Introduction

Cyberspace has given young individuals an environment that transcends space and time while also providing an anonymity that the physical world cannot reproduce. It has its own set of limits, interactional rules, and avenues for both deviant and criminal behavior. Many people envision hackers as egotistical losers, attempting to steal innocent bystanders’ personal information for their own anarchical pleasure and from the comforts of their mothers’ basements (Richet  2013:54). Countless media outlets draw connections between hacking and criminality and largely contribute to the creation of this inaccurate stereotype. In reality, hackers are simply individuals who love to play with their computers (Thomas  2002:5). Rather than spending their time playing video games, members of the hacker subculture would design and create hacks that expose the flaws within the videogame’s software. Like any community, there are malicious subsets of hackers. Even though the vast majority of hackers do not fit the negative stereotype that people hold as truth, overgeneralizations of the few hurt the reputation of the many (Thomas 2002:6).

man sitting at dark desk typing on the computer

“stereotypical” hacker

 

History

The term “hack” originates from MIT students who used the word to indicate a new innovation in the cyber world (i.e. using the PDP-1 mainframe to play computer games) but over the years, the term hacker has lost much of its original, innocent connotation (Richet 2013:58). “Not long ago, being called a hacker meant only that one belonged to a group of technology-obsessed college or graduate students who worked tirelessly on the dual diversions [problem solving and perpetuating harmless pranks]” (Thomas 2002:10). Many people romanticize this image of the first, old-school hackers from the 60s and 70s. At the time, the public actually thanked hackers for making information “open” and “free” (both hallmarks of classic hacker culture) by removing the threat of large corporations taking advantage of unsuspecting technology users (Thomas 2002:11). Funding began to start flowing in from the ARPA, when the opportunity arose for military application of computers and networking. Hackers at some of the most prestigious research programs, such as MIT, contributed to the technological development of the military-industrial complex (MIC) (Thomas 2002:16). University students, protesting hacker involvement in the Vietnam War, drove hackers underground and into isolation. The MIC both funded the projects that would create modern hacker culture and produced the first anonymous shields for hackers to hide their identities (Thomas 2002:17). 

two students sitting in a classroom and working on their laptops

University students working on their programming

Without the hackers of the 1960s, the PC industry would never have found the success that it experiences today. In fact, computer hobbyists wrote much of the original software. Hacker culture evolved from the DIY component of the first PC. Today’s modern computer owner would not recognize the primitive interface of the first PC. In order to operate their computers, purchasers needed a basic understanding of the mechanics, processors, and inputs/outputs of the system (Kirkpatrick  2002:163). During this time period, the hacker identity developed from PC owners’ distinctive methods of communication and fascination with the machines. In a way, computers isolate their users from the rest of the physical community and social scene. Sociologist Graeme Kirkpatrick states, “people who lacked social skills could be drawn into a relationship with the machine that would impair their psychological development and inhibit both their capacity and desire to understand others” (2002:170). It is human nature to seek outside sources for personal fulfillment. In this case, hackers can find an escape from their unfulfilling social lives within cyberspace. The more an individual feels separated from mainstream society, the more likely that person will be to participate in software anarchy (McGowen  2007:411). Although dominant culture assigns a great deal of undeserved stigma to the hacker identity, some empirical truth does underlie the socially-isolated hacker stereotype.

An old computer monitor and keyboard sitting on a cluttered desk

One of the first PCs to hit the market in the 70s

Part of the reason hacker subculture is so widely misunderstood is that there does not exist a consistent, widely agreed upon definition of the hacker (Loper  2001:1). Researchers have not recorded as many direct observations of hacker activity in academic literature compared to other prominent subcultures. This lack of empirical evidence has allowed for biased interpretations of complex activity, some that may appear criminal to uneducated individuals. Sociologist Kall Loper has developed a typology of hackers based on subculture theory. He uses historical data, media sources, self-identification techniques, and foundational materials to empirically define hacker subcultural and deviance (Loper 2001:1). Labeling theory suggests that the dominant culture defines the social norms and has the power to assign deviant labels to groups that violate these unspoken customs and values. While many individuals place blame on hackers’ extreme stance on privacy and anonymity for the subculture’s deviant label, they neglect to acknowledge that the driving force behind this anonymity resides in the label itself, which often forces the subculture participants underground. Hackers’ deviant labels, assigned to them by outsiders who hold social power, indirectly cause the suspect behavior that people blame for increased rates of cybercrime (Coleman  2011:513).

