Hacking can be viewed as an art of creatively exploring technology to get a deeper perception of how it works, its strengths, and weaknesses. Hacker culture is a subculture that evolved with the advent of computing. Early hackers were computer and technology enthusiasts who collaborated or competed with each other to explore computer hardware and software. These tech gizmos formed a subculture that embraced the ideals of resistance and constant challenging of established systems and authorities. However, in the recent past, media representation of hackers and politics has changed the image of the hacker to a mere cybercriminal who inspires fear among netizens. This paper explores the origins and evolution of hacker culture, conventions, jargon, hacker norms, and subcultures.
Keywords: Hacker culture, subculture, conventions, jargon, cybercrime, norms, open-source, free software.
The invention of tools by early humans separated humans from the rest of the animals and enabled humans to survive innovatively. Hacking developed as a way of curious individuals trying to understand how things worked. Hacker behaviors were bound to occur with the advance and complexity of technology. Steinmetz (2016) affirms that hacker behaviors are aligned with creative involvement with any sort of technology. Even before any formal definitions of hacking were coined, people were already trying to find and exploit flaws in other individuals’ inventions. For instance, in 1903, Marconi Guglielmo tried to send a confidential message through the broadcast radio system; Nevil Maskelyn interfered with the initial broadcast and mocked the inventor to expose the flaws of the system (Steinmetz, 2016). Hacking has become synonymous with cybercrime, a myopic view of the hacker culture that media and politics have extensively promoted. Hacker culture has evolved over the years. The initial hackers gave rise to a second generation of hackers that did not have to invent technology but were individuals who were technologically literate and thrived in the new era of the Internet. Hollywood movies like WarGames and Hacker promoted the formation of a hacker subculture. So how did the hacker culture begin, and how has it evolved over the years?
History of hacking culture
It is believed that hacking originated around the 1950s and 1960s at MIT and was simulated by intricate railroad models driven by sophisticated electronic systems. The story goes that the curiosity sparked by these train models inclined these engineers to the most sophisticated technology at the time, which was computers (Steinmetz, 2016). The term hack was initially used to refer to pranks by MIT students but has evolved to encompass a broad meaning. Some definitions include complicated solutions, messy and quick fixes, and technological exploitation, among others. From the onset of hacking, a conflict arose between the hackers and authorities who sought to secure systems from these computer deviants to be used for more productive uses. Early computers were expensive to acquire and costly to maintain. They were mainly found in institutions like universities. These institutions provided a conducive environment for hacker culture to commence.
Computer hardware became less costly and easier to access as technology improved, leading to the hardware hacking subculture. From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, a hands-on computer hardware approach developed through groups and clubs like the Homebrew Computer Club. These hardware hackers contributed significantly to the development of the personal computer. The desire for ready-made software packages increased to complement these early personal computers. Hackers increasingly come to loggerheads with those who distributed software as intellectual property as hackers were more willing to share code whose nature made it easy to copy and replicate. An early record of this sort of conflict involved the copying and sharing of Altair 8800’s BASIC interpreter code by members of the HBCC, which was condemned and termed as piracy by Bill Gates. Members of the hacker subculture, however, viewed it as information sharing. The 80s saw a boom in the software industry and increased demand for entertainment software, leading to the boom of video games. Demand and competition led to creative and innovative solutions to stretch the computational capabilities of the limited hardware. The period also led to the rise of free and open-source software by hackers to prevent businesses’ monopolies of computer software.
The emergence of Linux in the early 1990s offered hackers a stable and flexible alternative Operating system. Up to this point, hacker culture thrived around computers. In the 80s, bulletin board systems (BBS) promoted hacker culture by offering a platform where hackers could trade information, further cultivating hacker culture. Hackers could anonymously share software through this platform and exploit solutions and news independent of official institutions (Steinmetz, 2016). In the 1990s, the Internet replaced BBSs and broadened the ability of hackers to communicate and collaborate over a range of communication platforms. Concerns over the security of electronic transmission led to cryptography and security hacking to encrypt data and circumvent state and federal regulations.
In the early days, hackers who comprised software engineers, electrical engineers, and professionals at the leading tech companies formed clubs that met in their free time to share and discuss their discoveries and existing technologies. A good example is the HBCC. BBBs allowed digital conventions where hackers would communicate. Physical meetings and conferences were also arranged over BBS, like DEF CON which, up to date, has become one of the most remarkable hacker conferences (Steinmetz, 2016). Contrary to public opinion that hackers are antisocial individuals who work independently, hacker culture thrives through social interactions like hacker meetings and face-to-face conventions. Conventions are central to moral solidarity and social enchantment (Coleman, 2010). Major hacker conventions include HoHoCon, SummerCon, Hackers on Planet Earth, and Chaos Communication Congress (Cecil, 2007).
Different subcultures use jargon to communicate with their peers, show off and express hacker values. It is a unique vocabulary that separates hackers in the hacker community (Rouse, 2016). Those who do not understand the slang are considered outsiders, while for those who understand, it serves as a way of communication and fun. Black hat hackers may use different jargon than social security hackers.
Hacker subculture practices vary from one hacker subdivision to another but are driven by knowledge, technology, law categorization, and commitment (Holt, 2005). These normative orders are interrelated and complement each other. Subcultural norms are passed through social interactions. A standard norm among hackers is mastery, as hackers tirelessly work around cutting-edge security and master how systems function and exploit any weaknesses.
As hacker culture evolved and cultural politics emerged, Free software and open-source factions emerged. The free software faction radically believed that all code should be free as it amounts to speech. On the other hand, open-source subculture-supported software should be freely accessible but can also be amortized. Another subdivision in hacker culture is social engineering which cannot be separated from hacker culture. Phone Phreakers became famous for social engineering and other technologies like blue boxes, which allowed individuals to exploit phone systems.
In conclusion, hacking behaviors developed with the invention of technology. Hacking in the contemporary context developed in the 1950s and centered around computers. Hacker culture evolved around computers and later software as computers became more accessible and less costly. Hackers use digital and social interactions to share information and promote subculture norms and jargon. Some hacker subdivisions include free software, open source, and securing hacking.
Cecil, A. (2007). A summary of hacking organizations, conferences, publications, and effects on society. https://www.cse.wustl.edu/~jain/cse571-07/ftp/hacking_orgs.pdf
Coleman, G. (2010, December). The hacker conference: A ritual condensation and celebration of a lifeworld. Anthropological Quarterly. Vol 83(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/anq.0.0112
Holt, T. (2005). Hack, cracks, and crime: An examination of the subculture and social organization of computer hackers. University of Missouri- St. Louis. https://dl.acm.org/doi/book/10.5555/1145210#:~:text=The%20findings%20suggest%20the%20social,commitment%2C%20categorization%2C%20and%20law.
Steinmetz, K. (2016). Hacked: Radical approach to hacker culture and crime. NYU Press. https://books.google.co.ke/books?hl=en&lr=&id=xdQ3DQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=hacker+culture+and+crime&ots=Mgt6lUa90L&sig=WS3u_ggJOP3QUCAaAkSyzQq0wO4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=hacker%20culture%20and%20crime&f=false
Rouse, M. (2016, December). Hacker Jargon. Techopedia. https://www.techopedia.com/definition/23514/hacker-jargon