SUBCULTURE OF THE SUBCULTURES
The phenomenon that started at MIT, becoming global through personal computers and networks, has reached us in a subtle way. It is hard to recognize it as the same thing that drove American youth to spend their days and nights hacking. Few parents had any idea that their sons (and in some cases, daughters) could be influenced by a culture rooted in American universities simply by spending a few hours in front of a computer screen. The screen in question would be hooked up to a Commodore 64, for (in Sweden) it is with this machine that it all began.
The high-tech ( 1984) C64 had gone into full bloom; hundreds of thousands of youngsters in Europe, the U.S., and Australia sat hunched over their breadbox-looking machine, fascinated by its possibilities. The C64, like the Apple II and Atari 800, was built around MOS's 6502 microprocessor (which is still in use, including in Nintendo's entertainment system), and therefore many Apple and Atari owners saw the transition to C64 as a natural progression. At first, most programs (primarily games) for the C64 were quite primitive, with poor graphics and sound reminiscent of those produced by a PC internal speaker - that is, beeps and screeches. At some point, however, the market broke through a magic barrier and so many C64's were sold that it became profitable to start companies producing software solely for this computer. This had occurred with the Apple II and Atari in the U.S., but since the C64 was first real European home computer, these companies were completely new phenomena on the east side of the Atlantic. The first companies started in the UK, which was the country that had first started importing the C64, and which became the leading edge for European computer culture.
It was the games, with their (for the time) advanced graphics and sound, that would be copied and distributed through the so-called Scene. The Scene, a kind of virtual society, started in the U.S. around 1979, when Apple II and Atari games were hot stuff. The software companies were angry, and called the Sceners pirates and criminals. Pirate BBSs for personal computers (usually consisting of an Apple II and the program ASCII Express Professional ) had mushroomed and mixed their own values and electronic magazines into the underground hacker/phreaker movement. The most notorious BBS was Pirate's Harbour , which had such prominent users as the well-known crackers Mr. Xerox and Krakowicz .
Just before the C64's arrival in Sweden, and parallel with The ABC Club growing into a representative and presentable computer club, a small and tight group of Apple II enthusiasts had created an underground network. This network included Captain Kidd , Mr. Big , Mr. Sweden , TAD , TMC (The Mad Computerfreak), and others. Since there was no Swedish market for Apple II software, the group had imported games to crack and share. They even had contact with the infamous American Apple II underground and its BBSs. Most of the group's members advanced to a C64, and it was through them that the Swedish Scene originated. (1)
The concept of a "scene" is the same as in a theater or music stage. A scene is the location of a performance, where the purpose is to show off one's abilities, not to make money or dominate other people. Scenes (or stages) are found in almost all cultural spheres, and, fascinatingly, also in techno-cultural ones such as those of radio amateurs, model airplane hobbyists, and hackers. What separates the personal computer scene from other scenes is that it ran against commercial interests, and therefore it came to be considered a dangerous and criminal subculture.
The Scene (capital S) is thus a label for the large group of users that exchange programs (primarily games) and also so-called demos. The thinking was straightforward: why buy a game for 25 bucks if I can copy it for free from my neighbor? This practice was, of course, illegal (which most people realized); however, it was a crime comparable to copying the neighbor's records to a cassette tape, with the exception that the copy did not suffer a loss of quality and could be infinitely reproduced. A copy of a copy of a copy would be identical to the original.
The Swedish prosecuting pioneer Christer Ström (from Kristianstad) and his colleagues around the world have, to an extent, been successful in curbing the commercial mass-distribution of pirated copies. However, private distribution is still alive and well, even though it is currently somewhat hampered by the fact that modern games are usually delivered on CD-ROMs, and not very easy to copy (if they are copied, they usually have to be transferred to around 50 diskettes, which makes the practice rather unwieldy and expensive). One buys the original rather than spending hours copying it (2) (more on this subject will follow later).
Starting January 1, 1993, all reproduction and distribution of copyrighted software (even to friends) is against Swedish law, although no individual has been sentenced for giving copies of programs to his/her friends. The crime is, as previously stated, comparable to copying records or videos, or not using your turn signal when making a turn. You can relax as long as you don't mass-distribute pirated software. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that - it is a terribly politically incorrect statement.
