The Anthropology of Hackers
by Gabriella Coleman
A "hacker" is a technologist with a love for computing and a "hack" is a clever technical solution arrived through a non-obvious means. It doesn't mean to compromise the Pentagon, change your grades, or take down the global financial system, although it can, but that is a very narrow reality of the term. Hackers tend to value a set of liberal principles: freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers; some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies (and much, even most of hacking, by the definition I set above, is actually legal). But once one confronts hacking empirically, some similarities melt into a sea of differences; some of these distinctions are subtle, while others are profound enough to warrant thinking about hacking in terms of genres or genealogies of hacking -- and we compare and contrast various of these genealogies in the class, such as free and open source software hacking and the hacker underground.
Since 2007, I have taught an undergraduate class on computer hackers at New York University where I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication. The class opens a window into the esoteric facets of hacking: its complicated ethical codes and the multifaceted experiences of pleasures and frustrations in making, breaking, and especially dwelling in technology. Hacking, however, is as much a gateway into familiar cultural and political territory. For instance, hacker commitments to freedom, meritocracy, privacy and free speech are not theirs alone, nor are they hitched solely to the contemporary moment. Indeed, hacker ethical principles hearken back to sensibilities and conundrums that precipitated out of the Enlightenment's political ferment; hackers have refashioned many political concerns -- such as a commitments to free speech -- through technological and legal artifacts, thus providing a particularly compelling angle by which to view the continued salience of liberal principles in the context of the digital present.
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