by Steve Mizrach
The basis for this paper lies in a series of discussions observed in various electronic conferencing systems. Some of these discussions were initiated by me. But in most cases, I was a "lurker" - a passive observer of the discussions of two or more hackers. In order to explain this project, and the basis of my choices, I need to discuss some of the principal difficulties in working with my research subject. But first, I should give a few words to the vagaries of doing ethnography in cyberspace. Doubtless, other panelists will emphasize these points, but I feel the need to make them as well. There are many people who suggest cyber-ethnography is NOT anthropology.
I define cyberspace rather broadly, as a "non-space" consisting of the interactions of persons through electronically mediated communication. People talking on a bulletin board system (BBS), using the Internet Relay Chat (IRC), or visiting the fora on America Online (AOL), are all "in" cyberspace. But, so are people making a teleconference call, chatting on a CB radio, using a videophone, or exchanging Morse code. They've not "left" their "real" body or "real" lives, which are still quite there; the point is that the focus of their attention and communication has moved from "real" space to "cyber" space, and as good ethnographers we should go with them.
For one thing, they say, cyberspace is not the real space in which people live their lives; their actions in cyberspace are not real actions, formed by expectations of real consequences; and there are NO SUCH THINGS as virtual communities, despite what amateur sociologists such as Howard Rheingold might think, since people interacting in cyberspace do not have the webs of real dependencies and interchanges that those in "true" communities have. Thus, observing the discourse and 'behavior' of people in cyberspace tells us nothing about their 'real' lives, and thus this should be only a minor component of ethnography, not the basis for it.
Studying electronic discourse, these critics would suggest, is a sham because it's not a real "ethnography of speaking." Since most people have various forms of on-line editing and off-line mail-reading, their participation in electronic conferencing is too deliberated and artificial to be considered true "discourse" in the standard sense of the term. Further, electronic communication eliminates all the contextual cues (gesture, expression, kinesics, voice quality, and all the other components of "speech acts") normally thought to constitute discourse. It is true that electronic communication falls in a curious wedge between speaking (parole) (day-to-day speech improvised informally) and writing (langue) (formally composed text which more closely follows official lexical rules) - but we should recognize that space and deal with it. It may not be speaking, but it is discourse.
Indeed, as a form of discourse, it makes various moves to create modes of context in a medium (ASCII) which seems to work against context. Doubtless, everyone by now has heard of "Smilies," (emoticons) since just about every major media outlet has discussed them. Basically, most electronic conferencing is more back-and-forth dialogue, kind of like leaving notes for your roommate and then her leaving notes for you. But some forms of electronic conferencing are "realtime," and thus very akin to many of the everyday speech situations in which we find ourselves. Cyberspace allows people to conceal many of their "real life" contexts - e.g. gender, race, culture, ethnicity, and all of anthropology's other BIG variables - but as others will undoubtedly note, it does not eliminate them, and often creates norms and values of its own in their place - "netiquette."
From an emic perspective, many of our subjects do not distinguish between "real" life and "virtual" life. As good ethnographers and participant observers, we should not make such seemingly "etic" distinctions, in the face of our informants. If they spend more of their waking time in cyberspace than in "real life," who is doing the more honest ethnography? The cyber-ethnographer, or the person who ignores that part of their life to which they devote the most time? Many of them claim to be creating wholly new social institutions that exist solely in "cyberspace" - e.g. the various virtual "universities" and "town halls" and so on. As good cyber-ethnographers, we should be just as willing to examine the sociocultural relations in "cyber" society as we do "real" society. A "virtual" insult can sting as much as a "real" slap; people invest great deals of importance in "virtual" marriages, births, and deaths. Where people invest meaning, the anthropological interpreter should go; and people do invest great meaning into cyberspace.
One of the big criticisms of much of cyber-ethnography is that the Internet and other systems allow a person to participate without making their presence known. This is known as "lurking." You can read a bulletin board, or sit passively in a chat room, without making your presence known, all the while capturing what people "say" or "do" to your own computer. To some people this is espionage, not anthropology. Maybe; but what we are after is discourse. When researchers do a content analysis of Dan Rather's words on the TV news, he is not aware at that moment that he is being studied; he may find out after the fact. The group I was studying was extremely suspicious of outsiders, whom they generally take to be "narcs."
I suspect that this is the case with any marginalized and criminalized subculture. Considering that the group I was studying is probably in violation of numerous sections of the Computer Crimes Acts of the 1980s, I can understand their reluctance to talk openly to outsiders. In cyberspace, I have no way of verifying their identities or truthfulness; and likewise, they have no way of verifying mine. While the technologies of "digital signatures" and encryption may help to get around this problem, they were not mature enough at the point where I began my project to be of much use. Almost every hacker I talked to made some attempt to verify my identity, either by checking my credit rating or "fingering" me; and based on the "sting" operations they've faced, like Operation SunDevil, I don't find this surprising.
So; while the problem of studying the computer underground is no more difficult basically than dealing with other "underground" groups (political terrorists, drug users, the Mafia, etc.) - which mind you, is extremely difficult in itself - it in a way DOES becomes even more difficult in that knowledgeable users of the electronic medium are able to "lock" out and shun outsiders. I had no success, for example, in getting on any of the "elite" boards in my area - where software pirates openly exchange commerical software and other hacks - because many used a system of caller ID verification. Anthropologists, who are often accused of being CIA agents in the Third World, may find the common accusation of being Secret Service in cyberspace. So, I was dealing with a population of people not likely to exchange discourse with someone they were not sure was a member of their subculture (and there are all sorts of tests for that, as I will discuss later.)
