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HACKER CULTURE(s) by Jonas Löwgren
-- lecture notes, February 23, 2000 --

Traditional hacker ethics
New hacker ethics
Origins of hacker culture(s)
Dimensions of hacker culture(s)
Hacker culture(s) as seen from the outside
Selected sources


The title of this talk is Hacker culture(s), not Hacker culture. As we shall see, the picture is quite complex. Perhaps complex enough to talk about cultures instead of a culture.

On the other hand, the commonalities that bind members of hacker culture(s) and communities together are fairly clear and strong.

The following pages provide the notes for the talk, attempting to capture the heterogeneity of the hacker culture(s) as well as the commonalities. But first, how is the word hacker defined?

hacker /n./

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.

2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.

3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.

4. A person who is good at programming quickly.

5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in 'a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)

6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence 'password hacker', 'network hacker'. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The term 'hacker' also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net (see network, the and Internet address). It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic (see hacker ethic).

It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled bogus). See also wannabee.

New Hacker's Dictionary, maintained by Eric S. Raymond.

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Traditional hacker ethics

A way of characterizing the commonalities of the hacker culture(s) is to describe a shared ethical platform. The hacker ethics were summarized in its most influential form by Stephen Levy in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Bantam books, 1984). Since then, they have been widely quoted and disseminated.

1. Access to computers--and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works--should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the hands-on imperative!

The "hands-on imperative" is typically interpreted both technically and socially. If you want the publisher of an interesting text to offer a WAP-readable version, for instance, don't complain to the publisher. Learn XML, write your own converter and publish it for others to use and improve (in the spirit of free information, below).

Similarly, if you want changes in society, don't complain but act. A strong interpretation may point towards political activism outside the boundaries of public law.

2. All information should be free.

A close analogy might be the standpoint of indian chief Sitting Bull concerning the colonization of the North American continent: "Land cannot be owned".

The free information credo is at odds with majority views on copyright and proprietary software. A good example is the copyleft policy of the Free Software Foundation. The following piece is taken from the introduction to the (very detailed) GNU General Public License, version 2, 1991.

"The licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it. By contrast, the GNU General Public License is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software--to make sure the software is free for all its users. This General Public License applies to most of the Free Software Foundation's software and to any other program whose authors commit to using it. (Some other Free Software Foundation software is covered by the GNU Library General Public License instead.) You can apply it to your programs, too."

There are subtle differences between free software and the currently more popular concept of open source. Free software in Richard Stallman's version is a profound view on freedom, community, cooperation and emancipation in the ideal society. Open source concentrates more on development efficiency and co-existence with contemporary business models. However, they can coexist: what is today known as Linux should strictly speaking be called GNU/Linux since a large portion of the software in the Linux distribution comes out of the GNU project.

3. Mistrust authority--promote decentralization.

A theme running through hacker cultures is to argue based on primary sources: facts and information that should be equally accessible. Authority in this context is associated with substituting power for information.

A recent example is the debate concerning the secret documents of The Church of Scientology. When some of the documents were moved into the public domain through appearing in a court trial in the US, they were immediately copied and disseminated in a thousand places on the Internet. Mainly by hackers or people affiliated with the hacker culture(s).

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Operation Clambake is a full-scale site in Norway dedicated to shedding as much light as possible on The Church of Scientology. The disclaimer reads as follows:

"The Church of Scientology is using copyright laws to withhold information from the public. Are they doing this for honest or dishonest reasons? In the case of doubt there is one way to find out. That is to publish their material. Not extracts but in some cases its entirety so there can be no argument about quoting out of context or misinterpreting what was written.

I, Andreas Heldal-Lund, have reviewed the secret materials of Scientology and after careful consideration have concluded that these materials are being kept secret in order to withhold information from the public with the sole purpose of deceiving the public as to the true nature of Scientology. I feel it is my moral duty to society to reveal this information to the public in order to alert them as to its nature. My belief is that the content of this material will clearly vindicate my actions."

4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

Hacker cultures are meritocracies where positions are based on demonstrated knowledge and achievements. This is well illustrated in the piece below, published in Phrack, #7.

"The following was written shortly after my arrest...

\/\The Conscience of a Hacker/\/

by +++The Mentor+++
Written on January 8, 1986

Another one got caught today, it's all over the papers. "Teenager Arrested in Computer Crime Scandal", "Hacker Arrested after Bank Tampering"...
Damn kids. They're all alike.

But did you, in your three-piece psychology and 1950's technobrain, ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker? Did you ever wonder what made him tick, what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?

I am a hacker, enter my world...

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Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me...
Damn underachiever. They're all alike.

I'm in junior high or high school. I've listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. "No, Ms. Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head..."
Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike.

I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up.
Not because it doesn't like me...
Or feels threatened by me...
Or thinks I'm a smart ass...
Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here...
Damn kid. All he does is play games. They're all alike.