Anyway, back to 1984. The people that removed the (often virtually nonexistent) copy protection from the games, the so-called crackers, came up with the excellent idea of displaying their name or pseudonym (handle) on the start-up screen of a cracked program. The phenomenon is, together with many other phenomena in the hacking world, related to graffiti. If we take into account that such a copy could reach tens of thousands of people (many more than would read something sprayed on a concrete wall), it is not hard to understand how the practice became so popular. Hackers with handles such as Mr. Z , TMC (The Mercenary Hacker), WASP (We Against Software Protection), Radwar , Dynamic Duo , or CCS (Computerbrains Cracking Service) figured heavily on screens everywhere. Sometimes individual hackers hid behind these pseudonyms, sometimes loosely connected groups. In the U.S., there were already firmly established and well-organized cracking groups, but in Sweden and Europe, the phenomenon was completely new. The underground hacker movement started to grow from scratch, especially in the larger cities, where there were plenty of hackers that would meet at different computer clubs and exchange knowledge and programs.
The personal computer had incredible penetration as a medium, and several hacker groups soon formed, spending all their time removing copy protections from games, and then compressing and distributing the products (known as wares or warez). Among the first groups was the American Elite Circle , which had its roots in both phreaker and hacker culture, and had already managed pirate BBSs for Apple II and Atari software. The notion of cracking and distributing games came from the USA, where it had started with an Apple II program called Locksmith . It could remove copy protections from programs using certain parameters. In the beginning, it was enough to simply change the parameters for this program to crack a piece of software, but later it became necessary to spend more work on the actual cracking, and the cracker him/herself would have to be a programmer.
The hackers cracked programs because they were pissed off at the software companies for putting in copy protection routines that prevented them from looking around inside the programs and copying them for their friends. They wanted information to be free. This was the true reason, even though many gave justifications such as "The programs are too expensive, I only copy programs I couldn't afford to buy anyway, I want to test it before I buy it", etc., which were only partially true. The fundamental belief was that information was not property, and that they did not want to be part of any software industry.
One of the first programs to be pirated, and perhaps the first ever, was Altair BASIC . It was delivered on a punch card for the computer with the same name. BASIC stands for Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, and Altair BASIC was written by none less than Bill Gates himself. Behind the reproduction was one of the members of Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley, a hacker ( Dan Sokol ) who would later be known as Nightstalker . He wrote a program that copied the punch card pattern and thus became the world's first cracker. The 19-year-old Gates was up in arms: he wrote an angry letter to the user groups in which he claimed that copying a program was theft and would ruin the industry. Most thought little Bill was an idiot; no one had ever tried to sell computer programs before, and the norm was for everyone to share everything. For the large computer systems, the software came with the machine, and nobody really cared if it was copied. With personal computers came software piracy, simply because there were software companies that wanted to profit from this new hobby. The hobbyists themselves never asked for any software companies.
Here, it is necessary to make a crucial distinction: hackers distinguish between regular distribution of a program to friends and the activities of pirates. Pirates are not friends but people who try to profit from reproducing and distributing software. Pirates are parasites that prey on personal computer users, who just want software, as well as the computer industry in general. Both hackers and members of the software industry think that pirates are scum. The software companies hate them for stealing their income, and hackers hate them because they try create a new dependency relationship that is no better than the old one. Hackers, in general, firmly believe that copying should be done on a friendly basis and for free. Only in a few exceptional cases have hackers cooperated with pirates to get original games (nowadays known under the more cryptic term "licenses") for cracking purposes. Sweden's greatest pirate of all time, Jerker (fictitious name), was a retired father of two, in his forties, and hated by the industry as well as the hackers (with the possible exception of the Xakk group, which depended on him for their originals). Rumor has it that he's not given up piracy, and still makes his living selling illegal copies. Jerker says that he is not really interested in computers, and it seems to be true. Personally, I think that he has a considerably greater interest in money.
The Scene in 1986: as hackers developed their programming expertise, the introductory screens displayed at the beginning of cracked games became more advanced and grew into several dimensions. Hackers were inspired by title screens and sequences from games, and the introductory screens went from comprising mainly vertically scrolling text to advanced graphics with animation, sound, and sophisticated technical tricks that made the show more cool. A new art form, the Intro , was born, and it was practiced solely by programmers. Although the art of demo writing had existed (in a simple form) in the time of the Apple II, the C64 and its advanced technology permitted it to bloom. Groups like Eagle Soft , Hotline , Comics Group , FAC (Federation Against Copyright), Triad , and Fairlight flooded the Scene in the last half of the 80's.