Thus, I chose to transcribe the conversations of hackers on basically public fora, such as the Usenet groups alt.2600, alt.hackers, and alt.cyberpunk; the Internet lists Future Culture, Fringeware, and Cypherpunks; the local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) known as Ground Zero, OnlineNOW!, Digital Underground, Digi-Net, First Church of Cyberspace, and StellarNet, among others; national hacker BBSes such as Temple of the Screaming Electron, Demon Roach Underground, and Hacker's Haven; the Internet Relay Chat channels #2600, #leri, #hackers, #crackers, and others; and the hacker conferences on the Whole Earth Electronic Link (WELL), MindVox, and The Internet Wiretap (Spies in the Wire.) Also critical to my research were several on-line electronic hacker publications, including but not limited to Phrack, TAP, the Cult of the Dead Cow (CDC), Computer Underground Digest (CuD), Line Noize, Activist Times Incorporated (ATI), and 40HEX, among others.
In many cases, I did not "speak up" (on the chat channels, for example) to tell people their conversations were being observed by an online anthropologist. To some in this room, that's unethical, dishonest, criminal, maybe (horrors!) even colonialist. I don't feel it was particularly villainous, and it was also pretty effective, because everytime one of those chat channels noted an outside observer claim he was transcribing everything that was going on, everybody on disappeared. Other times, I acted like a hacker-wannabe, hoping the experienced ones would "mentor" me. This elicited very interesting conversational data. Some people may call this dishonest. But in cyberspace, which often involves games revolving around sudden shifts of identity, I call it participant observation.
The technologies of electronic discourse allow for "lurking." At a party, we can sit and listen to participants without people noticing we are listening intently, a skill that Erving Goffman was apparently very good at. In cyberspace, it becomes even easier to do. The Hacker Ethic is that "information wants to be free." I consider online conversations on public electronic media to be similarly so (free for usage by researchers), just as I've often seen my own words reposted to Internet lists without my permission. The rules and norms for electronic discourse are being shaped right here and now, as we all know; but the computer underground in particular likes to play fast and slippery with those rules. Whether through cellphone hacking or some other technique, they've found ways to listen in on other people, whether they knew it or not.
Was what I was doing true participant observation? I did not accompany my subjects on hacking forays, since I was not interested in the Secret Service knocking on my door, and I did not think I could master the technique sufficiently to avoid that outcome. But I did play all the hacker tricks - posing as somebody else to elicit information from a person (social engineering) - for example. I manipulated the electronic medium to get out of it what I was after - what hackers call "beating the system." Thus, it was participant observation, though perhaps not in the sense that most of us are used to thinking about it. What I was after was hackers' electronic discourse, and I got it. I see no reason why it had to be me to be the one who initiated it, anymore than the person who analyzes Dan Rather's six thirty news broadcast feels he should also have created the news.
Gordon Meyer, a sociologist who has since left academia but continues to be involved in the computer industry (and to publish the Computer Underground Digest), wrote in his seminal paper The Social Organization of the Computer Underground that the "computer underground consists of actors in three roles - computer hackers, phone phreaks, and software pirates." I think that this definition is not only inadequate, but probably ignores a lot of discursive difficulties. Firstly, it ignores the recent debates about who owns the term "hacker" - battles that have been no less pitched than any over who owns the name "America." Author Steven Levy recently attempted to settle the matter with his recent work Hackers: the Heroes of the Computer Revolution. From Levy's point of view, there were three essential generations of hackers - the Homebrew Hackers that populated the Artificial Intelligence labs of Stanford and MIT in the early 60s; the Hardware Hackers of the People's Computer Company (PCC) who promulgated computer communitarianism in the early 70s; and the Game Hackers of Silicon Valley in the early 1980s.
Of course, Levy stops his hacker geneaology in the early 1980s, as if to suggest that the species has disappeared, although he does in an addendum discuss the efforts of Richard Stallman and his GNU (Gnu's not Unix) Free Software Foundation throughout the 80s. Levy suggests that there are few hackers anymore, largely due to the corporate, technocratic mentality that has settled into the computer industry. But, the media in the 80s started to use the term "hacker" for a different type of computer user - usually described as a "nerdy, sociopathic, hyperintelligent, hygiene-deprived computer intruder" - thus causing the semantic shift that causes many people to associate hacking with "computer crime." According to Levy, calling the "computer miscreants" of the mid-80s and on "hackers" debases an august honorific, since he considers such individuals to be motivated by far less honorable intentions than the Hacker Ethic he describes in his book.
In the old Hackerspeak of 60s MIT, a "hack" was a clever programming trick that exploited hardware features of a computer for purposes other than what they were originally intended. People good at such tricks were, then, "hackers," and there was a competitive vying for the mantle of hackerdom. But, starting in the 80s, some computer users started to call the relentless attacks on password-protection systems often used by computer 'intruders' "hacking" - signifying a sort of brute-force assault on security systems. Thus did computer intruders come to be known as "hackers" also. But Levy and others know that computer intrusion and semi-criminal activity is not a new phenomenon. The hackers of MIT wanted access to the mainframe computers of the time to to be total, and they were famous for picking locks, using underground access tunnels, prying open floorboards, and playing pranks on technicians in order to secure this access. The only difference between now and then is that computer intrusion often involved getting physical access to a time-shared mainframe, rather than breaking the security systems of a networked system.
The only difference between the computer-obsessed mangy kids of Minsky's lab at MIT and the computer-obsessed "miscreants" trying to work their way onto General Motors' corporate database is the decade and the institutions they have access to. It's important to remember that. Levy credits the first generation of hackers with being the "heroes" of the "computer revolution" - namely, the one that put a personal computer on everybody's desk, rather than forcing them to work with the cumbersome Hulking Giants and technician-priests of IBM. Yet, he and ex-1st generation hackers such as Clifford Stoll see this current generation of hackers as a threat to personal computing and networking, because of the ways in which he feels they threaten the "trust and openness" required for people to share their data freely. This is interesting, for "old hackers" like Stallman have often questioned the current emphasis on security, suggesting it does more to heighten anxiety and distrust than the "miscreants" the "computer security industry" is supposedly responding to. But the fact is that they are correct in that some of the new hackers are indeed a peril to the old Hacker Ethic, because they do not share its essentially intellectual motivations.
