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Chapter 46 ~ “Hacking Away at the Counterculture” by Andrew Ross September 21, 2009

Posted by Shon in 5369, Carter, Philosophy of Technology, TCR.
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Chapter 46 ~ “Hacking Away at the Counterculture” by Andrew Ross (1991)

Ross starts his piece by discussing the paranoia that surrounds hacking and how computer virus – through media – were compared to medical viruses, such as AIDS. As I read these initial pages, I can’t help but to say “Wow” or “Obnoxious.” I know a good metaphor goes a long way to connecting people to an issue, and I know with the newness of anything we can’t explain away into a neat little box comes fear, but something about this connection feels wrong to me.

Ross does take the time to make note the differences between viruses and worms and that although worms seems to have a life of their own, they are not the creator – the human who develops the virus, the worm – is the mastermind. We cannot place intention on the virus/worm itself but on the creator of it.

Because of this virus scare, two effects have occurred:

1- Many have made money from the virus scare, both hackers and software developers alike.
2- There has been a “closing of the ranks” in regards to information

In reading Ross’ telling of prosecution against hackers, I couldn’t help but think, “Extreme?” Why did the hackers deserve extraordinary sentences and punitive damages? If we can liken hacking to the breaking in of one’s home, why would hacking get a harsher sentence? Is it because it disturbs the verb fabric of our existence? Identity theft jumps to mind. Many call this a very personal, painful crime in that once someone takes our information – takes the numbers and words that define us – we are left with nothing. Do we see hacking in the same light? Or are the ones creating laws a part of the group who fears being hacked?

On the right-hand column of page 559, Ross lists several thoughts on hacking in his talk of the “war on hackers.” I read these and think, “Seems like hacking has positive qualities,” yet these seem to be the very things that aid in “obtaining public and popular consent for new legislative measures and new powers of investigation for the FBI” (559). Or am I wrong in this thinking?

There is a move in the piece in which Ross discusses redefining hacking, redefining what a hacker is. At once, it was seen through a romantic lens as man (youth) fighting against the machine, fighting against those determined to keep information locked away. We’ve also seen it defined as harmless, in which hackers are not trying to do anything bad with what they learn; they are only wanting to learn of other “environments,” much like “fresh-air enthusiasts who ‘visits advanced computers as a polite country rambler might walk across picturesque fields'” (559).

Ross illustrates other “definitions” of hacker when he goes beyond the typical “young, white, middle-class” characteristics. For example, on page 564, he talks about the office workers (mainly female, he observes) that create “unorganized sabotage,” the more-skilled operators who are “intent on evening a score with management,” and those workers “who are dependent upon the hope of technological reskilling” and take it upon themselves to educate themselves when their companies do not.

Ultimately, Ross seems to connect with past writers we’ve read. Many past writers wrote about humans needed to be critical of technology. In order to prevent getting lost in technology, we need to understand it and understand how we connect with it. Ross offers a similar notion. In order not to get sucked up into the paranoia of hackers and viruses and worms and media’s narratives on these things, we need to become critics ourselves. Technology, like the viruses, are not autonomous; they do not have “intention”; however, what technology “is” is intrinsically connected to who and what we are as individuals and collectively as a society. Knowing ourselves and knowing technology – to include the hacker counterculture – will allow us to see the negative and also see the positive in these venues. As mentioned earlier (from that right-hand column on page 559), there are positive (at least to me) attributes about hacking that we can utilize for good.