And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is found.

"This is it... this is where I belong..."

I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all...
Damn kid. Tying up the phone line again. They're all alike...

You bet your ass we're all alike... we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.

This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike."

5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

6. Computers can change (your) life for the better.

The last two lines of the traditional ethics are perhaps not surprising today. They must be understood in their historical context. In the 70s, computers were strange and unfamiliar to most people. In case they meant something, the images mostly had to do with administrative data processing, computing centers, punch cards and teletype interfaces. Art, beauty and life changes were not in the mainstream notion of computers.

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New hacker ethics

Steve Mizrach of the dept. of Anthropology, University of Florida, analyzed several recent hacker texts in the paper Is there a hacker ethic for 90s hackers? (1997). He summarizes his findings in a new set of ethical principles.

Above all else, do no harm.

Do not damage computers or data if at all possible. Much like the key element of the Hippocratic Oath.

Hacking is a quest for knowledge; there is no intrinsic need or desire to destroy. But it is generally held that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality. However, accidents and pranks that hackers view as harmless may cause the victims to lose time and effort.

Protect privacy.

This is typically reconciled with the free information ethos by separating public information from private. How the line is drawn is, of course, a question of personal (and political) views.

Waste not, want not.

Computer resources should not lie idle and wasted. Using idle time and perhaps leaving suggestions for improved performance is seen as a favor.

Exceed limitations.

"Telling a hacker something can't be done, is a moral imperative for him to try."

The communicational imperative.

Communicating with and associating with peers is a fundamental human right. Some see it as strong enough to motivate violation of laws and regulations.

Leave no traces.

Keeping quiet about your exploits is not only for your protection. It also helps other hackers avoid getting caught or losing access.


Information increases in value by sharing it with other people. Data can be the basis for someone else's learning; software can be improved collectively.

Fight cyber-tyranny.

Hacking is necessary to help protect the world from dystopian development of global information systems a la 1984.

Trust, but test.

By engaging hands-on with technical and social systems, your discoveries can contribute to improving the systems.

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Origins of hacker culture(s)

There seems to be at least three lines of ancestry leading up to what we call the current hacker cultures. These are the hobbyists, the academics and the networkers.

Hobby hacking originated with radio amateurs as far back as the 20s. A strong interest in electronics provided fertile ground for the first home computers, such as the Altair 8800. Sweden had a home-grown brand early on: the ABC80 in 1978, followed by the ABC800 in 1981.

Some of the home computers were sold as construction kits, fostering the tradition of really understanding the technology.

Home computers such as the Commodore 64, offering color graphics and quality audio, attracted game players and game developers. Cracking the copy protection of the games became a logical application for technical skills and aptitude. Cracked games needed a splash screen where the cracker could claim credit for his work. This developed into the intro, a full-scale multimedia production where technical and artistic skills could be demonstrated. The demos being presented today at demoparties are intros separated from the games they demo.

Academic hacking is generally traced to Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where The Model Railroad Club developed sophisticated railroad systems in the 50s. The word "hack" was used to refer to technology-based practical jokes or stunts. Its meaning shifted to the technology needed to perform the prank, and later came to mean a clever technical solution in general.

MIT ran a project in the early 60s intended to develop a timesharing computer. This project became the core of the AI lab, where the first academic hacker culture emerged. Students specialized in mathematics and artifical intelligence and spent 30 hours straight in programming sessions instead of going to regular classes. Ideas of free information developed. Several students learned to pick locks in order to better use the equipment in the building. Howard Rheingold captures the spirit well in Tools for thought (1985):

"MIT Bldg 26, MAC Project, 1960

At the moment David walked in, a young man named Richard Greenblatt, who lived on a stereotypical diet of soft drinks and candy bars, and who didn't stop to sleep, much less to change clothing, was explaining to a circle of awed admirers, which included some of the computer scientists who had hired him, how he intended to write a chess playing program good enough to beat a human. Greenblatt's thesis advisor, Marvin Minsky, tried to discourage Greenblatt, telling him there was little hope of making progress in chess playing software.

Six year after he first stumbled upon the inhabitants of building 26, ... David Rodman ... was in the group that watched Greenblatt's 'MacHack' program demolish Hubert Dreyfus, the number one critic of the whole AI field, in a much heralded and highly symbolic game of chess."

Network hacking was initially performed on telephone networks. Phone phreaks developed ways of surfing the phone system, creating connections across dozens of switches and countries using control commands that only the phone companies were supposed to know. Free phone calls could be obtained in many ways. For instance, on certain switches, a straight 2600 Hz tone meant that the line was not busy. If you had a line open and sent a 2600 tone into the receiver, charging of the call would stop.