Among new hackers, a slightly different version of Levy's Ethic has crystallized. It's OK to copy commercial software - if you distribute it freely to people. Reselling it is wrong. It's OK to hack your way onto systems containing public information (and from the hacker's point of view, such things as "corporate secrets" are public, not private, property) but wrong to read people's private mail. It's OK to read data that one is not "authorized" to - but wrong to alter or destroy that data. It's OK to propagate nondestructive viruses as a prank, but wrong to unleash destructive ones. It's OK to "rip off" corporate voice mail systems and other services, but wrong to steal the credit card numbers and telephone codes of hapless individuals. Hackers that engage in such "dark side" activities are generally identified as "Dark side hackers," and they are often shunned by the rest of the community for giving them a bad name. Unfortunately, it is these "dark side" activities that often result in the passage of computer crime statutes, and thus the persecution of the good with the bad.
Many hackers still maintain that they engage in their activities not for malicious or mischievous purposes, but for intellectual ones. They hack because they want to find out all they can about a system - beating it, if necessary, by becoming the "sysman" - regardless of the security systems and other limitations people have put in their way. Some claim political motivations - that they are resisting a corporate-software complex which rips people off, or fighting off the corporate hoarding of information about peoples' lives and activities. And, there is the common need found in many American subcultures to engage in deviancy for its own sake: as a marker of identity and difference. Criminological analyses of "computer crime" often overlook these factors, as if so-called "computer criminals" were engaging in willful behavior that they agreed was criminal. Many hackers maintain the common libertarian argument that their so-called crimes are victimless and do not damage property, since information cannot be property. If a person breaks into your home and reads every book in your house, but then leaves without taking a thing and politely locks the door on the way out, has a crime been committed? The definition of theft is preventing the use of someone else's private property by taking it away from them. The question is not facile - but current computer law still maintains the law is broken at the point of entry, not what you do once you are on the system.
I would say that the "computer underground" can be said to be made up of individuals engaged in a number of illegal and quasi-illegal activities, namely, as Meyer suggests, hackers, phone phreaks (people adept at manipulating the telephone system), and software pirates. But it also consists of cypherpunks (people who work at cracking and creating codes), media pirates (sattelite TV piracy becoming one of the fastest growing areas), virus/Trojan horse/worm writers (people who create self-propagating autonomous programs), and many true-life "1st generation type" hackers who are alive today, do not engage in any illegal activities, but work to combat "the system" by doing such things as distributing software for free, creating Freenets that don't require expensive user accounts, and creating encryption systems for people that the National Security Agency (NSA) does not have the "keys" to crack. As some writers have noted, there are other factors that link the computer underground, one being a common interest in the science-fiction genre "cyberpunk," popularized by such writers as William F. Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Many in the computer underground believe that the fictional future depicted by Gibson - where corporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems replace governments and engage in corporate warfare over access to each others' databases - is rapidly coming true. I could speak at length about other things which could be concerned as "marker traits" for the computer underground subculture (which in this sense reduplicates other youth cultures such as punk or mod) - their preference for musical styles involving digital sampling and lyrical appropriation, e.g. rave, industrial, house, techno, hiphop, dub, trance, ambient, and acid jazz (often collectively called simply "techno"); dress and body adornment (especially the use of circuitry as earrings and jewelry or the fetishizing of adopting prosthetics, piercing, and other artificial technologies/invasions into the body - in essence, "modern primitive" chic); or "virtual" social organization (the use of BBSes, conference calling, voicemail systems, the Internet, etc. for communicating and coordinating activities). But I am here today to talk about discourse - and I do believe the discourse of the computer underground is another feature that marks it as a distinctive subculture.
Many people are aware of the so-called "Hacker Jargon file." This contains a lexicon of most of the interesting words and phrases from 1960s MIT Hackerspeak. Recently, authors Eric Raymond and Guy Steele have tried to bring it to print in their newly released Hacker's Dictionary. I would argue that, as with any other linguistic jargon, hacker jargon has evolved a great deal beyond this original formation. Mostly, due to the evolution of the computer underground subculture, it has incorporated a large number of terms from a) science fiction b) the cant of various criminal and deviant subcultures c) the changing nature of computer technology and electronic discourse in the 80s and 90s and d) television, esp. spoof shows such as Monty Python and so on. But it's worthwhile understanding some of the conventions of MIT Hackerspeak, for it's at the root of a great deal of modern hacker talk, and often appears in various forms on the Internet among people otherwise marginal to the "computer underground."
The Hackerspeak of the early 60s was electronic discourse not so much because it was electronically mediated - email, chat systems, and BBSes came much later - but because it was formed in an environment of constant interaction with computers and electronic technology. Most of the features of Hackerspeak came from the MIT hackers' way of emulating the way they "spoke" to their computers through programming languages such as Lisp in the ways that they communicated with each other; and attempting to come up with novel ways to characterize each others' habits and style of interacting with programming code and technology. It is not surprising, for example, that Hackerspeak is principally parsimonious, trying to summarize complex results in one acronym or concatenation ("GIGO," etc.) or simple phrase, for the Hackers were also taught that parsimony in computer language was essential, and that the goal of their endeavors was the produce the most elegant result with the simplest possible code, if only because access time to the mainframe was so precious.