Some of these groups started their own BBS's where ideas were exchanged and programs distributed. The word elite was adopted as a term for the groups that were the most productive and had the most distribution channels (especially to the USA). The European part of the Scene had an obsession with distributing their cracked games to the United States as quickly as possible. It was probably due to a form of "sibling rivalry", since the Scene itself started with the American Apple II computers, and the most experienced hackers were from the U.S. It was important to impress "big brother" with your cracked games. In the European Scene, more ties to the USA meant higher elite status.
The demand for open communication channels led to the hackers attacking the Internet (among other things), and cooperating with European and American phreakers to open more channels to the West. The phreakers and network hackers called these newcomers from the world of personal computing Warez d00ds , since they were always bringing "wares" in the form of pirated or cracked games. They referred to themselves as traders, or, more expressly, modem traders, since they used modems to connect to different BBSs. At first it was Americans skilled in the fine art of phreaking who contacted different European cracking groups, and later the Europeans themselves started calling the U.S., hacking Internet computers, etc.
Eventually, the Europeans' inferiority complex with respect to the "big brother of the west" had the result that the European home computer hackers, in their struggle to excel, developed programming and cracking skills totally superior to their American counterparts. During 1987-88, American computer game companies began adding copy protection to software exported to Europe, but not to the games sold within the U.S. They feared the European cracking groups, and Sweden in particular was considered an unusually dangerous country. The computer gaming industry suggested that much of the pirated software that circulated through the U.S. and Europe originated in Sweden, which is actually true. Most of these games came from an imports store in Göteborg (Gothenburg), which was visited once a week by a Swedish hacker who was supposedly "reviewing" new games. Without the storekeepers' knowledge, he copied the games and distributed them to various Swedish crackers.
It didn't take long for someone to come up with the idea of separating the intros from the games, letting them stand for themselves; the intro would even be allowed to occupy all of the computer's memory. This resulted in the birth of demo programs (or demos ), which were dedicated to graphical and musical performances and extraordinary technical tricks. The first demos were collections of musical themes from various games, usually accompanied by a simple text screen. For the most part, it was the same groups that had previously done cracking and intros that migrated to demo creation, but "pure" demo groups also surfaced, such as 1001 Crew , The Judges , Scoop , and Ash & Dave . A distinct jargon and theory of beauty developed, mainly through the exchange of programs and knowledge on England's Compunet , which was an enormous conferencing system dedicated solely to personal computer fans. Compunet became the hard core of the demo groups, but most of the software exchange still took place through disk trading and BBSs. Later, and especially during 1988, the underground magazine Illegal became a sort of cultural nexus for this rapidly growing society.
Norms for telling the bad from the good evolved quickly, and the widespread expression lamer was introduced as a term for people who didn't want to program, and instead used presentation software to produce demos. Probably, the term originates in skater slang. The word lamer spread far outside hackers' circles, and soon applied to any computer-illiterate person. Many similar slang terms have been derived from the Scene, but these relationships are not expressed in the Jargon File; rather, the document serves to perpetuate the negative view of subcultural hackers (to whom it invariably refers to as warez d00ds). This view is both erroneous and prejudiced.
From an American perspective, it is understandable that the academic hackers from MIT, Berkeley, Stanford etc. considered the personal computer hackers amateurs of little value; in the U.S., virtually all teenagers with a personal computer were exclusively interested in games. American demos and intros were primitive, and nowhere near the level of sophistication of the European ones. On the whole, the American part of the Scene had a less developed culture than the European side. The American hackers were heavily influenced by the phreaker culture, and as a result usually insolent and aggressive. The feelings of contempt were mutual.
consequence of this animosity is that European hackers searching for
their identity are easily attracted by American hacker ideals, and thus
assume a slightly scornful attitude towards personal computer enthusiasts.
It is worth noting that the cultural foundation of European hackers
consisted of personal computer hobbyists, and not of phreakers, network
hackers, or small academic clubs at universities. The European hacker
identity was built around Commodore's and Atari's personal computers,
and this is where the European hacker should seek his/her roots. In
addition, there are (of course) values and traditions inherited from
the American universities. However, one thing is fairly certain: the
European personal computer hackers developed the art of computing in
a way that never occurred in the U.S. The aggregate of European teenage
hackers created a beautiful and amateur-based art form of a kind that
MIT and Stanford never witnessed.
The Art Form of the Demo
A demo is somewhat difficult to define; it really has to be experienced. Even the first hackers at MIT created (around 1961) simple demos in the form of small mathematical patterns that were displayed on a simple screen. These were called Tri-pos or Minskytron -patterns (after the professor of the same name). The demos were beautiful, but lacked practical applications.
