Defining the modern hacker

The hacker has gained a mythic status in modern tech-centric pop culture, simultaneously defining a righteous activist and a chaotic criminal. Despite the mystery shrouding the affairs of hackers and their collectives, Gabriella Coleman has dedicated her life’s research to uncovering and unravelling the real story behind hacker culture. A cultural anthropologist and professor in the Department of Communication Studies at McGill, Coleman’s work is centred on the history of hacktivism, the combinatory term for computer hackers and digital activism. At a recent talk for SUS Academia Week 2020, Coleman presented the website Hack_Curio, a unique effort to share the realities of hacking brought to life by the joint effort of contributors as is hacker custom.

Hack_Curio is, first and foremost, a virtual museum. It features a diverse collection of short videos and accompanying blurbs spanning a wide range of topics from hacktivism to piracy and trolling. 

We have to think about how we convince people of things, and text is not enough, and reason and logic is never enough,” Coleman said. “You have to add compelling stories, visual material.” 

Hack_Curio is also Coleman’s attempt at breaking down the societal stereotypes and stigmas that have defined hackers and hacker culture. Contrary to the conventional image of a hoodie-wearing ‘lone wolf’ typing away in his mother’s basement, Coleman wants viewers of Hack_Curio to understand that much of hacking and broader tech culture is extremely social and collaborative. 

“Free software projects [for example] are often quite big and quite collaborative,” Coleman said. “You’ll have up to 1,000 people [contributing to] a project.” 

Among her other goals for the project are preserving history, showcasing diversity, and experimenting with platforms.

One piece of history that Coleman highlighted was the intriguing trend of phone phreaking, a 1960s precursor to hacking that was notably practiced by Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Coleman’s video featured Josef ‘Joybubbles’ Engressia, born blind but with perfect pitch, whistling a series of notes into a phone receiver. This unconventional technique allowed the so-called phreaker to hack into the telephone system and connect to whichever number they chose, completely free of charge. Despite the technique no longer being viable today, phreaking provides insight into the creative and rule-bending attitude that is an essential part of modern hacking culture. 

In the political sphere, hacking is subject to great scrutiny. Following the revelation that Russian hackers interfered in American elections, Vladimir Putin chose to outrightly deny his country’s involvement. In a featured press conference, he declared that hackers have their own agency, akin to that of an artist who simply wakes up and decides to start a painting. Despite the partial truth of such an assertion, playing into such tropes mainly serves a political agenda which exonerates himself and his government from the affair. In reality, although many hackers and hacker collectives are independent in their political projects, many are also key assets to various powers who often use them for their own advantage with little regard for ethics.

One might wonder whether hacking has lost its edge in the modern era of the tech industry if the golden age of hacking has been given way to sell-outs and corporate culture. Coleman, for one, disagrees. 

“There’s always cycles,” Coleman said. “At the same time, you have some current in hacking that become the establishment, and other currents that are pushing against it. [Hackers] have a very strong sense of history [and] of their past.”

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