People who work for extensive periods of time with computers are noted for their ability to interrupt a sentence when speaking to someone, then come back hours later and resume with the completion of that sentence. And why not? This is what they often did when programming. Hackers are noted for describing their human-human interactions in human-computer terms, and thus they often express surprise over criticisms of the way they "interface" with people, since they look at communication as primarily being data exchange. As Sherry Turkle notes in The Second Self, hackers often described computer behavior in anthropomorphic terms; but they also modelled their selves on the computer as well, and utilized metaphors from computer performance to describe human behavior. We can understand a lot of Hackerspeak from this viewpoint. We know that language is determined by environment (and thus the worn-out dictum that some Esqimuax have over 30 words for "snow") and people obsessed with their interactions with computers are likely to transfer their ways of describing those interactions into their human relations as well.
So what was/is the Hacker's Jargon? A good deal of Hacker Jargon revolved around such grammatical features as verb doubling as a point of emphasis and the generation of unusual nouns from the addition of suffixes such as "age," "tude," "ness," or "ity." (Such nouns include "lossage," "losertude," "hackification," and "porosity") Another common feature was soundalike slang, such as converting "historical reasons" to "hysterical raisins." Some of the other conventions of Hackerspeak including appending the suffix -p to sentences (a feature derived from Lisp programming), and employing reversed consonant order (for example, converting "creeping featurism" to "feeping creaturism.") Also, the use of inarticulations and programmer talk, such as using the words "BEGIN" and "END" to actually encapsulate paragraphs of conversation. In the Hacker lexicon, there were novel uses of old words ("boot"), unusual attempts at combining unlikely words into phrases (i.e. "core dump,") and the coining of many new words to encapsulate computer situations that seemed beyond the pale of ordinary life - "crufty" being a notable example. It's hard to separate original hacker jargon from the jargon crystallizing around the computer industry as a whole ("user-friendly," etc.) but hacker jargon stands out mostly due to its highly eccentric and erratic conventions.
Much of hacker jargon reflected the topsy-turvy insular universe of the MIT AI lab. "Users" were "losers" - people who only saw computers as things to get a task done. But real hackers were "winners" - "winning" being defined as mastering the machine and understanding all the undocumented features that enable it to do things it may not have been originally designed to do. Here are some of the other famous early hacker neologisms: (those of you who've ever played Adventure or Zork or hung around an old-time computer lab have run across some of them.)
These are just a few of the examples from Guy L. Steele's Hacker's Dictionary. Many of the things that are notable about early hacker talk is that it uses a great deal of acronyms. This is probably simply "spreadage" of the acronymization that was occurring in many technical fields of the 50s and 60s. Some hacker acronyms, such as FOOBAR, (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) may have been borrowed from other engineering fields. Certainly, many hacker terms have already made it into mass culture, "spazz" and "glitch" being notable ones. But what early hacker talk shows is a certain sense of playfulness with language - reflecting the hacker attitude that working with computers was play rather than work. Viewing language as an instruction set for exchanging commands between people, hackers felt it was necessary to "tweak" it, just as they might "twiddle" computer code until their beloved PDP-10s could understand them. Not surprisingly, hacker jargon is full of derogative terms, reflecting the competitiveness between the MIT hackers to see who could come up with the best hacks.
I provide this introduction to 60s Hacker Jargon for two reasons - one, that namely it is still with us in many areas of computing, and can be found all over the net in places where nobody even knows what an old (or new) hacker is; and two, it is the template on which 90s Hacker jargon is built. By and large, today's Hacker's jargon begins with the MIT/SAIL Hacker talk of yore, and appends a whole bunch of syntactic, grammatical, and lexical innovations, based on the differing experiences and motivations and self-identifications of the new hackers. Just as the Hacker jargon of that time was based on their technological environment - unwieldy time-sharing systems - the hacker jargon of today is based on a different technological environment: a massive internetworking of computer systems all over the globe into a seamless web. It's also based on a different social environment - namely the anathematization and criminalization of their activities. The 90s hackers see themselves as the heirs of the 60s hackers, but by and large, their 'parents' have denied them, largely due to the actions of 'dark side' hackers who they feel have put a stain on the hacker name.
The discourse of the computer underground is truly electronic, because by and large it involves the exchange of communication through electronic media, the most popular of which being hacker bulletin board systems (BBSes.) Even moreso than early hacker talk, the discourse of the computer underground is shaped by the constraints and features of the electronic (ASCII) medium. The MIT hackers mostly communicated through verbal interchange; after all, all they had to do was walk next door and complain about something to one of their peers. But today's hackers are geographically distant, and by necessity must use electronic technologies to conquer that distance. The cost of information exchange - specifically the impossibly high costs of AT & T long distance rates in the old days - was/is a source of constant complaint, and a provocation for many to turn to phreaking. It's impossible to understand the nature of today's computer underground or its discourse without understanding the history and discourse of phreaking.
I won't go into the whole history of "blue boxing," Cap'n Crunch (John Draper), and TAP and its Youth International Party Line (YIPL.) By and large, the beginnings of phreaking lie in the discovery that the generation of a specific tone - at the 2600 Hz frequency - one could control the electromechanical switching system of the telephone system. Magazines like Esquire focused on how this could enable people to make phone calls for free; but diehard phreaks were interested in using this trick to explore the phone system, and all its mysterious trunks, branches, loop lines, switches, and nodes. Just like MIT hackers who wanted to explore all the hidden byways of the circuitry of the PDP-10, or the tunnel system under their campus, the phreaks wanted to know the ins and outs of Ma Bell. But some had a specific political edge to their efforts: they thought "The Company" or "The Death Star" (their name for the AT & T logo) were depriving people of their right to communicate cheaply and easily.
