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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2 responses to “The Dickensian Flow of Hacker Life

  1. impressonion

    I like your comparison of the evolution of hacking with the Hollywood portrayals in the YouTube clips. They do seem to match some interesting changes through history going from “hacking is trendy and cool” to “hacking is dangerous” to “hacking can be a useful legal tool.” I think that is roughly what you’re getting at. But it also seems to me that these changes may have been—ironically—largely influenced by the opinions of Hollywood itself.

    If at first the movie industry finds an idea that reverberates as “cool” with the youth of the day, they will certainly run with that theme and seek to manipulate it to generate revenue. But as soon as that idea begins to cause the industry trouble and starts to put a drain—however small—on that revenue, then it’s time for Hollywood to remake the theme in a darker, more dangerous light, perhaps to attempt to change the opinion of the youth.

    So when at first hacking was an on-trend, cool thing to be a part of, the movie industry exploited that, with the first film you mentioned, WarGames. Then throughout the 90s, hacking and defiance of IP laws must have proven to be causing some financial discord, as mentioned in last week’s reading about intellectual property. We’ve all seen the “downloading is piracy” bits before a lot of films now, where they attempt to equate stealing a movie to stealing a car, and other more decisive crimes.

    Along the same lines of that propaganda, the film industry chose to show Hugh Jackman in the second movie you mentioned, Swordfish, as perhaps still somewhat sexy and alluring, but also put in more dangerous situations and criminalized for his hacking proficiency. Surely when people saw this movie they already knew, or were made aware of, how hacking is a terrible crime that comes with horrifying consequences, and thus no one should pursue this obviously destructive and dangerous behavior.

    Finally in the last YouTube clip, the portrayal of a hacker-turned-fed seems like a possible new angle to persuade the minds of the public. Maybe now the TV industry is saying, “Hey, we recognize that hackers have skills. Maybe you should be a good hacker instead of a bad hacker, and then you can stay out of trouble!” like that white hat / black hat bit we discussed in class.

    The evolution you described definitely fits with Coleman’s explanations of hacker types, open-source conflicts, serious legal issues—and the “well-developed legal consciousness,” and potential compromises. I just wonder if there is more of a Hollywood plot to the development of these… Hollywood plots!

  2. I agree that Coleman portrays hackers in a different, someone “knightly” light compared to the traditional negative connotation, previous harsh criticism, and fear of them instilled in our popular culture. For many years, the image of the hacker in the public opinion was that of an “evil loner” who sabotages hardware, steals personal information and assists in committing credit card fraud, infects innocent consumers and large companies with malicious computer viruses etc.
    Harsh verdicts at the hacker lawsuits covered by the media made an example of punishment for the “horrendous” crimes of breaking into someone else’s property…that property often being information. As we all know, whoever controls information has the true power. Of course, it was in the interest of large businesses making billions on software sales to have intellectual property law on its side and promote such negative reputation for the hackers.
    Naturally, the governments and politicians around the world who also harbor many dark secrets are not interested in hackers and whistle blowers. The facts that are often not revealed to the votes such as corruption, immoral decisions, personal gain at the expense of the taxpayer’s money, shady deals, unjustified wars and invasions held for completely different reasons than those presented to the public via mass media must remain classified information. It is not in the best interest of the government or large corporations and banks to become transparent, get audited by citizens or to have classified information exposed. Hackers and whistleblowers like Julian Assange did just that by exposing major European banks, Pentagon and US government and is currently wanted in many countries as a criminal.
    Coleman portrays hackers as poets, philosophers, thinkers and freedom fighters. According to the author, hackers are those who ponder the meaning of individual liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of information on the Internet that translates for them into free and open source software. According to E. Gabriella Coleman, “today’s hackers are entangled in as well as voice this dilemma over personhood, the meaning of freedom, markets, and property, asserting that not every object of knowledge falls under a neoliberal property regime”.

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