Sine curves, scrolling text, and mobile blocks of graphics coupled with music constituted the first personal computer intros. As time has progressed, the products have come to resemble motion pictures or corporate demonstrations, known as trackmos . The name is derived from the fact that new data has to be loaded continuously from disk to keep the demo running (a disk is subdivided into tracks, hence trackmo). Since MIT, demo programmers have had a passion for weaving mathematical image patterns into their creations.
As the demos appeared, this new cultural expression began spreading from the C64 to other computer platforms. First, it migrated to the Atari ST (1984) with groups such as TCB (The Care Bears) and Omega , and later (1986) to the Commodore Amiga, where (among others) Defjam , Top Swap , Northstar and TCC/Red Sector , and later Skid Row and Paradox , became well-known. In 1988-89, demos started to appear even for the IBM PC, from (among others) the Swedish pioneers TDT (The Dream Team) and Space Pigs . (The Macintosh has, to my knowledge, never nurtured any significant demo activity, but this may change as the Mac has become more of a "personal computer"). The transfer of games, intros, and demos was completely dependent on a network of postal mail and a great number of individuals and BBS's that called cross-nationally and cross-continentally to distribute the programs. During the 80's, the demo groups couldn't afford to connect to the Internet; only a few university hackers had that opportunity, and most of the Commodore hackers were in secondary school. Most of the university hackers were of the "old-fashioned" kind, and completely ignored personal computers in favor of minicomputers (which were the coolest things around in their opinion).
programs are often copied through several generations (copies distributed
and then copied and distributed.... etc.), they offer an exceptional
opportunity for the distribution of names and addresses to help expand
the trading market. Fairly quickly, the early hacking groups recruited
members whose only purpose was to copy and trade demos with others of
similar mind, primarily in order to spread their own group's creations.
These members were known as swappers
, and a diligent swapper
could have around a hundred contacts. Since it wasn't very economical
to send dozens of letters a month, many (to the chagrin of the postal
service) started spraying liquid Band-Aid on the postage stamps so that
they would "last longer".
Pure swappers soon discovered that it was possible to trade merchandise other than disks, and two new subcultures emerged: film-swappers and tape-swappers. The former engaged in the exchange of videos of all types, although primarily movies that were banned by some government, or that were exciting for some other reason. The tape-swappers exchanged music cassettes.
Disk swaps among hackers have been extremely important as a contact surface for these subcultures. The word disk-swapper is never used in writing by the hackers, since the word (in its pure form) simply indicates the exchange of disks. Film-swappers in particular are connected to the hacker culture, since the breakthrough of the VCR coincided with the personal computer boom in the mid-80's. Frequently, a swapper trades disks, cassettes, video tapes, or any other media that can be duplicated. The difference between a swapper and a regular pen-pal is that the content of the swap (the disk, cassette, or whatever) is more important than anything else. If you don't feel like writing a letter, you just send a disk labeled with your own name so that the recipient will know who sent it. Disk swapping is, however, a phenomenon associated with the European personal computer hackers of the 80's. For the IBM PC of the 90's, this procedure is relatively uncommon - the standard nowadays is to get the programs you want from a BBS or even the Internet. Swapping has given way to trading, that is, the exchange of information has gone from disks to modems.
In the beginning, hacker groups consisted of just programmers and swappers, or individuals that were a combination of the two. The most successful groups of this kind have always been those who enjoyed geographic proximity, enabling their members to exchange ideas and knowledge without expensive and troublesome telephone connections. After some time, a need for more specialized hackers arose, and categories like musicians, graphics experts, the previously mentioned crackers, and coders emerged. The difference between a cracker and a coder was that the former specialized in removing copy protection (i.e. modifying existing programs), while the latter was concerned with pure programming (or coding).
To destroy copy protection routines is not illegal in itself (actually, you pretty much have the right to do whatever you want to with a product that you have purchased). On the other hand, widespread distribution of the "cracked" program, which the swappers frequently engaged in, is highly illegal (although I should point out that many of the swappers only traded demos, and stayed away from distributing copyrighted software). However, we again run into the similar act of copying music CD's, which is just as illegal. No law enforcement agency in its right mind would ever get the urge to strike against a hobby hacker who copied software for his or her friends, as long as it wasn't not done in a commercial capacity. The crackers and traders did not know this, which made the practice more exciting and "forbidden" (remember that the average hacker was in his or her teens, and that it is very important to rebel against society at that age).
