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Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime

Author: Paul Taylor
Publisher: London & New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: July 2000

 REVIEW 1: Maren Hartmann
 REVIEW 2: EJM Duggan

First off, I'm honoured that the book not only got reviewed but was reviewed twice. Secondly, I appreciate David Silver's invitation to respond to the reviews and here is that response couched as briefly as I could.

To Maren Hartmann:

Since this was a very positive review I was obviously very pleased with it: Ms. Hartmann - your cheque is in the post!

To EJM Duggan:

This review gives quite a comprehensive overview of the book's content and finds parts of it "fascinating." However, it also has a more critical perspective, some of which I agree with and some of which I found either slightly petty or very odd. I will attempt to deal with Duggan's criticisms in what I perceive to be their declining order of fairness. First, where we agree.

Duggan suggests that due to the book's wealth of quotations, "Taylor's voice is at times in danger of disappearing altogether." This is fair point and a risk I consciously took. The rationale for this was based upon my perception that hacking is an activity that has suffered more than its fair share of media hyperbole and arm-chair punditry from self-proclaimed experts. I came to the subject as a curious social scientist with no particular ax to grind and decided early on that I wanted to tell the story of hacking, and its relationship to society at large, through the mouths of the people actually involved and from those commentators I thought had the keenest insights. The result of this is that if you pick the book up and browse through it, it looks like a patchwork of quotations.

The main reason I don't apologise for this is that I think direct quotations from participants, suitably selected and presented, are much more interesting than extended, self-involved, academic commentary based upon little fieldwork (I've saved this approach for my more recent work). Another justification is that the quotations were not just arbitrarily thrown together; implicit in my selection and framing of the quotations are my authorial values of what's interesting and authoritative: the authorial voice may not be loud enough for Duggan's tastes but it is there nonetheless.

Linked to this point about authorial voice is Duggan's criticism that I could have been more explicit in my treatment of conflict mediation as a major theme of the book (in Duggan's words an "en passant approach to the process of mediation"). My general response to this criticism is that the primary aim of the book is to provide a comprehensively detailed account of the main issues and key figures, not to impose a narrow theoretical interpretation of a problem that hasn't even been fully explored and categorised yet. More specifically, I'm puzzled at Duggan's use of the phrase "en passant" given that I use the phrase "Hawks and Doves" (which is in two of the chapter headings) to discuss in detail the process of mediation and since the theme forms the backbone of at least half of the book's material. In addition, a large part of the fieldwork material highlights the conflictual nature of hacking and with the risk of repeating my previous point about letting the fieldwork talk for itself, I think the advantage of my content-led approach is that readers with diverse perspectives and theoretical positions can use the material presented for their own purposes instead of being didactically led by the conceptual hand. Throughout his review Duggan argues that the book includes 'unsurprising' material which, ironically, is a charge that surprised me. I suppose that this issue depends upon your prior knowledge of the subject. I would agree that for those already well-versed in issues about hacking, the book may be most useful as a comprehensive treatment of the key themes, but to seek out "surprising" information in a book that seeks to desensationalise the issue, strikes me as a bit perverse. Talking of which, the oddest criticism in Duggan's review was that which claimed I was being "tantalizing" for not spelling out the relationship between various events and figures related to Edinburgh University (which was the geographical base of most of the research). The simple answer to this was that unless Mulder and Scully know of a conspiracy of which I'm unaware, any relationship between these figures was purely coincidental.

I was disappointed by the rather patronising dig at the end of the review regarding RAE pressures perhaps having led to 'premature publication.' Fortunately, this is not a medical-sounding condition that I have ever suffered from; any faults of the book are exclusively a result of my own innate cerebral inadequacies. My biggest problem with this review, however, could be labelled under the categories of "puzzling and pedantic." I was puzzled by the claim that "the content seems quite disparate - almost random - in places." The book is highly structured with cross-referenced chapters containing well sign-posted sections and sub-sections. The pedantic refers to Duggan's complaints about errors that should have been picked up in the proof-reading stage: "the constant misuse of 'Cf' in the notes is annoying - Taylor appears to use the latinate abbreviation Cf [confrere] or 'compare' when he really means 'see.'" I plead guilty as charged: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I was also criticised for not citing URLs for articles taken from CuD or Phrack. This struck me as over-zealous given that all these articles are obtained from the same well-maintained archive sites and therefore hardly require separate URLs. To conclude, my response to this particular review is perhaps best summed up by an old Chinese proverb I refer to in the book's conclusion: "When a finger points at the moon - the idiot looks at the finger."

Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor

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