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
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?
[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.
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
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,
"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
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
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
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
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...
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..."
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...
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...
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
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
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
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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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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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
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
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
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
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
Eric S. Raymond: The cathedral
and the bazaar. An analysis of why Linux and the concept of
open source works.
noosphere. An essay on property and ownership in open source
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
Sherry Turkle: The second self. 1984. A
psychological study of hackers (among other groups) and their relations to
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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