In the U.S., there was another category of hackers called fixers. The fixers modified the code generating the signals for European PAL television systems to fit the American NTSC standard. (These hackers did not exist among the PC hackers, because all PC's have their own video systems intended for monitors rather than TVs). Some hackers also had suppliers, who acquired the original programs that the crackers stripped of copy protection routines. It was not unusual for these suppliers to work in software retail stores or even at software companies.
For social reasons, so-called copy-parties were held, as early as 1984, at which many hackers from different groups got together (in some city) to interact and trade knowledge and experiences. Possibly, the hackers drew inspiration from The Whole Earth Catalog's first hacker conference in that year. The event is reminiscent of role-playing conventions in that it is a rather narrow group of interested parties that gather, but it is different in that the mood is rather tumultuous and unrestrained, more like a big party than a regular convention. The term copy-party stems from the fact that a great deal of copying took place at these parties, both legal and illegal. Nowadays, salience has been reduced by calling the events demo-parties or simply parties. A famous series of recurring copy- parties were held during the 80's in the small Dutch town of Venlo. The Party (capital P) is probably Europe's (or even the world's) largest and most frequented copy party. Since 1991, it is held annually during December 27-30 in Herning Messecenter, Denmark, and attracted close to 2000 people in 1994.
Not even hackers always get along: confrontations between groups or individuals often escalated into "gang wars", mostly involving psychological warfare. The objective was to ostracize a person or group by refusing to exchange disks, and encouraging friends to join in the boycott. In this manner, an individual or a group could be "excommunicated" from the community. To reach this goal, lengthy text files containing pointed truths or pure lies were distributed, whereupon the accused retaliated using the same technique. The wars basically never produced any tangible outcomes, and copy-party melees were extremely rare. Conducting psychological warfare against other hackers should be regarded as rather harmless, even though the participants were often fervently committed to the battle. It should be assumed that these schisms taught teenage hackers a great deal about the true nature of war: it rages for a while, then dissipates, only to flare up elsewhere. Some leave the Scene (or die in a real war), but most remain, and some day another disagreement occurs.
I would like to take the opportunity to mention that among the phreakers, these wars ended much more quickly: you simply reported your enemy to the police. This was the only way to practically interfere with a phreaker's life. Among both the phreakers and hackers, however, friendship dominated over strife. Through the occasional wars between hacker groups, yet another aspect of human behavior was transferred to cyberspace. Abstractions of war as an advanced chess game in the form of confrontations on the Scene as well as in many different role-playing games, or tangibly as in the movie War Games, have given many hackers a cynical view of human nature.
Those who are (and were) active on the Scene participate because they have a relationship with the computer that is different from that of any previous generation. Where one person only sees a box, a machine with a screen and keyboard, the hobby hacker sees an entire world, filled with its own secrets and social mores. It is these hidden secrets that spellbind and beckon the hacker, and makes him or her forget everything else. The search for more knowledge accelerates toward a critical mass, a sustained level of intensive productivity. This is the state in which a hacker produces a demo in two weeks or cracks one game per day. All social interaction outside the realm of the computer and its users becomes insignificant.
Eventually, most reach a limit at which they grow weary of the Scene and the eternal quest for something newer, bigger, and better. They simply quit. One hacker that I know well once told me: "The only real way to quit is dragging the computer to a swamp and dumping it". This serves to illustrate the weariness following exaggerated participation on the Scene. Others keep their hacking to moderate levels, and lead normal lives apart from their hobby. These moderates tend to stay on the Scene the longest (personally I've been on the Scene since 1986 and I remain there today, albeit as a somewhat sporadically active member).
The Scene reveals a great deal about the true nature of hacking culture; it is a roof under which to gather. Hacking is about the exploration of computers, computer systems, and networks, but also an inquiry into the workings of society, and the creation of new and personal things through experimenting with subcultures. That is why hackers break into systems to which they are not authorized, spray fixative on postage stamps, and blatantly disregard any form of copyright. They want to explore and see how things work. Perhaps subconsciously, they want to prepare for the future. The hacker culture emphasizes exploration, not cold-blooded theft, and hackers are not egocentric criminals that only seek destruction (3).
