2013 02 18

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Contents

Feature Cast for 2013-02-18

(00:00:17.011) Intro

(00:05:34.193) Hacker Word of the Week:frink

(00:06:07.509) How This Hacker Sees Hackers

  • This is a topic that in various forms has been on my mind for a while
    • I haven't grappled with it on mic to date because it is genuinely a difficult topic for me
    • While I describe myself as a hacker, I can't say I have really thought
      • About what that label means concretely and why I feel it fits
    • When talking with friends who do not identify as hackers
      • The very term hacker clearly conjures any number of images to their minds
    • Judging by the questions they ask and the statements they make
      • The understanding they have is clearly overlaps only minimally with my own experiences
    • I can't promise to produce a detailed concrete definition
    • This essay is more of an exercise in trying to reveal my own assumptions
      • In a way that can then perhaps be more rigorously addressed
        • In terms of more consistently applying at least one variation of the concept of hacker
    • At least part of my own thinking is informed by my reaction to not just the views of my acquaintances
      • But to the cultural reception of hacking and what I suppose it means
        • In terms of the understanding of it any random person on the street is likely to have
    • Popular culture and media often associate hackers with criminals who use computers
    • Sometimes this is as simple as a bogey man
      • A nameless dread to coincide with mainstream ignorance of computer networking
    • This particular instance is the easiest to pick apart
      • As it is often riddled even with internal inconsistencies
        • Let alone incorrect facts about how computers work and programming is practiced
    • Other times the popular take on hackers is a caricature
      • Sketched in from a few brief glances of limited insight
    • This may draw upon actual encounters with hacker culture
      • Such as user groups, conferences or even historical stereotypes
    • More often I suspect that they rely on secondhand information that has been distorted by the retelling
      • Especially when it comes more from received wisdom than even indirect experience
        • As indicated by statements such as "Everybody knows" or "they say"
    • In reality, those of us who identified with the idea of hacking
      • Are incredibly diverse and difficult to pin down with a narrow set of common characteristics
    • Often the idea of a hacker is like the Supreme Court view of certain phenomena
      • That is we know it when we see it
    • I will try to bring forward at least a few firsthand observations from my own experience
      • Thought these again will be heavily mediated by the limits of that same experience
    • I may refer to the writings of some credibly observers and will try to name those
      • And gut check them as much as possible against my own limited set of data points
  • The clearest trait I have seen first hand in hackers is their curiosity
    • I have had conversation after conversation over the years
      • Where a hacker inclined friend or acquaintance will pitch some idea
        • The genesis of which is something like, "Have you ever wondered if"
    • The completion of that sentiment may be a simple interrogative
      • About something about which most people are ignorant
        • Like traffic lights or radio frequency security fobs
    • Sometimes that ignorance is intentional, as with security systems
      • Where those responsible may think keeping knowledge hidden serves some good
    • Other times, maybe the majority of times, the ignorance in question
      • Arises from most people just taking the world around them largely for granted
    • Some of my earliest recollections of the latter are my dad telling me about how engines work
    • Internal combustion engines are one thing whose operation cannot easily be deduced by watching
    • I claim no expertise, here, having never followed up on this conversations with my dad
      • By joining him in the garage actually taking apart and working on engines
    • My point is just the simple joy at acquiring knowledge about an everyday thing
      • That I otherwise previously took granted without second thought
    • Without getting into computers, there are any number of other such objects
      • Many of which, like cars, have devoted followings that are very hacker-like
    • Among the hackers I've encountered, this keen sense of curiosity is often satisfied
      • By simply reading up on a subject
    • Another good example which I may have shared in another vein is my oldest son
    • Not surprisingly given my own interests, he very much enjoys video games
    • He noticed in several of them, mostly in supernatural or horror themed ones
      • Some common characters and design elements not fully explained within the game
    • On some level he appreciated there was some implicit knowledge he hadn't yet acquired
    • After researching online for a while, he realized in this case it was Dante's Inferno
      • That was being heavily referenced in a few games
    • What he did next, to me, speaks to the what distinguishes the kind of curiosity a hacker possesses
    • Entirely on his own, he purchased a copy of the source material to read, to complete his own knowledge
    • I know a lot of people who have pursued this level of knowledge all the way into academia
      • Driven by what is clearly a pure, naked curiosity, feeling only such deep study will sate it
    • Even reading can be elevated to an amazing degree when driven by deep enough curiosity
      • In that it eventually leads to not just knowledge acquisition but synthesis
        • And from there new knowledge and arguably even new insight
    • What is key here is how the curiosity in question drives someone to act on it
    • For me, there are tons of examples that revolve around acting on knowledge in some form of practice
    • The example of learning from my dad is one instance where I don't think I acted very hacker-like
      • Missing an opportunity to acquire practical as well as in-depth knowledge
    • Another one of my passions is a good positive example, brewing
    • This is a craft that requires the curiosity to learn but is definitely fulfilled most in the doing
      • Not the least because the products themselves are an experience in sense and enjoyment
    • That being said, I have encountered plenty of people curious enough to read up
      • Who never actually brewed a drop, for any number of excuses but really only one reason
        • Failing to realize they didn't need anyone's permission to try
    • It does reinforce the difference in kind between mere curiosity and a burning need to know
    • The latter may lead to some impressive feats of research and synthesize
      • But also often reaches an intense pinnacle in re-creating ways of doing things
    • Computer hacking commonly is differentiated by acting on machines to see what they do
      • Given that the only requirement to act is access to a computer
    • I have seen some academics, like danah boyd, discuss this in terms of power or control
    • That certainly makes sense for those in situations where they otherwise lack power
    • There is also a simple, visceral joy in making a computer react in non-obvious ways