When AT & T discovered to their horror that outside people could control the phone system to this degree, they began replacing electromechanical switches with the computer-controlled digital switches that they use today. This had two notable effects - it made "crashes" of the system more likely (and thus more likely to be blamed on phreaks, just as the Bell crash of 1990 which led to Operation Sundevil was) as any effort at computerization inevitably does; and also brought about a convergence of hacking and phreaking in the early 1980s. After all, if computers were now controlling the phone system, then a phreak would need the skills of a hacker in order to ply his trade. Most hackers began phreaking in order to avoid the massive long-distance charges for calling their favorite hacker boards, and phreakers began hacking to come up with new ways to manipulate the phone system. Kevin Mitnick, for example, replaced many of the automated operator messages on NYNEX's system with his own voice, and rerouted calls in one case from a government agency to a bordello.
Phreaker discourse is of course heavily laden with technical jargon borrowed from Bell Labs' own technical manuals. Phreaks are expected as a matter of course to know the ins and outs of telecommunications lingo, and they know a fellow phreak by their use of these specialized acronyms. Thus, a good phreak knows that what most people call a "pay phone" is really a COCOT (Customer-Owned Coin-Operated Telephone.) Some of the more intimidating acronyms that are found sprinkled throughout phreaker talk include:
You get the idea. Phreakers rely on these dense technical acronyms for different reasons than the phone company. (Well, actually, it's the same reason - to prevent knowledge from falling into the wrong hands.) Mostly, they use them to recognize a fellow phreak from a "narc" or other individual in law enforcement, who is assumed to be ignorant of the intricacies of the phone system. Anybody who calls a COCOT a "pay phone," for example, is suspect. Phreaks also began the widespread convention of inverting the "f" and "ph" characters - a practice that now can be found in a lot of mass culture, such as the name of the band "Phish." It's not uncommon to see phreaks describe something as "phunky phat phresh." This inversion is a sign of coolness to phellow phreaks. This convention led to a series of other common inversions - including switching the "s" at the end of a word to a "z" and a beginning "c" to a "k" and converting the alphabetic character o to the numeric 0 . The soundz of the words remain the same - but they look k00ler.
Another important source of geneaology for hacker jargon was the discourse of the first pirates. Before BBSes ever really began to focus on phreaking and hacking, they were hotbeds for software piracy. Some of the first bulletin boards were pirate boards, where the copy protection on commercial software was "cracked" (hence, the origins of the term "cracker" to refer to some "dark side" hackers) and then made available to be downloaded - as long as people offered money, or more commonly, other pirated programs, in return. Pirate boards were often known as "elite" if they had a large number of expensive commercial software programs available for downloading. These boards often distinguished themselves from other boards by using a combination of lowercase and uppercase alphanumeric characters, and a lack of spaces in their name. (The numeric characters often replaced letters or sounds.) The origins of this practice probably lie in the case-insensitivity of most early text parsers, which treated a small "t" and a capital "T" as basically the same, and the fact that many systems required logins that contained one or more numeric or non-alphabetic characters, as well as the refusal of some computer languages to permit spaces in their variables.
Common names for these early pirate boards were often things like HoUSe4SofTWaRez or PLacE2SwAp... this is a practice that continues today, especially with the names of hacker boards and hacker handles. They also started referring to programs as "warez." Thus, in my own area code, we have eLiTE boards such as InSaNE DoMAin, and hacker handles like BorN2HaCk... today, many hackers look down on people who are "merely" pirates, because they are more interested in getting free programs than in exploring networked systems or hacking, and such people are called "warez d00dz." If they are merely after codes for the phone system, without offering anything in return (reciprocity is important in the hacker subculture), then they are demeaned as "kodez kidz." Many purely pirate boards continue to operate today, with small sections on phreaking and hacking. But a large source for their interest - tools and schemes for cracking copy protection - has faded since many software producers no longer utilize copy protection.
Another area of professional technical discourse that has come to dominate the computer underground has been cryptography. Largely controlled by mathematicians and the National Security Agency (NSA) for many years, applied cryptography has become a matter of concern for hackers interested in foiling government surveillance and maintaing their electronic privacy. These hackers, often known today as "cypherpunks," specialize in developing techniques for foiling cryptography as a method of securing data while simultaneously coming up with strategies (such as the Public-Key cryptosystem Pretty Good Privacy, PGP, or the newer method of hiding messages in graphic images, Cypherella) for protecting their messages from NSA snooping. Since cryptographic techniques have been seized upon by many companies for securing communication (esp. wireless, such as cellular phones) or encoding passwords and other data, hackers have been forced to ply the cryptography trade, much as phreaks have been forced to turn to hacking. Cypherpunks understand that crypto is the key to the information economy, as it's the only way in which the legitimacy of electronic funds transfer and "digital signatures" (the authenticity of messages) can be maintained.
Cypherpunks are some of the most politically motivated of hackers, and they particularly oppose government-controlled and designed cryptosystems like the Clipper Chip which have "holes" specifically built in for when the FBI, etc., feels it necessary to initiate surveillance. They often tout the advantages of "totally secure cryptography," which often arouses the horror of law enforcement officials, who foresee the largest users of uncrackable ciphers to be pedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers, and, of course, hackers. Largely because of cypherpunk activity, words from cryptography have crept into computer underground discourse, even among people who don't really know much about it, or even use computer crypto programs.
