June 7, 2017

Openness and Hackers: Romanticism of Resistance?

Romanticism of Resistance?

Discussing Ideas of Openness and Freedom in Hacker Ethics

June 7, 2017 by Sophie Huber

Hackers are fascinating cultures. In the framework of this blogpost, the question is raised how ideas of openness and freedom are expressed in two documents of “hacker ethics”. It will be argued that the visions of hacker communities display similarities with visions, as well as problems, of the open science movement. 

                             Illustration 1: Everything is Political!

Code is speech.
Being a hacker is a specific mode of existing and thinking about the world. Free speech is one of the integral elements of what might be called “hacker ethics”. Although, there is a plurality of different hacker communities and “clans”, their traditions and roots, identities and ideologies, a range of similarities can be found in their “manifestos”. Among them, values like open source, meritocracy, privacy and the power of the individual.[1] The term “manifestos” illustrates the political connotation of hacker´s visions, their connectedness to marxist and anarchist traditions, and their self-proclaimed missions for betterment of the world (through computers[2]).
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[3] 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.[4]
In contemporary academia though, there is a trend towards positive examinations of hacker communities and their internal functioning.[5] 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.  

Who the &%&# are hackers?[6]
The heterogeneity of hacker identities

Firstly, there is no one hacker identity and there are diverse, conflicting groups. Broadly seen, hackers can be described as knowledge cultures. They exchange expertise, support, training, have symbols, norms and codes of behaviour. Jordan and Taylor (1998) refer to six different aspects of “the” hacking community – technology, secrecy, anonymity, membership fluidity, male dominance and motivations. Like most collectives, hacker create boundaries and access restrictions, which is mainly done through evaluation of the innovativeness of the members´ hacks. In order to get access to specific resources, hackers have to work on their status.[7] Sharing knowledge and distributing information is a key point here. Consequently, hackers are no hierarchy-free groups. They rely on exclusivity in order to uphold their originality. A lot of effort is further put into presenting hacking as an intellectual and not criminal activity, which is where the formulation of ethics and the usage of narratives of exploration, curiosity and adventurous challenges comes into play. It is the narrative of revolutions. Furthermore, there are interesting tendencies toward the self-reproduction of prejudices, and obsessive behaviour is stylized as a necessity for repairing “imperfect systems”, so to say for progress. This identity as outsiders is, in my opinion, central to hacker cultures. It seems to be used as an argument for a new individuality and as a legitimization for disclosing own communities while fighting for open and free access for the poor.[8] Like Robin Hood, in plural.
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.[9]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 classes fear this relentless abstraction of the world, on which their fortunes yet depend. All classes but one: the hacker class. We are the hackers of abstraction. We produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data. Whatever code we hack, be it programing language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colorings, we are the abstracters of new worlds.”[10]

Illustration 2 

The number of women in the hacker movement are, comparably, small. There are some factors like childhood socialization, education and access to technology who might explain but not justify this fact.[11] “Maleness” is often defined as a part of being a hacker, even though there might be different (re)interpretations of what “maleness” means within their collectives. Since I have not engaged with literature on the topic, I can only report my own experience of suddenly incorporating “maleness” and “toughness” in my being while doing my ethnography about gamers. Beautifully, the new ethics formulated against Levy´s old hacker ethics are embattled by a female programmer. 

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 

Levy, 1984

Steven Levy´s book is a description of the hacker ethos, culture and mindset. He refers to the golden era and “birth” of hacking from the 1950s onwards. Romantically, he tells the tales of young intelligent boys secretly and illicitly tampering with technologies at the MIT.
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.

Programming is Forgetting 

Allison Parrish critically contributes to the discussion of Levy´s formulated hacker ethics and proposes a redefinition. While her underlying values of openness and freedom are the same, she reflects the connotations and assumptions of Levy’s 6 criteria, showing that freedom and openness are not as easily realizable as imagined in this philosophy. Parrish states that these formulations are, for example, merely putting power in the hands of different interest groups and allowing new hierarchies, imbalances and monopolies. She shows the narrowness of the principles by pointing out that gender is not included, outlines that code is the incarnation of bias and demonstrates the naivity of the thought that “[…] it´s possible to make a computer program that perfectly models the world.”[12]
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. 

