Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Dickensian Flow of Hacker Life

In the opening chapters of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, E. Gabriella Coleman’s depiction of hackers evoke images of David Lightman, the computer-savvy teenager (Matthew Broderick circa 1983 in the movie, “WarGames”) whose decision to play with a military supercomputer nearly causes global mayhem. Using Coleman’s archival ethnography as reference, the fictional Lightman has the basic attributes of a real-life hacker: Immersed in technology’s geek culture. Independent. Smart. Rule breaker. Inquisitive. Creative.

In the seminal days of hacking, Lightman’s real-life cohorts were all about the free-wheeling, collaborative technological frontier. The male-dominated world of open-source coders captured passionate devotees who were as tenacious about software freedom as they were about achieving “deep hack mode,” (Coleman, 2013, p. 13). In Dickensian paraphrasing of hacker life, it was the best of times; the season of life; the spring of hope (Coleman, p. 61).

But Coleman examines the open-source conflicts comes with the rise of the Internet that ushered in the colossal software industry and reconfiguration of intellectual property laws. Suddenly the geeky teenage hacker dodging his exasperated parents and clueless military types morphs into Stanley Jobson, a convicted felon, master hacker (Hugh Jackman circa 2001 in the movie, “Swordfish”) trying to outmaneuver suspicious federal agents and his shadowy partners in crime.

Jobson, a financially strapped divorced father, ignores his parole stipulations (don’t touch any computers) for a potential $10-million payday. While creating the computer worm to siphon billions from a secret government slush fund, Jobson depicts the ultimate craft of hacking, or “flow,” as he stands in front of a bank of monitors and gets his groove on (Coleman, p. 11). Yet Jobson’s “deep hack mode” is short-lived because one of the movie’s underlying points: computer cracking carries a deadly price tag. Or, in Dickensian lingo: It was the worst of times; it was the season of darkness; the winter of despair (Coleman, p. 61).

In Coleman’s Chapter 2: “A Tale of Two Legal Regimes,” the author examines the technology-and-legal collision that transforms hacking from Lightman’s unwitting delinquent antics to Jobson’s purposeful criminal intent. Similar to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the (digital) revolution was just the battleground for the ideological war. The impact of the conflicts between open source and intellectual property laws altered hacking culture, turning collaborative-minded coders (Lightman) into software freedom fighters (Jobson), or as Coleman put it: “the cultivation, among hackers, of a well-developed legal consciousness” (p. 21).

“Many free software developers do not consider intellectual property instruments as the pivotal stimulus for a marketplace of ideas and knowledge. Instead, they see them as a form of restriction so fundamental (or poorly executed) that they need to be counteracted through alternative legal agreements that treat knowledge, inventions, and other creative expressions not as property but rather as speech to be freely shared, circulated and modified,” (Coleman, p. 10).

With hackers insisting that coding is free speech and open source must be left alone, and global technology companies leveraging their power for restrictive intellectual property laws via copyright and patents, the wrangling was ripe for a compromise: Enter Creative Commons, “a media-savvy and well-respected nonprofit that now provides a collection of alternative copyright licenses” (Coleman, p. 83).

In reading about Creative Commons, and before that the evolution of Linux OS, it is apparent that some hackers are willing to seek détente to resolve the ongoing freedom-or-fight situation, so not all of them are deemed legal outlaws, even though Hollywood as made that depiction fairly enticing, just look at Jackman’s Jobson for ultimate in sexy hacker swagger.

However, in the evolution of the Dickensian hacker, a different kind of image emerges: The Black Queen. This was the underground handle of Penelope Garcia, an uber-hacker turned federal technical analyst (Kirsten Vangsness in the TV show, “Criminal Minds”). The fictional CalTech dropout works for the serial-killer hunters of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. She has all the attributes of Lightman as well as Jobson, but she’s a hacker with something extra.

While the TV show landscape is littered with reformed hackers working for their once-time government adversaries, Garcia has something more (besides the fact that she’s the quintessential girlie-girl female with an ultra-flamboyant taste in attire). Sure, she routinely tells her agency colleagues that she adheres to the hacker code. Of course, she uses the ultimate in hacker gear: Linux OS for her digital sleuthing, but what sets Garcia apart is her unrelenting optimistic disposition, even as she breaks into computer servers in the public good. That’s a good thing, right?

The Videos

WarGames Official Trailer:

Swordfish Offical Trailer:

Criminal Minds | Penelope Garcia:


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