Heroes from the era of teletotalitarianism

Boris Grondahl investigates the phenomenon "Hackers"

To the 17. Chaos Communication Congress Explicit Lyrics from 27. to 29. December 2000 in Berlin, the term is once again on everyone’s lips: Hacker. Boris Grondahl has written a book about it.

According to the author himself, he is not a hacker. However, studying mathematics and physics did not necessarily hurt him in his research. He was born in 1967 and is an editor at the Financial Times Deutschland. Before that he was a freelance journalist (among others for Telepolis, die Zeit and Rewired, publishing director of junge welt and editor at konkret)

Grondahl examines the phenomenon "Hacker" broadly, but without, as Christian Zimmermann does in "The Hacker"1 in journalistic myths like the "Bio-Hacking" (illegal experiments with genetic engineering). He begins with a conceptualization of the term oscillating between computer Zen master and electronic Osama bin Laden. In the 1960s, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed both an aesthetic and an ethic from the lifestyles and work practices of its students and faculty, which gave rise to the figure of the hacker, the passionate computer hobbyist. A "Hack" was a difficult and demanding programming task – as a "Hacker" was considered a computer user who was not satisfied with the minimum knowledge necessary for use, but worked persistently and enthusiastically on research and improvement of the hardware and software he used. Print media and cinema picked up the term in the 1980s and changed its meaning by narrowing it to a specific phenomenon. The characters they portrayed were mostly male youths who snuck into mainframe computers, stole credit card numbers or loved to crash phone systems. Grondahl notes that the term is also embattled among hackers: the computer industry’s "Software pirates" referred to as warez d00dz, which call themselves "Hackers" are referred to in the jargon file as "Crackers" defined. Grondahl chooses to examine all meanings:

Instead of participating in the rituals of exclusion among hackers, this book understands their various manifestations as signs of changes in the technical, political, legal, and economic environment."2

Where "Hackertales" and "Hackerland" by Denis Moschitto and Evrim Sen have considerable shortcomings in the presentation of the historical classification of the phenomenon (cf.Research more!), Grondahl shows that he is concerned with a longer history of the phenomenon of female. From the student model railroad club at MIT in the 1960s to the Warez d00dz, the emergence of the phenomenon is clearly structured and provided with quotes. Grondahl even goes back to the jokes and experiments of teenage telegraph boys in the 19th century. Century, which he describes as "Proto-Hacker" describes.

The Yippies are coming in "Hacker’s" as well as the Phone Phreaks, Bill Gates’ Letter to Fellow Hobbyists, with which he made himself laughable in 1975, as well as the Homebrew Computer Club; the Blue Box, with which ATT could be outsmarted at monopoly times, is missing just as little as the "Social Engineering", with which internal information was obtained from bureaucracies. One of the advantages of the book is that it does not remain in the description of strikes, but represents also social, technical, and economic processes. Among other things, it describes the development of the personal computer by garage companies that came from the hacker tradition. In addition, Grondahl also discusses the pop-cultural effects of the phenomenon of the "Hack" with all its trials and tribulations, and covers both films and science fiction literature.

As an aubenstehender, Grondahl does not succumb to the temptation to mystify hacking. Hackers’ explanations of their own motives, such as rejecting companies like IBM or Microsoft because of the quality of the products they produce, are not simply adopted but subjected to critical analysis and supplemented by other motives that are less technical than stylistic and less conscious than unconscious. Ies of aesthetics are not reduced to technical merits or demerits, but put into cultural context. Starting with the hacker ethics described by Stephen Levy, the principles like "All information must be free" and "Distrust authority – demand decentralization" developed, right down to the reactions to the ATT-monopoly in 1970s America and the even more bureaucratic German variant, the monopoly of the Bundespost (now: Telekom). The described abuse of power by the monopolies impressively substantiates the tendency of hackers to reject state authorities. Especially in Germany in the 1980s, where the prere of suffering from a federal post office that abused its monopoly by banning anything that was not expressly licensed with it was particularly gross. Numerous other examples could be cited here, such as the background of the policy of laying a copper cable television network as late as the mid-1980s, despite the existence of fiber optic technology, which caused even well-informed employees of the telecommunications offices to develop an attitude of opposition to the monopoly. But "Hackers" is not a "Black book of monopolies", but a book about a cultural and social phenomenon.

