In her essay Hackers as Tricksters of the Digital Age: Creativity in Hacker Culture, Svetlana Nikitina refers to a general confusion as to how we should be viewing the social impact of hacking. Should we be cultivating the creative potential of people who are clearly very talented? Should we treat it as an annoying (but not threatening) calamity of the digital age? Or is it something far more insidious than both of those things, the tip of an ever-growing iceberg of computer crime?
Anyone aware of the mayhem caused by the Ukraine power cut in December 2016 will understand the very real damage that can be caused by hackers. Lose your heating in a Ukrainian winter and death suddenly becomes a very real possibility.
The Ukraine attack was clearly political, but many hackers have no discernible motives. Nikitina mentions the oft-heard hacker’s defence that they are simply highlighting systemic security issues, but Spafford’s analogy states that we would never accept burglars breaking into our homes in order to expose vulnerabilities. There can be little doubt that most people would agree with that.
It is a curious thing that such apparently obvious trespassing should be so ambiguously viewed, especially at a time when so much is at stake (international security, global finance, etc.). But this may be because we are in a confusing, transitional period between the present, material world and the virtual, transhumanist future.
To understand what I mean, consider the following: for ancient humans, fats were seldom found in the wild. Whenever our ancestors acquired them, they gorged on them, not knowing when the chance to do so would next come along. Now of course we live in an industrial age of plenty, and cheeseburgers cost pocket change, but the evolutionary programming of our bodies hasn’t yet caught up with what our brain knows. Our bodies are hard-wired for the past.
Modern humans can see the damage caused by hacking. The hacker hacks, the lights go out, the hacker goes to prison. But his actions seem epiphenomenal. The hacker didn’t cut the city’s power supply with a giant wire cutter. He didn’t spill Mountain Dew over a control panel in the local power station. He did it in a dark bedroom. By typing. Typing. Such an abstract crime! For many of us, there is still the feeling that his actions aren’t in the real world. Our technology is in the future, a William Gibson novel, but our minds lag behind, still out in the savannas hunting antelope.
Nikitina writes that “for the most part, the thefts and hacks of tricksters and computer wizards are not deliberately destructive”. This is an important point. Our planet has pretty much been completely explored (with a handful of exceptions). We do not yet have the capability to visit other worlds. So what else is there to do except explore cyberspace? When the great mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he replied “Because it’s there”. That most hacking is non-destructive (in intent if not in outcome) hints at the idea that hackers are 21st century techno-conquistadors, experts living on the fringes, taking great risks to explore the unknown.
All that said, we shouldn’t overstate the romantic artistry of the hacker. That does a great disservice to the engineers and programmers and coders – the architects – who’ve built and continue to build the beautiful world hackers perform their tricks in.
Nikitina, Svetlana. “Hackers as tricksters of the digital age: creativity in hacker culture.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.1 (2012): 133-152.