Protest group wearing masks and holding signs

Anonymous, a group of unionized hackers, on the news for protesting information restrictions

 

The stigmatized image associated with hacker subcultures has been a topic of debate among the sociological community. Exercising stigma management, many hacker subculturalists advocate for a greater distinction between hackers, who provide constructive technological development for society, and crackers, those who intentionally use their computer-security skills to bring harm to other computer systems (Richet 2013:55). Richet argues that cybercrimes, such as internet extortion and fraud, stem from a rogue group within the hacker community – not the subculture as a whole. The majority of juvenile hackers deem “fun” and “curiosity” as the top two reasons for participating in hacking (Richet 2013:58). While hacking provides opportunity for low-income teenagers, with lack of social mobility and opportunities, to easily make money and prevent serious cybercrime, cracking is the embodiment of those serious criminal offenses that hacking tries to prevent. For example, hackers use their skills to quickly fix bugs in a company’s system. Those who participate in cracking may view it as a graduation from “immature” computer pranks such as small hacks, but hacking (in itself) does not imply criminal activity. Only after leaving the legal market for underground crimes do hackers transition to crackers (Richet 2013:58).

 

Steve Wozniak and Andy Hertzfeld standing and talking at an informal group meeting

A young Steve Wozniak at an Apple Computer Users Group conference in 1984

Researcher Sarah Gordon, who studies the psychology of virus writers and hackers, helps to distinguish the difference between hackers and crackers. Hacking requires both a distinct skillset and distinct mindset from virus writers. In her studies, hackers often held negative perceptions of virus writers, specifically for their disregard of indiscriminate danger and lack of real “system knowledge” (Gordon  2001). With age, the majority of adolescent hackers eventually distance themselves from the subculture. Many continue to work with computer systems or security companies and leave the reckless virus writing and selling in the past. It is the crackers that make a career out of the criminal activity (Gordon 2001). As previously mentioned, the definition of hacker has shifted from “technological wizard” to “electronic vandal” since the 1950s (Kleinknecht  2003:4). Technology professionals often held hackers in high esteem because of their devotion to the field. In fact, second generation hackers such as Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak brought computer hardware to the public. Society often forgets the importance of early hackers and their non-criminal origins and contributions (Kleinknecht 2003:5-6).

 

Themes

Conflict Theory of Deviance

Current research identified the rise of the computer security industry (CSI), government, and the media as crucial in shifting the label of hackers from heroes to deviants. The CSI, a macro-level institution that holds power in the dominant culture, clearly holds a stake in the demonization of the hacker subculture (Kleinknecht 2003:8). Together, powerful macro-level social structures employ strategies that influence society’s cultural hegemony. To increase the divide between deviants and conformists, dominant institutions deceptively link hackers to previously established social problems, use negative imagery (painting hackers as abnormal or addicts), and capitalize on individuals’ fear such as invasion of privacy (Kleinknecht 2003:10). Because hackers often find themselves marginalized by greater society, they do not feel committed to following its norms and, sometimes, laws. Hacking takes the form of resistance when the subculture’s members unite against a common, oppressive force. In this case, hacks become small but symbolic acts of resistance.

 

Identity and Credibility

Man in white hat is standing at a podium and speaking to audience with a large banner in the background

Michael Lynn speaking at a Black Hat Briefing, a computer security conference

Research from sociologist Thomas Holt points to three identifiable and consistent subcultural values gathered from hackers – technology, secrecy, and mastery (Holt  2007:174). The majority of hackers in Holt’s study expressed significant interest in computer software and technology long before putting their knowledge into practice. Hackers build their identity from a “devotion to learn and understand technology” (Holt 2007:181). The ability to share and distribute quality information directly correlates with a hacker’s status within the subculture. Holt’s data exhibited that time spent hacking clearly led to an increase in skills acquired, but both skill-level and credibility played an important role in a hacker’s label. Hackers can gain credibility through ethical or non-ethical practices. White hat hackers use their computer knowledge to break security with non-malicious intent. For example, they may perform penetration and vulnerability assessments on their own security systems (Holt 2007:188). Contrarily, black hat hackers use their skills to violate security without justification or for personal, often malicious, gains. This “cracker” may infiltrate a system to steal and sell personal information for a profit (Holt 2007:189).

 

 Media

Videos

 “Hack, Hacking, and Hackers” (2013)

This video discusses the rise of hacker culture and some of the techniques employed by early hackers in the 90s.

“How Anonymous Hackers Changed the World” (2014)

This documentary gives its audience an insider’s perspective into the complex networks and history of one of the world’s most infamous “hacktivist” groups. 