    • That could be in response to writing a new program, seeing an original idea actually working
      • Or as is more commonly described by the likes of Sterling and Levy
        • In exposing the hidden actions of systems all around us
        • Again about which we are ignorant because we so often take them for granted
    • I would be very careful to frame the exertion of knowledge as its own reward
      • Whether it is the fraught example of breaking or subverting a system
      • Or in the simple expression of building new things, either in code or in a workshop
    • The joy in seeing not just knowledge in action but hard won knowledge
      • Is hard to describe but often easy to demonstrate in events like hack labs or disco techs
  • I think hackers are so hard to define meaningfully because they really are deeply ambiguous
    • An earlier essay in this series tried to tackle the notion of meritocracy
    • In reading Gabriella Coleman's book, Coding Freedom, I realized another piece of this puzzle
    • She very clearly identifies a tension between individualism and collectivism
    • I have seen on my own evidence of this at work
      • The recognition of shared value in collaborative FLOSS projects
      • At odds with the desire of each contributor to demonstrate their individual effort and value
    • Reading her work on the subject I realize that this is hardly an either-or situation
    • One does not consistently trump the other, both are equally valued if difficult to reconcile together
    • In the mailing lists and other fora I've inhabited over the years
      • I've seen this dynamic play out over and over again
    • Some of the more dramatic examples of narrative history in one of my recent pieces
      • In retrospect clearly involved this conflict
        • Trying to advance both a broad goal and an individual's role within it
    • I hope you'll forgive my vagueness now as then but I think there are enough examples
      • Without naming names to find any number of comparable and corroborating incidents
    • Another ambiguity I've encountered is thrown into stark relief by the common view
      • That those of us who work with technology, computers in particular, are dryly analytical
    • This is an understandable mistake, arising from perceptions of how computers work
    • While computers are deeply logical, most people who don't program them
      • Assume this means a straightforward logic, if this then that
    • At their very lowest levels, this is certainly true as the atomic components, logic gates
      • Are entirely unambiguous in how they work
    • Like an understanding of even classical Newtonian physics, let alone relativity or quantum mechanics
      • The larger a system becomes, the hard it is to predict, even with clear, simple first principles
    • There are billions, if not trillions of physical gates in a modern CPU
      • Meaning the ways they are able to interact through programming are effectively infinite
    • At a higher level, software reintroduces some first principles that on the face are similarly logical
    • The same scale of complexity very quickly arises when source code
      • Runs up through the thousands or millions of lines of text
    • Based on my lifetime of programming computers, I believe it is at least equal parts logic and art
    • Clear logic may inform very small scale, contained problems
      • But at practical scales, intuition and prior experience govern
        • Much as they do when a painter tackles a portrait or a composer a sophisticated score
    • There are the simple tools of technical craft that require a developed aesthetic sense to apply well
    • I can cite one more example that may help make my point clear
    • If computers and software arose purely from simple logic given the same starting points
      • Then you would expect programmers and technologists of all stripes to converge a lot more
    • We wouldn't have multiple operating systems over time and simultaneously
      • Let alone the jostling crowd of all kinds of apps and applications continually cropping up
    • The result is far more like a library, museum or gallery with a diverse array of expression and view
      • Than a dry set of examplars in some specimen case or book of simple tables
    • The final ambiguity is the hardest to tackle, the question of transgression
    • Hacker is often associated closely with criminal computer activities, especially in news coverage
    • I will admit that it is an unavoidable part of the hacker experience
    • To my experience, there is a not an easily divisible subset of hackers that are criminals
    • In my last newscast, I shared the admission from a respected academic, Edward Tufte
      • That he was a transgressive phone phreaker in his youth
    • I know I have broken laws, more in my youth than since the statute of limitations has run out
    • If I did so today, any one of these could make me headline fodder
      • At least for exorbitant copyright cases penalties if not the more troubling instances
        • Like Swartz, Manning and others
    • The shift in laws and norms is one thing, often in overreaction to the threat of scare quotes hackers
      • But I don't think it accounts for enough of what we see here
    • I wonder if the routine exploring of the unexamined systems around us
      • Poses a risks to hackers of over-developing a sense of what is truly arbitrary or absurd
    • Even seemingly tame aspects of society, like currency, really are at there base a consensual fiction
    • Does one then develop one sense of risk when a rule being broken is based on an unpenetrated mystery
      • As opposed to a different sense of risk after learning how trivially
        • A phone or computer system is even accidentally broken?
    • Maybe this is part of the strong anti-authoritarian streak that I've seen too
      • And does relate to the questions of power and control I mentioned earlier
    • If the power in question is based on a thin veneer of ignorance
      • Or a system, rules or set of tools that ultimately are on shaky logical ground
        • Easily exposed as such
      • Then isn't the difference between a transgressive hacker and a law abiding one appreciably smaller?
  • Just as hackers are individually all kinds of people, so are we all each some kind of hacker
    • Despite the example of my own preoccupation with hacker history and culture
      • As a group, hackers for the most part aren't entirely hung up on the label
    • Notice that in many my own descriptions, I only sometimes referred to computer technology
      • And if I did, it was as a for instance, not necessarily a prerequisite
    • Maybe the simplest, clear definition is that driving curiosity with some capacity to act on it
    • I would much rather leave my own concept more open ended and hence inclusive
      • Even if it risks including people with whom close association is problematic
        • Than see something I definitely care about deeply
        • Used as yet another excuse for us versus them type thinking
    • This kind of curiosity admits not only a broad set of people
      • But more importantly begs a staggering diversity in its expression
        • That rightly should invite wonder and wide sharing of many, many different passions in practice

(00:22:16.634) Outro

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