Openness is a Process/Practice

In conclusion, I will explain why I personally think that (some) hackers and advocates of open science are victims of what I have called “romanticism of resistance”.
Being against authority, doubting and seeing the difficulties and structurally-uphold unfreedoms of socio-political systems is not hard. The “being against” is an important identity-characteristic of both movements. Hacker´s attempt to play with the big forces is seductive and imaginations of a resisting underground fighting for “true” liberal values and a sympathy for “outsiders” is romantic. The characterization as an outsider-community with strict boundaries and the dependence on material technological infrastructures might even be seen as supporting capitalist logics in the long run. This is proposed by Söderberg and Delfanti (2015) in reference to Boltanski and Chiapello (2005). Capitalism feeds on critical cultures:
“[…] the rebel-outsider position claimed by hackers has become an asset in an authenticity-stricken and consumer-driven market society.”[13]
STS would further revolt against the belief that technology is neutral, liberating or “equalizing”. Nonetheless, the societal and scientific criticisms of hackers and open science are needed and have different qualities. The discourses around openness nurture important discussions and awareness. The hacker movement, from my personal point of view, entails a productive spirit and atmosphere of departure which is inspiring. In my perception, hackers and open science have great strengths in creating and thinking about alternative realities in which freedom, access and openness can be imagined differently. They can open up space. Creativity of code, speech and science can therefore create own and innovative approaches towards law, economy and policy.[14] Since systems of oppression, control and power are inscribed in our bodies and minds, and different technologies of governance (e.g.) are daily re-performed, for me openness and freedom are extremely delicate topics. The discourses I tried to illuminate lack at some point depth and do not deal with questions of the "nature" and the implications of democracy, openness and (political) freedom in science and society that go below the surface. Nevertheless, I agree very much with Allison Parrish that self-reflexivity is a very good start for a more open future.

Boltanski, L., and E. Chiapello. 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Verso.
Coleman, E.G., Golub, A. (2008). Hacker practice. Moral genres and the cultural articulation of liberalism. Anthropological Theory, 8(3). pp. 255-277.
Coleman, E.G. (2013). Coding Freedom. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton University Press. pp. 161-202.
Davies, S.R. (2017). Characterizing Hacking: Mundane Engagement in US Hacker and Makerspaces. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 20(10). pp. 1-27.
Huber, S. (2015). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Eine Annäherung an die Identitäten von “Nerds” anhand des Filmgenres „Science Fiction“. Bachelor Thesis, University of Vienna.
Irani, L. (2015). Hackathons and the Making of Entrepreneurial Citizenship. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 40(5). pp. 799-824.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Interactive Audiences? The „Collective Intelligence“ of Media Fans. In: Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. Exploring Participatory Culture. New York.
Jordan, T., Taylor, P. (1998). A sociology of hackers. The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review. pp. 757-780.
Levy, S. (1984). Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday. pp. 13-41.
Kleif, T., Faulkner, W. (2003). “I´m No Athlete [but] I Can Make This Thing Dance!” – Men´s Pleasures in Technology. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 28(2). pp. 296-325.
Söderberg, J., Delfanti, A. (2015). Hacking Hacked! The Life Cycles of Digital Innovation. Science, Technology, & Human Values. pp. 1-6.
Parrish, A. (2016). Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic. Open Hardware Summit. pp. 1-29.
Wark, M. (2004). A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press. pp. 14-21.

Electronic References and Images
Figure 1: https://twitter.com/eff/status/588824849532919808 accessed 4.6.2017.
Figure 2: self-made picture
http://henryjenkins.org/aboutmehtml accessed 2017.

Student Bio 

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.

[1] Coleman & Golub 2008, 267
[2] Levy 1984, 40
[3] Jordan & Taylor 1998, 773
[4] Parrish 2016, 6
[5] Coleman & Golub 2008, 256
[6] Jenkins 2017; http://henryjenkins.org/aboutmehtml
[7] Jordan & Taylor 1998, 764
[8] Jordan & Taylor 1998, 768
[9] Huber 2015
[10] Wark 2004, 14
[11] Jordan & Taylor 1998, 767
[12] Parrish 2016, 13
[13] Söderberg & Delfanti (sec. source), 2015
[14] Coleman & Golub 2008, 272

1 comment:

  1. Hi! Very good choice of topic, thanks for this interesting and very "scholarly" read ;-) For a blog post there are several things that you could have shortened while expanding a bit more on open science principles vs challenges and concepts of openness in hacker ethics. Now the reader is left mostly alone with finding out the thread among all the different ideas (and issues) of openness you are introducing in the text. You could have made that all more explicit and not leave it to the brief conclusion ;-)