As far as the American part of the story is concerned, there are "Hacker" The book adequately reflects the basic principles of Stephen Levy’s standard work, which was published in 1984, but does not go beyond them. For although Levy has set the bar enormously high, in terms of both readability and reasonableness, the importance of the field has since warranted a fundamental review of Levy’s classic, which has been ennobled from journalistic book to historical standard work. This, of course, cannot be done in a 96-page work; rather, it would be the task of a more broadly conceived research project.

Grondahl’s knowledge is based in part on his work as a curator of exhibitions "Hackers – data travelers to forbidden knowledge" and "Tuftler, Freaks and Company Founders – The Birth of the PC" at the Heinz Nixdorf Museums-Forum. In addition to Levy’s standard work, he has consulted sources such as the Jargon File and 2600 Magazine1. Also the most important recent presentations like Bruce Sterling’s "Hacker Crackdown"3 , Paul Taylor’s "Hackers. Crime in the Digital Sublime"4, Clifford Stolls "Chuckoo’s Egg"5

, "Cyberpunk" by Katie Hafner and John Markoff, as well as "Masters of Deception"6 by Joshua Quittner and Michelle Slatalla were used by him. "Hacker" however, contains only a general and not a complete list of literature. It does not include, for example, the collection of essays, which is out of print but available in many libraries and partly in electronic form "The Chaos Computer Book"7, which is important for the German part of the hacker history.

This German part of the hacker history is determined by the Chaos Computer Club. Grondahl used Chaos CD Blue here, published in 1999, which includes documents from 17 years of CCC history from the "Data slingshot" up to the "Hacker Bibles" and talks with Wau Holland and Andy Muller-Maguhn, among others. Partly Grondahl also contacted the American heroes of hacking. For example, John Draper (Cap’n Crunch), Mark Abene (Phiber Optik) and Lee Felsenstein served as his electronic dialogue partners. Richard Stallmann, who is known to be difficult, is missing – in spite of his own chapter about Free Software as later "Triumph of the hacker ethic." Considering Stallmann’s idiosyncratic personality, who prefers to talk about soups when it suits him rather than his own CV or the history of the Free Software Foundation, this is not an entirely incomprehensible shortcoming.

The reproduced extracts from the sources are well chosen and illustrative. Due to the translation of the quotes, however, double meanings are not clearly recognizable, such as the expression "deportation" "free speech" in the Youth International Party Line Nr. 2 of July 1971, which refers to both free telephony and freedom of speech. The German translation in "Hacker" is simply "free speech."

In summary "Hacker" a very concise work, which nevertheless manages to avoid inaccuracies and to present the context in a form appropriate to the shortness of the book. In addition, Grondahl correctly notes that the struggle for access to information, which in the 1980s led to the criminalization of the term "Hacker" The struggle for this right, which in the 1990s became a matter of course for the general public, was led by a group of people. Whereas in the 1980s a state monopoly jealously guarded electronic information exchange, today the ban on modems by the German postal service, which the CCC fought against with construction manuals, seems like a relic from the days of teletotalitarianism. Hackers were the avant-garde in the struggle for a right that today everyone exercises as a matter of course, heroes whose struggle for this right is not honored as such. The criminalized computer hobbyists, according to Grondahl, were basically doing nothing else in the 1980s than what had been done at the beginning of the 21st century. They wandered from computer to computer in search of information, but they did not go beyond that. Today a matter of course – in the 1980s something that was blocked by a bureaucracy whose successor company acts as if it had not prevented the Internet for two decades, but invented it.

Boris Grondahl: Hacker, Hamburg, Rotbuch 3000, 14.90 DM, 96 pages.

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