Romanticism of Resistance?
Discussing Ideas of Openness and Freedom in Hacker Ethics
Illustration 1: Everything is Political!
In the last decades, hackers repeatedly made headlines and while there might be a lot of negative discourses circulating in the collective memory, like arrests of hackers, there are also positive ones, like whistle-blowers liberating knowledge for the deceived public and sympathy for the socio-political, systemic criticisms of the culture. Films and series took their part in creating imaginaries about hackers, programming and the perception of codes, and hackers became rule-breakers clothed in hoodies. Still, hackers have been described in terms of negative clichés as antisocial, radical, obsessed, white geeks who systematically exclude women, and are frequently associated with the (symbolic) destabilization of order and the disregarding of authorities. Meanwhile, they have gained prominence among institutions and governments and their instrumentalization and the digital revolution brought new forms of war and meanings of “data” into being.
In contemporary academia though, there is a trend towards positive examinations of hacker communities and their internal functioning. Studies of the democratization of technology, hacker- and makerspaces, and all kinds of DIY movements represent a field of/for Science and Technology Studies (STS). Scholars like Sarah R. Davies (2017), Gabrielle Coleman (2008; 2013), Tine Kleif and Wendy Faulkner (2013), engaged with the topics of hacking, new (technoscientific) cultures, bias in computer programs, pleasures and gender in relation to technology. Debates are further concerned with the transformation of citizenship (Irani, 2015).
In the following, I will shortly describe two documents. First, the famous and often referred to “original” hacker ethics of Steven Levy (1984) and secondly, a recent contribution of Allison Parrish (2016). Thereby, I will focus on expressions of freedom and openness. Since, a blogpost offers little space, I decided against a lengthy description of my material. Instead, I will conclude with an explanation of why those ideals, from my point of view, might have similar problems like the open science movement. This should be seen as a partial perspective, and not as an attempt to generalize. Everything is multidimensional.
The heterogeneity of hacker identities
I have to admit that I am influenced by my Bachelor research that got involved with gamer cultures, who similarly articulated a strong feeling of being socially and societally misunderstood.Being not accepted from society, or “jocks” who rule the world, is an essential part of, for example, Steven Levy´s book, which mirrors frustration and boredom with the “real-life” world and therefore the reclaiming of space, self-determination, power and thrill in a new world, with no prescribed rules. The realm of technology provides this possibility for control and the creation of alternative worlds. Code has a specific symbolic meaning. Even though the seductive beauty of technical abstract language (in science) and the simple logical solutions offered by technologies are understandable for a lot of people (I would count STS scholars in), code is far from languages that “everybody” would understand. “Code is speech”, is therefore only applicable for the community itself and not (easily) accessible for outsiders.
All Information is Free…
Access to Computers Should Be Unlimited and Total
Mistrust Authority Promote Decentralization
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position
You can create art and beauty on a computer
Computers can change your life for the better
It is worth noting that the open virtues, the strive for freedom and equality of opportunities, he attributes to this emerging community, are articulated in a language of excitement, highlighting the innocence of the knowledge-thirsty, technology-loving men. Their “otherness” is used as category of worth and power. The six criteria of Levy´s hacker ethic center around the topics of free, open access and source, resistance against authorities, (more or less) equality and the belief in liberating technologies. Underlying values are ideas of social justice, critiques of capital(ism) and power, and ultimate freedom and empowerment. These humanitarian ideals are seductive because they allow no reflection but enforce immediate compliance. They are inherently “good”. The problem is the authenticity of this ethic, the normative assumptions underlying these virtues and the question of their implementation. So far, I did not stumble across an explanation of how exactly hackers intend to reach these goals, how they “live” them and in how far the principles are “thought-through”. Open science struggles often with comparable problems. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that Levy´s description is referring to a different time and the spirit of political events of a distant past. This spirit continues to influence the movement today.
In her proposed new ethic she wants to use computers to embrace diversity and richness. She installs reflection-circles into programming and coding which focus on bias in programs, language and personal values through questioning the authorities hackers themselves enact. Since the last to principles of Levy refer to the passion of hackers and their inner spirit, Parrish saves them. In her imagination, ethics, openness and freedom are a process and practice instead of a fixed set of rules. It is openness through self-reflexivity.
Boltanski, L., and E. Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Verso.
Electronic References and Images
Figure 2: self-made picture
Sophie Huber grew up in Upper-Austria and graduated at the department of Europäische Ethnologie at the University of Vienna. While spending one term abroad at the University of Hamburg and writing her Bachelor thesis about gamers and science fiction, she became interested in Science and Technology Studies and started the Master program Science, Technology, Society in fall 2016. Currently, besides working at the Museum of Applied Art (MAK) and studying STS, Sophie is doing research for the publication “Kinship Troubles” for her former department, thereby focusing on value scripts of parenting videos on YouTube and their connection to the notions of efficiency and “worth” in neo-liberal logics of governance. Further, she is proposing a research project on “Associations of Queerness in Fantasy” with her colleague Armin Autz at the Fantasy Studies Conference in Vienna in September 2017. Approximately, her Master thesis will be concerned with the topic of transhumanist biohackers and the imaginary of a “technoscientific utopia”. After graduation, she wants to travel the world and take time for playing music, before applying for a PhD-position.