The actual motivation for real hackers is simply exploration, while someone who hacks with theft or sabotage as a motive is a computer criminal and not a hacker. Jörgen Nissens has written a fascinating thesis called Pojkarna Vid Datorn (The Boys at the Computer), which makes it clear how special the hacker culture surrounding personal computing really is. He has interviewed some of the hackers in the groups Fairlight and TCB, and points out how strange it is to hear members speaking of market shares of the Scene, and how the groups are run under something similar to corporate principles, even though they lack a profit motive. He also emphasizes that hackers behave more like bored consumers than criminals or classical youth gangs; they are members of what Douglas Coupland refers to as Generation X.
The personal computer groups are typical of Generation X. They abhor politically correct messages, they run everything like a business, and they are sick of the enormous market. Instead of consuming, they started producing. Instead of manipulating money to achieve status and enjoy the admiration of others, they have created a market where they trade creativity for admiration without any material layers in between. No CD's, promotion tours, or marketing schemes are necessary. There is only a need for pure information products in the form of demos and cracked games, which are traded for pure information in the form of respect and admiration.
The only subcultural hackers to receive any great media attention were those who crossed the line to network hacking or phreaking and got busted. In 1989, parts of the circle surrounding the demo group Agile were arrested after one of their members, Erik XIV (fictitious name), went to the media and exposed how vulnerable credit card transactions really were. At the same time, another of their members, Erlang (also a fictitious name), ordered video editing equipment for a quarter of a million crowns (about $35,000) to his own home address using fake credit card numbers. Driven by their slightly elitist attitude from the demo culture, they wanted to be alone in their mastery of credit card technology, and tested the limits of what was possible using artificial codes.
When the police arrested Erlang after he had ordered the editing equipment, he started telling them everything with an almost pathological obsession with detail. Phreakers and hackers often do this; it seems as if they believe the police will be impressed by their feats. The people involved in the Agile case were all given suspended sentences, high fines, and probation. All of them, save Erlang, now work in the computer industry (surprise?).
The first hackers at MIT always made use of all the technological resources they could lay their hands on. It wasn't always the case that the "authorities", the professors and custodians responsible for the equipment, approved of this behavior. Most teachers thought that instruction in computer science should be of the classical authoritarian kind, where the professor stood at the lectern and lectured. If the students were to have access to the computers it should be through explicit assignments to be turned in for grading, not through the learning by doing that the hackers practiced. They loved the computers, and couldn't for the life of them imagine why they would be kept away from the machines. They sneaked in at night and used the machines unbeknownst to the instructors.
After several personal confrontations with computer professors, and especially after having worked as a computer instructor myself, I have realized that this classical emphasis on utility is all too common among Swedish computer teachers. It is simply not possible to get people to think that "computers are fun" if you at the same time force them to adhere to rules for what they are allowed and not allowed to do with the computer. Many computer instructors throw a fit when they discover that the students have installed their own programs on the computers, or have programmed something that wasn't the subject of an assignment. Common reasons for this behavior are a paranoid fear of viruses, the view that computer games are just a waste of time, and so on. One teacher at my old gymnasium (secondary school), which we will call X, installed a program on his computers which triggered a screeching alarm as soon as someone tried to change any of the machines' configurations (the machine configuration, in this case, is a couple of files with information that allows the computer to use different accessories). Of course, an exploring hacker will feel like changing the configurations, and the school's own binary geniuses naturally ignored the large posters all over the computer room proclaiming that this activity was absolutely prohibited. Central to this story is the fact that the teacher was a foreign language instructor, who could not under any circumstances accept that "his" computers would be used for anything else than language programs, word processing, or other authorized activities. Some students that triggered the alarm were banned from the linguistics computer lab, while the more skillful students (who knew how to change the configuration without setting off the alarm) were still permitted in the computer room, despite having changed the configuration many times.
These students, who possessed some of the true hacker mentality that says that you shouldn't accept a monopoly on knowledge or computing power, wrote an amusing little program. Besides completely circumventing X's little security system, the program also randomly displayed a requester, a small text window which said: X IS A MORON. Below this text was an "OK"-button that had to be pressed in order to proceed. The program was a classical hack: it wasn't very useful, but it didn't do any real harm, and it was funny. The first hackers at MIT would surely have appreciated this prank (personally, I find it exquisite!). It was completely impossible for the teacher in question to find and remove the program. In the end, he had to format all the hard drives on the computers and reinstall all the software from scratch. To face the music and ask the hacking students to remove the program, or even apologize to them, never occurred to him. Doing this would not only mean recognizing the students' right to use the computers, it would also mean confessing the truth - that some of the students were more adept in computer science than himself.