Some legendary phreaks were Joe Engressia, who was blind and could whistle control tones to perfect pitch, and Cap'n Crunch who got his name from the discovery that the whistle in Cap'n Crunch cereal boxes could be used for control tones. Most phreaks, however, bought or built simple tone generators called blue boxes.

Gradually, computer networks began to develop. Phone companies turned to computer-controlled switches. Network hacking moved from electromechanical phone networks to digital computer networks. With a terminal and a modem, a new world opened.

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Dimensions of hacker culture(s)

Hacker culture(s) today come out of hobby hacking, academic hacking and network hacking. It is more or less based on an ethical code, interpreted and shared in different ways. How can it be understood?

There are a few dimensions that seem to span the field in a useful way.

Hacking --- cracking. Real hackers are careful to point out that malicious hacking activities should properly speaking be called cracking. However, the question is where to draw the line. The police, the corporate world, the judicial system, etc take a fairly restrictive position. Much of what hackers would call exploration for the sake of learning is regularly prosecuted.

Before the web, most network hacking/cracking involved finding computers on the network, getting into them, looking around, perhaps downloading some files and then preparing a back door for convenient entry later on. Some of the pleasure seemed to be in collecting adresses to computers where the hacker had access. Of course, there was also the element of using superior technical skills to bypass the security system.

Hacking and cracking in the late 90s has taken a few more visible forms. Defacing web pages is very popular, given the enormous visibility of the results. This basically means cracking a computer that runs a web server and place your own pages there instead of the original information. Attrition has a large mirror archive of defaced web pages.

Due to the public nature of web and mail servers, they can be cracked also without access to the computer on which they run. Denial-of-service attacks on public servers, which entails sending millions of requests to the servers simultaneously from many sources, are quite frequent. Mail bombing can be seen as a variation on the same theme.

Creating and disseminating a virus is another form of hacking/cracking that has taken off with the increasing penetration of Internet usage. Email is now by far the most common carrier of virus and Trojan horses.

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Purpose. Academic hacker culture views intrusion as a means for learning more about computers and networks. If data are altered, it is typically done as a practical joke. Basically, the hackers view the intrusions as harmless.

Another common hacker argument for exposing security flaws by intrusion is to help build safer systems in the future.

Contrary to the traditional hacker norm of keeping a low profile, many of the web defacement attacks are of the graffiti kind. There is no discernible purpose, only a triumphant message from the crackers. The common expression is "[You have been] owned by group X", together with a graffiti-style tag image.

Hacking/cracking has often been used as a means for personal revenge. It is not unknown for police officers investigating computer crime to receive personal credit card bills and phone bills in huge amounts. The hacker has gained access to, e.g., the phone company and manipulated the records.

Political activism is another reason for hacking/cracking. The Telia web site in Sweden was defaced in 1996 as a result of growing discontent with the monopoly and pricing policy for Internet services. The Swedish Animal Liberation Front attacked Smittskyddsinstitutet and Karolinska Institutet repeatedly on 1998-99 in order to stop unnecessary experiments on animals. An internationally well-known group is PHAIT (Portuguese Hackers Against Indonesian Tyranny) who attacked Indonesian authorities several times in 1997, motivated by the situation in East Timor.

Cyberpunk --- extropism. Linus Walleij defines a cyberpunk as

"a person in a high-technological society who has information and/or knowledge that the ruling powers would rather have kept to themselves."

Cyberpunk is essentially a pessimistic stance on the macro level, where society is seen as structures of global information systems ruling the people. Visions of the future are dystopic. However, the cyberpunk/hacker has the necessary skills to survive and prosper in such a world. Hence the optimistic twist on the individual level of fighting the system.

The notion of fighting oppressive systems extends also to the limitations of the human body. Smart drugs, implants and cyborg mythology are strongly associated with cyberpunk.

Where cyberpunk is dystopic, extropism concentrates on positive outcomes for society. The word extropy is the inverse of enthropy, and it means that we can continue to exceed our limitations by means of new technology. Persistent experimentation and development of technology will lead to greater freedom for the individual and less oppression. A necessary condition is that free individuals (rather than corporations or authorities) take charge of the development.

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Hacker culture(s) as seen from the outside

Journalists, investigators and others encountering hackers/crackers often comment on their obsessive urge to brag about their conquests. One might imagine that a social structure where the only criterion for assessment is knowledge needs showing-off to maintain the pecking order. However, this observation runs counter to the ethical principle of keeping a low profile.

Several interpretations are possible. It might be that the ethical principle deduced by Mizrach should really read "Leave no traces in the computers you hack." Another possibility is that the wannabees boast; established and secure hackers have no need to. A third that journalists, investigators, etc. construct an image of the hacker as they would like them all to be.

What is clear, however, is that the meritocracy of (computer) knowledge can make it hard to avoid arrogance and "in-speak" in the eye of the public. An example might be the disclaimer on Linus Walleij's home page.

