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Hacker Culture: Unraveling the Threads of a Digital Revolution

#hackers #personal


Hacker culture roots itself in the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. It consistently focuses on challenging the status quo, questioning authority, and seeking out new ways of understanding and using technology. By closely examining the past, present, and future of hacker culture, we can better appreciate its influence on modern life and the possibilities it offers for the future.

As a teenager attending HOPE (2600's Hackers on Planet Earth conference) in 2006 in New York City, the atmosphere was electrifying – a hotel floor filled with excited dorks buzzing around tables filled with lockpicking tools, old computers, LEDs, and soldering irons. The air fills with the energy of shared curiosity and passion, as people of all ages and demographics don their Thinkgeek T-shirts and talk shop.

There was one surreal late-night interaction at the conference that felt like a rite of passage into this strange new world. A small group of us stands in a circle, holding hands while someone brandishes a Taser. I had never seen one in person before. As the two people at the ends of the circle touch their fingers to the prongs, we feel the electricity course through our bodies – a visceral reminder that we are all connected in this bizarre and exhilarating adventure.

The Birth of Hacker Ideology: Challenging Authority and Finding Collective Solutions

Many of the core threads of modern life and technology trace back to hackers. The rebellious spirit of the 1960s counterculture didn’t just give us tie-dye shirts and The Grateful Dead – it birthed an entire generation of tech-savvy revolutionaries who challenge authority at every turn.

To a generation that grows up in a world beset by massive armies and by the threat of nuclear holocaust, the cybernetic notion of the globe as a single, interlinked pattern of information is deeply comforting: in the invisible play of information, many think they can see the possibility of global harmony. Fred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2008)

At the core of hacker culture sits a disregard for traditional authority and a belief in the power of collective problem solving. Stewart Brand encapsulates this in his 1995 essay "We Owe It All To The Hippies", arguing that the counterculture's disregard for authority provides the philosophical grounds not only for the internet but also the entire PC revolution.

The computer technologies that we take for granted today owe their shape to this unruly period, which is defined by protest, experimentation with drugs, countercultural community, and a general sense of anarchic idealism. John Markoff What the Dormouse Said (2005)

This primordial countercultural soup gives rise to a new breed - hackers - who take it upon themselves to challenge traditional authority and reshape society through collective problem-solving. They are like the trickster Coyote stealing fire from the gods, using technology to empower individuals rather than bow down to faceless institutions.

These early archetypes hold even more relevance today, as the tech industry is dominated by cutthroat capitalists, wealthy boy geniuses, and solvers of frivolous problems who couldn’t have strayed farther from the original ideals they capitalize on.

Stewart Brand & The Whole Earth Catalog

As a prominent figure in the bay area counterculture movement, Stewart Brand plays an influential role in shaping hacker culture. His lasting legacy begins with the creation of "The Whole Earth Catalog" in 1968, which is pivotal in nurturing the early development of hacker ideologies.

"The Whole Earth Catalog" isn't just a publication—it represents an early model for sharing knowledge and resources on a wide variety of topics that encourage a DIY mindset. It makes the whole world seem suddenly malleable, editable. Serving as a precursor to modern open-source sharing platforms, the catalog demonstrates how information can be disseminated beyond traditional institutions and centralized models. Flipping through the pages of books and tools, you could imagine new creations and a new way of of life.

Open-source development is a collaborative approach to creating software, where the source code is made freely available for anyone to view, modify, and distribute. The culture of sharing software freely isn't always easy to understand in a culture of private labs, and billion dollar exits where companies keep their proprietary software closely guarded as a competitive advantage.

Steve Jobs & The Hippies

In 2005 Steve Jobs credits Brand's work as an inspiration during his famous Stanford commencement speech. What connects Brand and Jobs is their shared belief in challenging authority and pursuing decentralized innovation that can empower individuals.

Steve Jobs is profoundly influenced by both hacker culture and the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s. This intersection plays a critical role in shaping his unique vision that would later revolutionize personal computing.

Jobs openly acknowledges participating in LSD experimentation during his youth, describing it as "one of the most important things" he has ever done. Aligned with hippie ideals, these experiences triggered powerful awakenings and shape his approach to life and business—prizing creativity over conformity.

Moreover, it's crucial to understand how this journey into psychedelic exploration parallels Jobs' immersion into hacker culture early on—a time when he attends meetings at the Homebrew Computer Club alongside industry pioneers like Steve Wozniak. Within this vibrant community driven by curiosity and collaboration, they are motivated to challenge traditional hierarchies while inventing technology that can empower individual people.

In the process, Apple fuses counter-establishment philosophy with relentless technological innovation, giving birth to products that are rapidly changing every aspect of modern life.