“The Hacker Wars” (2015)

This documentary explores individuals’ internet privacy, security, and freedoms in the new digital age.

News

Hacker News

— This is a website that compiles some of the most recent hacker news from around the globe.

How to Become an Innovative Growth Hacker in One Month (2016)

— This article offers a quick glance at some of the tips and tricks hackers employ in their everyday lives.

Ethical Hackers Play Vital Role in Improving Security (2013)

— USA Today uncovers the ways in which hackers contribute to improvements in internet security.

Pokémon Go Has Exposed Hacker Subculture and a Personal Moral Dilemma (2016)

— This is a modern example of the media’s power to instill fear in the public and the perceived “moral dilemma” that accompanies hacker involvement.

Significant Scholarship

Books

Coleman, Gabriella. 2011. “Hacker Politics and Publics.” Public Culture 23(3):511-516. Retrieved from DukeJournals on Sep 29, 2016.

head shot of author Gabriella Coleman

Author Gabriella Coleman

 


 

Kleinknecht, Steven W. 2003. “Hacking Hackers: Ethnographic Insights into the Hacker Subculture Definition, Ideology and Argot.” p.1-191. Retrieved from Mcmaster university on Sep 18, 2016.

McMaster University logo which depicts a school's crest

Publisher of Kleinknecht’s graduate work

 


 

Thomas, Douglas. 2002. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

book cover with an image of an early computer and the title of the book

Thomas’ “Hacker Culture”

 


 

Articles

Holt, Thomas J. 2007. “Subcultural Evolution? Examining the Influence of On- and Off-line Experiences on Deviant Subcultures.” Deviant Behavior 28(2):171-198. Retrieved from Tandfonline on Sep 18, 2016.

Kirkpatrick, Graeme. 2002. “The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.” Max Weber Studies 2(2):163-185. Retrieved from Jstor on Sep 18, 2016.

Loper, Kall D. 2001. “The Criminology of Computer Hackers: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis.” Dissertation Abstracts International 61(8):1-N/a. Retrieved from Proquest on Sep 18, 2016.

McGowen, Matthew K., Paul Stephens, and Dexter Gruber. 2007. “An Exploration of the Ideologies of Software Intellectual Property: The Impact on Ethical Decision Making.” Journal of Business Ethics 73(4):409-424. Retrieved from Jstor on Sep 18, 2016.

Richet, Jean L. 2013. “From Young Hackers to Crackers.” International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction 9(3):53-62. Retrieved from Researchgate on Sep 18, 2016.

Other Sources

Websites

http://subcultureslist.com/hacker-culture/

http://www.badguys.org/

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/hackers

Gordon, Sarah. 2001. “Studying the Psychology of Virus Writers and Hackers.” Pbs: frontline. Retrieved Sep 18, 2016.

References

Coleman, Gabriella. 2011. “Hacker Politics and Publics.” Public Culture 23(3):511-516. Retrieved from DukeJournals on Sep 29, 2016.

Gordon, Sarah. 2001. “Studying the Psychology of Virus Writers and Hackers.” Pbs: frontline. Retrieved Sep 18, 2016.

Holt, Thomas J. 2007. “Subcultural Evolution? Examining the Influence of On- and Off-line Experiences on Deviant Subcultures.” Deviant behavior 28(2):171-198. Retrieved from Tandfonline on Sep 18, 2016.

Kirkpatrick, Graeme. 2002. “The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.” Max weber studies 2(2):163-185. Retrieved from Jstor on Sep 18, 2016.

Kleinknecht, Steven W. 2003. “Hacking Hackers: Ethnographic Insights into the Hacker Subculture Definition, Ideology and Argot.” p.1-191. Retrieved from Mcmaster university on Sep 18, 2016.

Loper, Kall D. 2001. “The Criminology of Computer Hackers: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis.” Dissertation abstracts international 61(8):1-N/a. Retrieved from Proquest on Sep 18, 2016.

McGowen, Matthew K., Paul Stephens, and Dexter Gruber. 2007. “An Exploration of the Ideologies of Software Intellectual Property: The Impact on Ethical Decision Making.” Journal of business ethics 73(4):409-424. Retrieved from Jstor on Sep 18, 2016.

Richet, Jean L. 2013. “From Young Hackers to Crackers.” International journal of technology and human interaction 9(3):53-62. Retrieved from Researchgate on Sep 18, 2016.

Thomas, Douglas. 2002. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

 

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