise and share, seemingly a trend growing in technology at large. We find the culture seeded innumerably with all walks of styles and interests, but it seems a few particular bold points are the startup craze, basking in the indie scene as a home (using some obscure linux distro, coding in a language only three people are using, making something only three people will use, etc.) and always looking to stand out somehow (pretentious hipster bullshit or valid personalities, depends who you ask). The drive to effect policy and launch reform remains stronger than ever, possibly because of the ease to jump aboard something, but equally considering the events of the current times. Since the release of NSA documents by Edward Snowden in 2013 confirming speculation about government monitoring of electronic communications, hackers and digital rights enthusiasts have been stirred up like never before. What was always depicted as an Orwellian, far-off scenario has been found to be closer to reality than we thought. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight For The Future and other digital advocacy groups have started hundreds of campaigns against such actions which curtail privacy, free speech and other individual rights. Though we have a ways to go and have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be reformed, the energy and means of doing things are here and ready for deployment when the time comes, on the net and out in the streets around the world.
There is some interesting criticism and analyses of what our culture is now compared to how it was a few years prior, things I’ve also noted. There is a recurring mindset in some (particularly young) programmers of having a project that goes through an emphasized crowdfunding and crowdsourcing phase, depending on what it is. This constitutes the startup branch of the culture; not a negative one, but one that feels worn out and recylced when considering how many other people have this same style of doing things. Another is the pseudo-hipster (a mindfuck in a single phrase) personality that roughly half of those who align with programming or advocacy communities fit in with. This normally consists of using the hacker identity as a platform to hold up the bold points of one’s unique identity and interests. Say what you will about “hipsters” or new iterations of them, but I think the merits and ambitions of the hacker should be the first thing to be judged. Afterall, we’re all weirdos to someone.
We start to ask ourselves what the future might be. Where we should go, what more we should do. As for doing great things and effecting the world around us, we obviously need to continue being invested in our principles of testing the limits and moving the horizon forward, defending free speech, information-sharing, free and open source software — and not only encouraging but relying on the innovation of computer systems and tools.
As for our culture, what shades in all these geeks and tinkerers when they gather around, the most forward-moving approach that we’re already keeping alive is encouraging the diversity that forms naturally in good communities and the decentralized variations of what hacker’s like, the disorderly confederation mindset, and the common ownership of the entire community. Even the concept itself.
You see, the thing that defines what we are and what makes some teenager with a computer and a will so important is that we interact with the most powerful communication and information-sharing tool more deeply than other’s care to. Every person who aligns with the hacker culture has the potential to shape the world of tomorrow: to fix something that should have been fixed long ago, or say what should have been said sooner. Thats why this community matters. Every part of it. From what we do to what drives us and fascinates us.