The fact is: the parents of these students had paid taxes to enable their children to use computers at school. The students, like hackers in general, were therefore of the opinion that the natural thing would be to let them use the computers to do whatever they wanted, and as much as they wanted (outside regular class hours, of course). This obvious right has been known since the time of the MIT hackers as the hands-on imperative.
Computer instructors frequently do not understand hackers. They think that if the hackers have to mess around with the computers all the time, why can't they do something useful and authorized, such as figuring out a repayment plan, or writing a summary of African history, or something along those lines? The predominant attitude seems to be that the students should only use the machines, not explore them, and definitely not hack them. The machine should only be a tool, and the user should preferably know as little as possible about the processes that take place behind the screen. The hacker is the one who, in spite of these authoritarian attitudes, actually wants to know.
Hackers don't want to do "useful" things. They want to do fun things, like exploring the computer's operating system, installing their own programs, and trying out different technological features. This is what makes it fun to use a computer. I have tried to mention this to several computer instructors of my acquaintance, but alas, mostly with no results. I personally believe that this kind of exploration is beneficial, and wouldn't for the life of me want to prohibit students from engaging in it. It is the foundation for the enthusiasm that makes some people think that "computers are so much fun". If a student, after all, manages to screw up the computer, I consider it my responsibility as a teacher to restore the machine to full functionality again. If I can't do this, I'm incompetent. If I don't have time to do this, the school is short-staffed. I have never had any significant problems with my own students; in fact, I have invariably had positive experiences with them. The fact is that I encourage my students to explore the operating system even if it is not the subject matter of the course. If the computers I'm responsible for are infected by viruses or crash, then it is my problem rather than the students'.
At MIT in 1960, the possibilities that opened up when students were allowed to freely access the equipment were quickly discovered. Professor Marvin Minsky would walk into the computer room, put down some electronic device and then let the students try to develop a control program for it on their own. This was not instruction - it was high-level research, and it was the students, the hackers, that conducted it. If it hadn't been for this attitude towards learning, computers would never have become what they are today. After MIT became the first computer school in the world to allow the students unlimited access to the computers, this new pedagogy spread to all universities that were engaged in computer research, including the Swedish ones. No self-respecting university today bans their students from the computer rooms. They often have their own keys or keycards, and can come and go as they please. The Swedish primary and secondary schools have a lot to learn from the universities in this respect.
The fact is that the network hackers' mayhem in the university computers divide the computer staff into two camps: those who fly off the handle when they discover that someone has hacked their computer, and those who find it interesting and exciting if someone hacks their computer. The latter group, however, is not nearly as vocal as the first, which has led to the popular view that all computer professors or information officers hate hackers. This is far from the truth. The hacker is engaged in exploration. Not just of single computers, but also of computer systems, computer networks, the telephone network, or anything electronic. They condemn and/or ignore the authority that wants to prevent them from exploring. They are not motivated by theft. Period.
What keeps hackers going from a psychological perspective is a sensitive subject. MIT's hackers could stay up and work a 30-hour shift, then crash for about 12 hours, only to get up and complete another 30-hour shift. Sometimes, hackers neglect everything but the computer, including nutrition, hygiene, and normal social interaction. We see this as unhealthy, although we may accept it among persons working on corporate boards, committees, or other professions with a high degree of responsibility. It should be made clear that virtually every hacker goes through such a period of intense concentration at some point in his/her career, and it would be hasty to condemn such behavior in general.
In some cases, the computer is actually a means of escape from an intolerable existence. A youth in the ages of 14 to 19 is subject to many harsh demands from his or her environment. It is demanded that they should be able to handle school, socialize with their friends, and (implicitly) connect with the opposite sex. At the same time, one should not forget that hacking is often conducted in a group environment, and it is based on a friendship that goes far beyond the limited area of computing (For the uninitiated: friendship is the phenomenon that makes someone get the idea of lending a room to someone else for a few days, copy a computer program, share knowledge, etc., without demanding payment).
The computer offers a convenient escape from the demands of growing up. In earlier stages of history, many men (and some women) have distanced themselves from difficult emotions by whole-heartedly dedicating themselves to some science, and becoming so totally wrapped up in their research that they "forget" their troublesome social "duties" such as friends, marriage, and all that the entail. Computing, in our time, is a largely unexplored territory. Everyone with access to a computer is instantly drawn into a world in which much is strange and unknown, but which at the same time possesses an underlying logic. A computer begs to be explored. In this way, the computer can almost become a drug that replaces a more "natural" urge to explore social behavior patterns. The excursions into the computer do not become a substitute for sexual relations; it becomes something that you occupy yourself with so you don't have to think about sexual relations. This is why so many so-called "nerds" spend most of their time with computers. Society has given them a thankless role from the beginning, and instead of playing along with it, they escape it.