Some of the crypto terms that often turn up in C.U. discourse:
The roots of the word "cyberpunk" are fairly simple. Cyber- is a prefix derived from the term cybernetics , itself derived from the Greek word for helmsman or navigator, kubernetes. Norbert Weiner used ('coined'?) the term in the late 1940s to refer to autodirective systems that are capable of 'steering' or responding to feedback, much in the same way that a helmsman of a ship makes subtle changes in the course of a ship based in changes in the behavior of the sea. Though originally meant as a means of modelling electromechanical systems (thermostats, vacuum pumps, etc.), cybernetic models quickly spread into other disciplines, and were used to describe things as disparate as digital-electronic communication, the weather, and, by anthropologists such as Gregory Bateson, human cultures. Cybernetics, systems theory, game theory, and other allied mathematical-logical techniques were quickly seized upon by the social sciences, especially economics. Prominent in most of these models were that cybernetic systems were homeostatic , and constantly using negative/positive feedback, self-mapping, autocorrection, and structural modification to maintain some sort of critical balance required for their continued existence.
"Punk," of course, comes from a prominent subculture of Britain in the 1970s. Though it followed in a long line of youth subcultures with peculiar musical tastes in the British Isles - the teds, the mods, the skins, the hippies; and since, the ravers and zippies - punk was perhaps moreso than all the others, a youth movement of negation and refusal. More lower-class and lumpenproletarianized, more defiant, more violent, more angry, more politically disaffected, and more odd-looking than all their predecessors, the punks quickly attracted the attention of English and other social scientists. Their musical idols like the Sex Pistols openly sang of a nihlistic world view where kids had "no future"; mocked all possible institutions, no matter how sacred (esp. the Queen); and performed an anti-Muzak where volume, energy, and wildness came to replace the cult of virtuosity, talent, and pretty-boy image which had come to surround rock n' roll. Punks openly proclaimed their allegiance to Anarchy and declared war on the manners, morals, and stiff upper lips of the British class structure.
So, while 'cyber' has basically become a catch-all prefix for 'cool' in our digitally saturated age ("Wow! That MTV program was really cyber !"), the term "cyberpunk" came to refer to a rather specific subgenre of science fiction in the mid-1980s. Within the universe of science fiction, writers like Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson tried to carve out a specific niche which was notable for its fast-moving, high-tech, aggressive, grittily realistic plots. Cyberpunk offered readers a very near and possible future, rather than the vast sprawling cosmic visions of Asimov or Heinlein. While it might seem hard to unite the nerdy engineers of MIT with the street kids of Manchester, "cyberpunk" sci fi writer William Gibson was able to do it with his novel Neuromancer. In Gibson's dystopian future, the central plot device is the Matrix, which is basically the interconnected web of digital representations of all the data in computers in the world. Gibson's "console cowboys" were able to "jack" into "cyberspace" - the term he coined for the "consensual hallucination" one perceived when they "uploaded" their consciousness into this digital virtual-reality realm.
Gibson portrays a world in which national governments have dissolved and vast hyperurban zones are controlled by multinational corporations ruled by Artificial Intelligences (AIs) and dynasties kept immortal through cloning and cryogenics, whose rule is predicated on the fact that they control all the data on citizens and other economic and social transactions. (Sound familiar? That world is already partially here. Big Brother is here; but I assure you Pepsico knows more about your market preferences and consumer choices than the government. Whether you like it or not, media conglomerates and advertising firms have assigned you all into pools of people organized around identifying through product choice and responding to specific signifiers.) Gibson's antiheroes are the 'console cowboys,' data thieves who are used by the different corporations to swipe away the precious information-commodities of their opponents. The stakes for the cowboys are high, because "black ice" and other Matrix defense systems can "flatline" (terminate) them for good, and they are likely to meet hostile AIs or counteragents while in cyberspace.
Gibson's protagonists often start out as small-time operators who discover that there are big-time forces swirling around them. They often discover that shadowy ancient political forces (like the Japanese Yakuza or the Voudoun priests and their AI-loa deities) are calling the shots in the high-tech future. They move from being parasites and pawns of the system to trying to bring it down, much like the character in The Shockwave Rider, who writes a "worm" to crash the global computer network. (Life imitated art, as it often does, when hacker Robert Tappan Morris came close to this feat in 1988.) The new hackers of the 80s devoured Gibson's fiction like candy. They identified with his characters and fantasized that, like them, they were playing for real stakes, with a real sense of political purpose and mission, and were struggling against computerized domination and Machievellian corporate intrigue. Some of the 80s computer underground, like Michael Synergy, began calling themselves "cyberpunks," and started identifying themselves as part of a "cyberpunk movement," issuing manifestoes, programmes, and threats.
But, much like the earlier punks, much of their resistance was much more on symbolic terrain than on actual. Very little "computer terrorism" was ever actually carried out. No systems were targeted with "logic bombs," most computer viruses plagued hobbyist bulletin-board systems rather than big-time Pentagon defense systems, AT & T's telephone network fell from its own misprogramming and not from outside "attack," and most datatheft raids produced boring corporate memos and private love letters rather than ultra-secret government projects or shocking patent data. Raising the level of symbolic threat to the crescendo that they did, though, was enough for the government to take action, and the Secret Service carried out its infamous Operation Sundevil raids of 1990, putting many cyberpunks out of business, and causing enough of a furor about the rights of cybercitizens for Mitch Kapor and Perry Barlow to found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose very first acts were to mount a legal defense for some of the busted hackers.
The main point of all this was that terms from cyberpunk science fiction became part of everyday computer underground discourse. Gibson, as technologically illiterate as they come (who wrote his novel on an old manual typewriter and was disappointed when he saw his first real disk drive), was lionized by a group of "nerds" whose alienation from school usually came from the fact that they were too smart (rather than too rebellious); but who were able to transform themselves into "cyber-punks" by adopting the tough, street-talking manner of Gibson's characters in his fictional world, where participation in the information economy is not voluntary, and is literally a matter of life and death. Not surprisingly, one of the things that became part and parcel of computer underground discourse was imitation of the argot of criminal gangs and syndicates. Castigated as "computer criminals" and "sociopathic deviants" by the law for their often innocent exploration of the back doors of cyberspace, the computer underground started talking like criminals, acting out the secret fantasy and adoration for the "Bonnie and Clyde" lifestyle that many "straights" often have.
