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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

Hacking is the flavor of the month. And it has been for years. Or so, at least, it seemed. A sexy media-subject which involved "real people" in "real lives" who at the same time were fairly hidden and unknown. Stories full of mystery, crime and highest state intervention were all part of this potent cocktail. And the media was keen to confirm the mystery. Hackers kept appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. Their crimes did not go unnoticed. But as soon as one starts to dive deeper into the subject academically, a gap starts to emerge: there is not a whole range of books "out there" that deal with hacking. Or rather: there are not many books that treat the hacking phenomenon from a distance, i.e. regard it from a critical and analytic point of view. Instead, the shelves are full of "how to"-handbooks, histories from insiders and boasting experts about how they hacked the hackers. Paul A. Taylor, on the other hand, manages to find an unexpected middle-ground in all this. His book -- Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, published last year -- manages to encompass both the academic and the "out there" approach. He therefore does not only propose a middle-ground (I will return to this point), but he occupies one himself.

This might be because Taylor is neither a hacker himself (but has interviewed many) nor a hacker-hater (whom he also interviewed), but he manages instead to immerse himself in this complex debate by hearing both sides out before bringing his judgement into it. And he does this (the judging) very well, too. On top of this, he manages to attack the media's role in the hackers' fate. His book does not claim to be the ultimate book on the subject, but wants to (and I think manages to) embed the hacking phenomenon in a wider debate surrounding technological developments and social control. This debate looks at processes of group formation, demonization/exclusion, and conflict. Taylor's 'Crime in the digital sublime'-title underlines from the outset the substantial difference to Steven Levy's early (1984) and classic account, whose title also speaks for itself: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.

Taylor claims that "Other writers . . . have attempted to provide detailed descriptions of the origins and social organization of hackers. This book whilst being grateful for such efforts has a different aim. It seeks (whilst maintaining a realistic sense of the above various practical difficulties associated with researching the computer underground) to provide a portrait of the phenomenon of hacking by concentrating upon the conflict between the computer security industry and the computer underground" (xi). This twist -- to take the conflict between the law-enforcement agencies and the hackers as potential criminals as his focus -- is Taylor's great leap. It is a logic point of departure, but it is rare to find both sides combined in one book.

The other strength of Taylor's approach to the hacker-topic is the richness of his material. The publisher's claim that he has "an interview list looking like the Who's Who of Hackers" might take it a bit far (although the list is indeed impressive), but he does constantly inter-link his account with such interview and media clips. This does not only make it fun to read (oh yes!), but also underlines arguments very colorfully. He uses an enormous amount of interview material, including anecdotes and case studies.

For the un-initiated, he starts by outlining the basic principles behind hacking. Quoting some of the hackers he interviewed, he says, for example, that "hacking is a frame of mind, a sort of intellectual curiosity" (17). It is basically doing something with technology (which by no means refers solely to computer technology) that the technology was not originally meant to do. A hack is not only about breaking into a computer, but mainly about how this is done. The approach does not seem to only guide what is done, but justify it being done in the first place. This underlines claims about the basic traits of hacking that I have heard elsewhere before. But nonetheless it was not too repetitive. It rather inspired me to want to become a hacker in the basic sense, i.e. "be curious!" This applied curiosity -- mixed with quite a substantial political and social underpinning -- is something that I had not clearly thought through before reading Hackers. This is nicely contrasted with the image the media create for the hackers' motivation.

Structurally, the book bases itself mainly in the "us and them" idea and a careful analysis and comparison of the arguments on either side (hackers versus security experts). Taylor creates great terms to describe the conflict not only between the underground and the industry, but particularly the two camps in the industry itself by calling them the "hawks" and the "doves." The latter see the hackers as taking a very useful role in technological advancement and therefore propagate a co-operation, while the others can only see the danger in hacking and therefore ask for punishment. Taylor's strong point is to clearly outline the processes that are involved in these relationships, carefully outweighing pros and cons for both sides.

And while there clearly is criminal behavior out there, Taylor claims this is partly over-hyped. Governments and industry are highly computerized and therefore vulnerable. The hype is partly protective, i.e. created for their own benefit. The hackers have a different outlook on the basic social and cultural principles anyhow (and this contrast could have been played out more clearly): hackers are somewhat liberal free spirits and distrust authority. At least to some extent they want to see information to be free and computers to be used to make better lives.

One of the strong points of Taylor's book is his ability to turn from reflection to recommendation. Starting with explanations (boredom in school might be one reason why the kids turn to hacking, for example), he gives advice on what could be done to potentially channel some of the "negative" hacking energy (which he never denies it can be) into more positive channels. It starts in schools and students being bored and moves on to the idea of the creation of some "playing fields," in which hackers can hack as much as they like without actually screwing up the wider system. Taylor acknowledges the limitations of such measures, but it seems interesting to have constructive ideas in a book like this rather than just the critique. He also sides with the doves by emphasizing that quite a bit of the hackers' knowledge could actually be used positively if they were not so generally blamed for their illegality. There is therefore a need to differentiate between responsible and vandal hackers before an appropriate response can be found (173). Whether calling this approach the "third way" is the way forward, could be debated.

One of the recurring problems is the reporting on hackers, which is often a misrepresentation. Taylor shows well how this secondary discourse helped to maintain and maybe even create the them/us divide. This divide feeds into the legislation and all sorts of others aspects. There is, according to Taylor, only symbolic legislation for hacking, since the phenomenon is so complex that it seems impossible to legislate otherwise. The problem has been redefined from a technical to a social one and has thereby been made into an ethical problem (140). Without this process, none of the blaming politics would even be possible. This redefinition is partly done through the use of particular language bits, i.e. through metaphorical references to real-life criminal activities like breaking into someone's property, trespassing etc. This goes hand in hand with the language chosen by the hackers themselves, which is very much a masculine "wild west" culture. Taylor therefore does not deny that the hackers themselves contribute quite extensively to their own demise.

There is not much to criticize in this interesting read. Somewhere in between, some of the information that Taylor provides seems slightly too specific. He seems caught in his own net at this stage, i.e. so involved with his own material that he cannot -- what he otherwise does so well -- differentiate between the important and the superfluous any longer. But this period does not last long.

Taylor concludes his account by claiming the significance of the hacking phenomenon as an uneasy expression of the technological developments in respect of social and cultural phenomena: "The key social significance of hackers lies in the way in which they embody in reality, even if only to a limited extent, such widespread cultural concerns over the implications of our increasing levels of interaction with rapidly changing and evolving information technologies" (xvi). And the key social significance of this book lies in analyzing this phenomenon not only critically, but also engagingly.

Maren Hartmann:
Maren Hartmann recently became a Lecturer in Media & Communications at the University of Brighton in the UK, while at the same time finishing a PhD at the University of Westminster. The PhD is concerned with the analysis of language formation online as expressed in user typologies. In the past Maren worked with and for an EU-funded (and truly European) academic research network (EMTEL - European Media, Technology and Everyday Life network). She holds an MA from the University of Sussex (UK) as well as an MA from the Free University Berlin (Germany).  <M.Hartmann@brighton.ac.uk>

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