Many hackers are fully aware of this escape. At the same time, they see the hard life, ruled by the laws of the jungle, lurking outside cyberspace, and they finally make a conscious decision to either change everything or stay where they are. Some old hackers have, through the years, developed an incredible cynicism because of this. They condemn the real world and are committed to creating a world in which they can rule for themselves, inside the computers. They observe technological advances in virtual reality and artificial intelligence with excitement, and tell themselves that one day ...
If they could go into the computer forever, they would. They already hate the "real" world in which they have to feel restrained by their physical or social disabilities, and where their fate as losers has already been determined. The human sexual identity consists of a social as well as physical side, and if you lack one or the other, you're destined to be a loser. It happens that hackers become aware of this, and instead say: "We don't want to be part of it", and then retreat to cyberspace. There is nothing we can do about this, except possibly tone down our social attitudes towards those who are different, if even that would help. Maybe it is undesirable to have hackers adjust to a "normal" life. Maybe we want them where they are, where they feed their brains with so many practical problems that they don't have to think about social dilemmas, so that we can keep track of them and keep them under control. They are contained in a subculture where the weird is normal. Their condition can, at worst, develop into mild or severe escapism, i. e. escaping from reality. This condition is usually called computer sickness.
In addition, we can observe that illegal hackers possess a somewhat different pattern of behavior compared to the subcultural hackers, depending on which way they have entered the culture. Some phreakers come from an environment consisting of party lines, amateur societies, etc. They are driven by a desire to communicate, rather than exploration through the formation of groups and internal competition. They are often considerably more arrogant and practice phreaking simply because they are bored, and have nothing better to do (it's the same motivational factor as for people who dial various party lines on 900-numbers). They don't take hacking to be a deadly serious business, and often make fun of hackers, since deep down they think the hackers are complete geeks.
Hackers, who would rather spend time with computers than with telephones, generally identify with their group and possess more group loyalty. A pure phreaker, of the kind I just discussed, would have no problem at all turning his/her friends in to the police if he/she got busted, while a real hacker would never turn in even his/her enemies.
Network hackers, as well as phreakers, virus hackers, and some crackers, suffer from a hopelessly negative self-image. They see themselves as mean, cruel, and dominant badasses. They have assumed a role in which they identify themselves with a desire for destruction, hate of society, anarchism and general mischief, mainly to feel a sense of belonging. For most, this is only a temporary stage. If they have assumed yippie ideals, however, it is not temporary.
The most dangerous hackers (from the perspective of society at large) are invariably bitter. They consider themselves misunderstood and misjudged by the educational system. They think that the schools have been unsuccessful in harnessing their intelligence and talent, and consider themselves to have a right to exact revenge on a society that shut them out of a world of knowledge, simply because they didn't act the right way, and lacked the proper social code. They have been forced into vocational schools by a grading system that has been unable to distinguish them among those who are truly suited towards higher education.
What makes matters worse is that they are right. With the hate of a society that couldn't or wouldn't appreciate their qualities, they return with computers and electronic equipment to saw through the pillars of the same society's entire socioeconomic system, often with a nearly psychopathic lust for destruction.
Carceres Ex Novum
"There was an alternative to normal life. I was sick of the normal, sick of always being last. I found friends that I never had to meet face-to-face, and so my teenage years passed, and I became an interesting person. When I started at university the gigantic Internet came to my room, and the world was beamed to me. I had millions of people close by, without ever having to look them in the face. I sat there all the time, only pausing to eat and go to class. I didn't meet anyone, no one knew me. And I was comfortable. Thanks to the attention of the anonymous people on the other side of the screen, I did not feel lonely. But time ran out, and the real world crept closer. Of course, I knew I could run away forever, but I would never be able to hide from them, the ones whose values transformed me into a lonely, asocial rat, who spent all of his time with the computer. And I hated them."
Certainly some of the activities engaged in by hackers are illegal, and certainly this is wrong from the viewpoint of society. Nevertheless, it would be to severely underestimate hackers to say that they commit these acts in a routine fashion, for "lack of something better to do", or for their own profit. There has been too much judgment and too little understanding in the hacker debate.
But now for something completely different.