Many of the early hackers were frequent players of role-playing games, especially early dice, model, and paper games like Dungeons and Dragons. Not surprisingly, the influence of Tolkien and D & D on the 70s hacker culture was quite great, and spawned a lot of the early text-adventure games like Colossal Cave and Wumpus. Role-playing games undoubtely influenced the first generation of hackers, and this is part of the reason why MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) were some of the first Internet recreations to really take off (as well as the chess servers.) It also explains the ongoing predilection for handles among both old and new hackers. In cyberspace, where nobody can really tell what other people really look like, role-playing is often encouraged (pretending to be a different gender, for example)- much to the detriment of people who are not prepared for all the cat-and-mouse games it leads to. Role-playing is an old hat in computer science, who has been obsessed from the beginning of whether an Artificial Intelligence (AI) could role-play a human being convincingly (the much ballyhooed Turing Test.)
Much of hacker discourse (and discursive behavior, e.g. flaming) needs to be understood as role-playing. Few people realize this. (The "VAXINator" may bellow about how he's preparing to crash every mainframe on campus. But, IRL [in real life], 14 year-old Tommy Jones not only probably wouldn't do that, but also probably doesn't know how to either. Of course, people get lost in the roles they are playing; and so the VAXinator might be forced to do something drastic anyway to uphold his 'virtual' reputation among his peers.) Shortly after cyberpunk sci-fi became hot, a whole rash of cyberpunk role-playing games became released, such as Shadowrun, which combined cyberpunk elements with the trolls and demons of Dungeons & Dragons. One of the big creators of such RPG games was Steve Jackson Games, who had the misfortune to be raided by the Secret Service when it was thought that an employee's BBS, Phoenix Project, contained a "sensitive" document from the Bell Company's 911 System. The Secret Service also seized prepress digital copies of their role-playing game, GURPS Cyberpunk , calling it for no apparent reason "a manual for computer crime!" One of mankind's oldest roles, cops n' robbers, was being acted out.
Hackers often kept accounts on Phoenix Project, mainly because Loyd Blankenship, one of Jackson's employees, liked talking to them to get ideas for his games, and because they liked many of the RPG modules that Jackson made. Unknown to Blankenship, some of them were also using the system to exchange basically 'illegal' information, such as long-distance phone codes. There were many levels of irony involved in the Secret Service bust. The name of Jackson's own BBS, Illuminati BBS, came from a game based on sci-fi writer Robert Anton Wilson's book Illuminatus, where he brings right-wing paranoia to life by suggesting that the so-called Bavarian Illuminati are real and are the secret conspiracy behind the world's misfortunes. Wilson's wicked Illuminati are resisted only by the Discordians, a pseudoreligion which worships Eris (Our Lady of Discord) and promotes an anarcho-libertarian philosophy, and whose invention has provided the basis for a number of subsequent "real life" pseudoreligions, including the Church of the SubGenius, whose deity is a piece of clip art (the Head of Bob) that is probably in more hacker signature files than any other icon. When German hacker Markus Hess was found after his suicide, he had a copy of Illuminatus on him, and friends said that he often claimed that the fictional story was true.
Cyberpunk role-playing games, and especially Steve Jackson's Cyberpunk and Hacker games, have also influenced the discourse of the computer underground a great deal. Role-playing is the stock and trade of a hacker's existence. Much of a hacker's technique involves Social Engineering (SE) and Reverse Social Engineering (RSE), where the hacker role-plays over the phone either a knowledgable authority (such as a line technician or system operator) or a clueless person (such as an academic at a university who's forgotten their password) in order to get people to divulge information. But, like so many of us in our postmodern world, they've lost track of where the role stops and the actor steps back into real life. Many mostly abandon their real lives of school, friends, and family for the role-world of hackerdom, with its moves and countermoves. Why sit as Tommy Jones in History and be criticized for penmanship, when on Demon Roach Underground he can be Digital Destroyer and bask in people praising him for that "ferocious hack" into Lotus' Corps. pension file? Computer underground discourse is more than influenced by role-playing; it is role-playing.
To understand the discourse of the computer underground, which as I've stressed earlier is doubly an electronic discourse (because it's about electronic subjects and is electronically mediated), it's important to understand the constraints of using E-mail systems and electronic conferencing. These constraints have led to a number of features about electronic discourse in general, which hackers have either modified, overexaggerated, or imitated. Although electronic discourse may change over the next few years, as systems like HTML and SGML allow people to modify fonts and include images to better express themselves, up until recently, electronic conferencing was limited to the impoverished ASCII environment, the least common denominator that enabled all computer systems, whether UNIX, DOS, VMS, or JCL, to "talk" to each other. Basically, ASCII assigns all the upper and lower case letters, numbers, basic punctuation and emphatic marks, and some specialized control characters (like linefeeds) to one of 256 possible values (i.e. one byte of 8 binary bits - 2 to the 8th power.)
Most electronic conferencing takes place on computer systems where users maintain an account and must login to use it. People often choose some combination of their first and last names for their login, since this is often the only way they can be identified on the system by other users. But even the first wave of hackers and computer users felt it was unnecessary to use one's own given name, and probably more fun to use a "handle," much like CB users often use to identify themselves. Most systems were case-insensitive, allowed only short one-word logins (with no spaces), and often insisted (for security purposes) that one or more characters be numeric or diacritical marks. Thus, many chose handles like "Seeker1." Most users choose handles that identify favorite fictional characters, or personal qualities, or pet nicknames. Early hackers often used names from fantasy or science fiction; today's hackers often borrow names from famous real-life or fictional outlaws or villains. One hacker in Gainesville went by the handle "(Erich) Hoenecker," the deposed East German dictator. Another nationally known hacker goes by "Immanuel (Goldstein)," the propaganda-generated, villified "enemy of the people" of Orwell's 1984.