"Disclaimer: I, Linus Walleij, have put up these pages for political and personal reasons. I often use well-balanced amounts of rude or explicit language, as well as slang, since I think it is the spice that shakes a sleeping brain awake. If you think this could be annoying to you (ie if you want your brain to stay dumb), please get lost at once. This is a page for mature, mindwise grown-up people. If you decide to mail me on any matter concerning these pages or my person in general, please note that I want constructive criticism. This means you should not write: 'This page makes me sick.' but rather: 'This page makes me sick, because...' and so forth. Mail I find stupid, arrogant, lame, unwise of plain boring will be piped to DEVICE NULL without further treatment. Pressing any of the link buttons above confirms you agree with me on this."

Another highly visible trait of hackers is their devotion to hacking. In 1976, Joseph Weizenbaum (an established AI critic) described the phenomenon of "compulsive programming" in the book Computer power and human reason:

"Wherever computer centers have become established, that is to say, in countless places in the United States, as well as in virtually all other industrial regions of the world, bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed waiting to fire, their fingers, already poised to strike at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler's on the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pour like possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, cokes, sandwiches. If possible they sleep on cots near the computer. But only for a few hours--then back to the console or the printouts. Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers. They are an international phenomenon."

A different version of the same description would perhaps focus on the intense concentration, flow-like qualities, personal satisfaction and rich social exchanges in and around a good programming session.

Sherry Turkle interviewed a number of hackers on their relations with computers as part of the data for the book The second self. Her explanation of the computer's holding power concentrates on control and compensation. The computer offers a predictable universe where the user has godlike powers to create and destroy once the necessary skills have been acquired. She also points to the strong aesthetical norms of programming.

The perceived association between hacker culture(s) and computer crime is a major subject. There is no room to treat it properly here. Good sources are Walleij: Copyright finns inte, version 3.0 (in Swedish) and Sterling: The hacker crackdown (Bantam Books, 1992). In passing, it should be noted that (1) traditional hackers are careful to make the distinction between hackers and crackers, (2) many of the computer crimes reported in media would not qualify as hacks, and (3) most of the ethical principles are flexible enough to accommodate various personal purposes and persuasions (including illegal ones).

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Selected sources

This is a short list of what I see as some essential resources. Each of them contains large numbers of pointers and references for further exploration.

Attrition. A collection of resources from and for the hacker cultures. Note in particular the large mirror archive of defaced web sites (sites being modified by crackers).

Free Software Foundation. Describes the foundations and status of the GNU project, launched by Richard Stallman in 1984 to develop a free version of Unix. GNU components are now being widely used together with the more famous Linux kernel.

Katie Hafner and John Markoff: Cyberpunk. Corgi Books, 1993. The stories of three famous hackers: Kevin Mitnick, Pengo and Robert Tappan Morris. Written in journalistic style with a human interest angle, highly readable.

Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach. An eternal golden braid. A cult classic among computer scientists (and hackers). Hofstadter connects mathematics, music and imagery with basic AI issues.

Tracy Kidder: The soul of a new machine. 1981. The story of how Data General developed their first minicomputer. Conveys the "Dead Poets Society" feeling of intense collaborative hacking.

New Hacker's Dictionary, maintained by Eric S. Raymond. Language is a strong component of any culture. No exception for hacker culture(s). This dictionary is definitive.

Jörgen Nissen: Pojkarna vid datorn. Symposion Graduale, 1993. A sociological PhD thesis in Swedish about the hobby hacker culture in Sweden.

Phrack. A classic hacker magazine, published for free since 1985 through BBS and more recently the Internet.

Eric S. Raymond: The cathedral and the bazaar. An analysis of why Linux and the concept of open source works.
Homesteading the noosphere. An essay on property and ownership in open source culture.
The magic cauldron. On the economics of open source software.

Howard Rheingold: Tools for thought, 1985. A good piece on the history of the hacker culture(s), with an emphasis on academic hacking in the US.

Bruce Sterling: The hacker crackdown. Bantam Books, 1992. The story of Operation Sundevil, a massive attempt by US authorities to "fight computer crime" and apprehend hackers. The book is available in various file formats from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Clifford Stoll: The cuckoo's egg. 1989. Describes Stoll's hunt for a hacker in his system at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, a hunt that takes him to Eastern Europe. The conspiracy angle of Stoll's book is well balanced by Hafner and Markoff's account of the same story (above).

Sherry Turkle: The second self. 1984. A psychological study of hackers (among other groups) and their relations to computers.

Linus Walleij: Copyright finns inte, version 3.0. The best text I have seen in Swedish on hacker cultures. Fairly comprehensive and some of the material on the history of hacker cultures in Sweden is quite unique.

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