Snow Crash & The Matrix

In the early '90s, a seismic shift occurs in the hacker landscape with the emergence of cyberpunk culture, brought to life by literary masterpieces like William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash." These novels don't just glamorize hackers; they carve out an entirely new archetype. No longer are hackers mere basement-dwelling code-jockeys; they become digital samurais.

"Snow Crash," in particular, is a prophetic work that foresees much of what becomes integral to hacker culture. It paints a vivid picture of hypercards, virtual reality, and even livestreaming – concepts that take nearly two decades to become mainstream. Stephenson captures the essence of a rapidly approaching future where information is power, and those who can manipulate it hold the keys to the kingdom.

At the end of that same decade, Eric S. Raymond lays out a framework for open-source software development in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999)", which helps popularize an open-source software development model based on collaborative problem solving.

In 2006 I undertake my first journey into the hacker world. I grew up on AIM and in weird hacker chatrooms. By the time I am 14 I am itching to to attend HOPE Number Six. I am just getting into computers and open source software and am looking forward to seeing a talk from Richard Stallman who is famous for creating GNU, and later famous for being intolerable. The GNU operating system was one of the key examples of free software where anyone could view, modify, and distribute the source code. My parents paid for my first-ever train ticket to Manhattan, where my uncle meets me at Penn Station and helps me check into a hotel room, and then promptly leaves. I spend two formative days taking in the convention and hanging out with my new hacker friends.

It is awe-inspiring and life-changing; one of my IRC mentors anarchist hacker Jeremy Hammond is there, and a crew from HackThisSite has a room. People I have only talked to on online suddenly guide me through the streets of Manhattan, teaching me how to dumpster dive and sneak into the back corridors of the hotel. For a young kid just beginning to explore computing, seeing this larger community – people from all backgrounds and walks of life spending their time on computers, learning and teaching – inspires me indefinitely.

The open-source model foundational to hacker culture is further crystallized by GitHub (founded in 2008), a company that serves as the backbone of most technological advancement in both the open source world as well as private industry.

At GitHub, people work on an open allocation basis. Unlike traditional companies where projects are assigned top-down, GitHubbers tackle whatever projects they want, without any formal requests or managerial interference. Inside GitHub’s Super-Lean Management Strategy–And How It Drives Innovation

Sometime in the mid 2000s hacker culture also begins to mutate into more devilish strains. Some hackers fully embrace the trickster archetype, becoming famous for theft, ransomware, and stealing people's identities.

Others bend to startup culture, worshipping at the altar of hustle and the relentless pursuit of wealth. The industrialization of technology begins in earnest and the idealistic tenets of hacker culture start being discarded.

A backlash against tech ripples through American society as tech giants are recast as privacy-invading doomscroll-harvesting leeches wreaking havoc on America's happiness and democracy. To many Americans the technology and the culture seem intertwined. The phone is clearly filled with apps designed to keep you looking at the phone- but very few question the underlying philosophies that drove the design of those apps.

These nee startups, built on technologies created by hacker culture, create profound perversions of its ideals. The ways that capitalism twists the free-wheeling spirit of the internet are now causing people to question whether it's worth sacrificing their privacy and mental well-being for the convenience of these technologies.

As Wendy Liu argues in her book "Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism" (2020), the choice of being pro-tech industry or anti-tech is a false dichotomy. She rejects traditional corporate models and instead proposes that tech be liberated from capitalism and transformed into an open-source model of development, one that could be accessible to all, not just the privileged.

But the choice of being pro-tech industry or anti-tech is a false dilemma. The tech industry in its current form — with billion-dollar corporations, venture capitalists, and a few boy geniuses running the show — is not the only way of developing technology. Wendy Liu Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism (2020)

Throughout its evolution, hacker culture consistently focuses on challenging the status quo, questioning authority, and seeking out new ways of understanding and using technology. Therefore, understanding and honoring the roots of hacker culture can help us move forward and shape a more equitable and humane future.

Examining power means naming and explaining the forces of oppression that are so baked into our daily lives—and into our datasets, our databases, and our algorithms—that we often don’t even see them. Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein Data Feminism (Strong Ideas)

These ideas have always been core to being a hacker for me. On the final night of HOPE Number Six I sneak up to the roof of the now-demolished Hotel Pennsylvania with a group of hackers. Looking across Manhattan, we make plans and riff on ideas for projects or adventures. The world feels alive.

What strikes me most is how different, accepting, and giving the hackers I meet are. They are a tribe of misfits who find solace in each other's eccentricities and knowledge and unite under a common banner – the pursuit of knowledge and creative exploration.

As I stand on that rooftop overlooking Manhattan, bathed in the glow of neon lights reflecting off glass skyscrapers, I feel a profound sense of belonging beneath my fear of being discovered by security. In this anarchic realm where curiosity is king and imagination reigns supreme, I find my tribe.