Since most electronic conferencing systems use only one standard font, and ASCII contains no code for character modification (i.e. underlining, bold, italicizing, etc.), expressing emotion through email, etc. was an early problem. This was often solved through the use of CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, or putting words in asterisks or underlining them with carat marks, although the emotion behind the emphasis was hard to grasp for the person on the other end. A better impromptu solution was devised - the use of "smilies," or emoticons, consisting of combinations of ASCII characters which look like sideways facial expressions. For example, the colon, dash, and right parenthesis :-) look like a smiley face on its side. Putting this next to something that might be mistaken for hostile can enable people to detect sarcasm, for example. Like many other things, creating new smilies became somewhat of an intricate art, and as usual, hackers took it to an extreme.
Nonetheless, even smilies cannot prevent people from misreading the emotional intent behind electronic communication, and when you combine this with the fact that people often simply feel less communicative restraint in cyberspace (mainly because the guy on the other end may not know who you are, and even if he did, he couldn't do anything to you), this often leads to what is known as "flaming" or "flame wars." "Flaming" probably comes from the gay community, where it referred primarily to the habit of drag queens overdoing their personal decor. In cyberspace, it refers to the extremely overdone art of verbal abuse that people often heap on each other through email. Since quoting others is often done by adding marks to the beginning of a sentence, such as a right angular bracket >, long flame "threads" often result in "cascading," or an energetic piling of comment on top of comment on top of comment. The practice of "spamming," a term that probably comes from Monty Python and refers to the act of people posting messages indiscriminately and too frequently (thus clogging peoples' mailboxes with junk e-mail), is one sure way to start a flame war.
Many email systems often have sharp length restrictions on messages. Ones that are too long or too complicated may clog the mail buffer or use up too much disk space. Thus, this forces all users to employ a good deal of parsimony in communication. They usually do this in one of several ways. A common way is the use of simpler acronyms for frequently used expressions - IMHO for "in my humble opinion," IRL for "in real life," FAQ for "frequently asked questions" or BBIOM for "be back in one minute," for example. Another device is the use of concatenations or abbreviations - "sysop" for system operator or "listserv" for mailing list server. Yet another way is to use numerics in place of vowel sounds, such as "2 Tired" or "4 You." Handles are commonly shortened this way. Elements like these, which were originally devised for systems with sharp content restrictions, still predominate in conferencing environments where these restrictions no longer exist.
Lastly, most mail systems allow a person to include a signature, which may contain information not in their "headers." The information in this file, the .sig file, is normally used to identify a person's real name and institution. Many people, esp. hackers, are extremely clever with their .sigs, and usually use it to include their favorite quotes or carefully drawn illustrations done completely in ASCII characters. Another file, the .plan file, which contains information for when the person is "fingered" by another user, can also be similarly manipulated. .Sig files have become an important part of the verbal artistry of communicating in an ASCII environment, and hackers use them to show off their cleverness or occasionally enclose important information (such as their public key.) Hackers are not unique in flaming, acronymization, sigging, using handles, etc., but the creative ways in which they utilize these constraints of the medium to their advantage do mark their electronic discourse as distinct from other people in cyberspace.
Some of the features of hacker jargon of the 90s are, as suggested earlier, intensifications of 60s hacker talk. Hacker jargon today primarily functions in one similar respect - it's a tool for brokering reputations. Many of the terms used in the discourse of the computer underground essentially are devices for either derogation or braggadoccio - tearing down the reputation of another hacker or elevating one's own reputation. Hackers who break the hacker ethic are no-good "crackers"; those who don't know what they're doing but keep asking people for free tips are low-life "warez doodz" and "codez kidz"; people who don't know the power of hacking are "lusers"; people who are not as good as they brag they are are "posers" or "wannabes"; and the genuinely hated ones are simply "bagbiters." Spoof terms abound for systems or computer companies that are despised, like "WinDoze" or "Micro$hit." Praise terms in new hackerspeak, like "winner," are reserved for people who show both technical mastery and the boldness to "go root," or shoot for controlling the root node of an entire system.
However, new hacker jargon also differs from the old hackerspeak because it serves one new and different function - secrecy. The old hackers used their jargon to convey complex relationships with computers that couldn't be "put into plain English"; but they didn't employ it to conceal information from people or disguise their activities. Because new hackers are so afraid of being 'narced' or busted by law enforcement, the jargon of the hacker functions like a Masonic grip - people know who another hacker is in cyberspace by the use of their jargon, and thus avoid accidentally 'blabbing' to the feds. Thus, new hacker jargon functions to exclude , to conceal information from people who are unable to display the "linguistic competence" that shows them to truly be a fellow hacker. Hacker jargon, like any criminal argot, functions to conceal illegal activities behind euphemisms and code words, as well as to hopefully scare off Secret Service types with a dense fog of technobabble.
And it also serves to identify the new hacker as a unique subculture on the continually growing arena of cyberspace. They use their jargon both to mark themselves off as "cooler" than other computer users, and to symbolically link themselves to the 1st generation of hackers, the people who were around and knew the back roads of the Internet before all these ignorant "newbies" came along - people who "don't know what a command line prompt is." Hacker style is flamboyant - their way of showing off that they are just basically more "with it" than other computer people. They try and intimidate other users with threats, warning them that they can shut down their account, ruin their credit rating, intercept their Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), etc. Hacker talk is used to impress and gain awe from other users, who are assumed to lack the technical know-how and the screw-the-authorities spirit that hackers have.Return to CyberAnthropology