Hacking Society

Three books look at the current state of play in the interconnected world

In the courtyard of Facebook’s 57-acre campus at One Hacker Way, Menlo Park, California, the single word HACK is laid out in 12-metre letters in the stone. HACK is a big word at Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg recently explained to potential investors: “Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it—often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.”

The courtyard embodies the contradictions of Silicon Valley: self-consciously rebellious, yet flush with material wealth and political influence. In a few years, the spotlight will move elsewhere and weeds will grow in this courtyard; but while Facebook itself may be transitory, it is an actor in a central story of our times—the collision between the material world and a burgeoning digital space.

You can no longer avoid digital technology. With each year, more of the world becomes digital and more of the digital world becomes networked: first mail, then photographs, music, books, money and, soon, 3D printed products. Even objects that remain resolutely material are increasingly driven by software—from kitchen appliances to the billion lines of code that control an Airbus A380—and those systems are increasingly networked.

Where is digital technology taking us? A starting point is to ask where has it brought us so far. Here are three books to help answer this question—to guide us around Facebook’s courtyard—each backed by extensive research and written by recognized experts.

On the sunny side of the courtyard sit Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. Facebook is, of course, the social network and Networked: The New Social Operating System is about how social networks have transformed the ways in which we connect.

What are we doing when we interact through keyboards and screens? Are we staying in touch better or becoming, in Sherry Turkle’s memorable phrase, “Alone Together”? Rainie and Wellman are out to challenge “the folks who keep moaning that the internet is killing society,” which tells you where they are coming from. We are moving, they say, to a society in which “individuals have partial membership in multiple networks and rely less on permanent membership in settled groups,” in which “families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” The authors write that “the underlying theme of this book is that it is a networked world, and that being networked is not so scary.”

Rainie works with the Pew Research Center, and Wellman is a University of Toronto sociologist who has studied social networks for 40 years. The book is built on survey data and sprinkled with vignettes of individuals’ lives to keep it interesting. Their message is reassuring: the statistics show that while we have fewer confidants among our friends, we now have more people to draw on in times of crisis; and that “the more people use the internet, the more friends they have, the more they see their friends, and the more socially diverse are their networks.”

Drawing causal conclusions from surveys is always difficult. If “Twitter users are more involved in social activities,” is that because they use Twitter or because they are a young cohort? Rainie and Wellman do convince me that our relationships with friends and relatives can be sustained through digital connections and that we are not getting lost in another hopeless little screen. But of course that is not all there is to the internet, or to Networked, and their other arguments are less successful.

But first we walk across Facebook’s courtyard to that word HACK. Now often used to mean breaking into computer systems, it has long had broader meanings. Anthropologist E. Gabriella Coleman, now of McGill University, uses it to mean someone who works on “free software.” Much of the software that runs the internet is never bought or sold; instead, it is shared freely by software developers for others to use as they wish. The remarkable success of free and open source software has been hugely influential, prompting the development of collaborative sites such as Wikipedia, and influencing the culture of sharing expressed through sites like YouTube.

Coleman inhabited the world of free software hackers for years, and her account of their communities, conferences, humour and norms makes fascinating reading. The appeal is in the specifics: the membership rituals of the Debian Linux community, the conventions around the ways hackers ask each other for help, or a page explaining the witticism buried in this fragment of the perl programming language.1

#count the number of stars in the sky
$cnt = $sky =~ tr/*/*/; (1)

Many specialist fields have in-jokes of course, and Coleman initially thought her project would simply discuss the “cultural mores of computer hacking.” Instead, she was right there as hacker culture became inseparable from that of the broader internet, fed into mainstream ideas of network culture and so gained broader importance.

Central to hacker culture is a commitment to freedom of information and to mutual sharing of computer code. Many see this “hacker ethic” as grounds for a broader political agenda in which peer-to-peer networks provide an alternative to corporate or state-run institutions. Coleman sees free software as “a targeted critique of the neo liberal drive to make property out of almost anything.” But this is reading too much into a movement that is, in the end, technical and not political beyond a romantic belief in liberty and in “the distinct power of the individual to trump authority.” She does acknowledge that hacker politics are “narrowly defined,” but, for all its careful analysis, there is a frustrating gap in Coding Freedom: Coleman does not tell us who hackers are when they are not computing. Where do they work? How old are they? How do they earn their money? Why are they almost entirely male? Anchoring them in their lives beyond the screen might have brought some of the contradictions and limitations of hacker culture to the surface.

Rainie and Wellman are optimistic about networked society, and Coleman sees progressive potential in free software, but Facebook has repeatedly been embroiled in privacy controversies and now we cross the courtyard to a cold and shadowy corner where sits Ron Deibert. Deibert is head of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, “a kind of X-Files meets academia” whose mandate is to “document and expose the exercise of power hidden from the average Internet user.” He has been a regular on TV during the flurry of revelations about state and corporate surveillance of our digital lives, and his book is a valuable companion to these stories.

The most explicitly Canadian of the three books, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace opens in Calgary, has an epigraph by Dionne Brand and has a subtitle that harks back to the science fiction of William Gibson. It is also the most likely to find a broad audience. Coleman writes well but her academic prose will limit her book’s appeal, while Rainie and Wellman fall between two stools: seeking to appeal both to specialists and general readers, their voice is often that of a tour guide recounting too many facts and dates.

Deibert recounts some of Citizen Lab’s own colourful exploits. Given unrestricted access to compromised computers belonging to the office of the Dalai Lama, Citizen Lab researchers uncovered an espionage network affecting more than 100 countries and tracked its control centre to the computers of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Discovering and downloading a database backup belonging to cybercrime ring Koobface that “laid bare the entire operation from inside out,” they pinpointed a group of BMW-driving, World of Warcraft–playing Russians.

But while these individual stories convey “the thrill of the hunt,” it is the cumulative effect of Deibert’s global tour of cybercrime and cyber warfare that lingers. In one of the strongest chapters, he describes how post-Soviet states and unofficial “Electronic Armies” in Syria and Iran, aided by western technology companies, combine internet surveillance with thuggery to suppress political opponents. He recounts how China successfully built its “Great Firewall” at home and engages in digital espionage abroad, and how Somalia’s civil war has produced surprisingly robust wireless phone networks. Closer to home, he documents the combined corporate and state surveillance of our daily lives and how the border between digital and physical warfare was erased by United States/Israeli collaboration Stuxnet, a virus designed specifically to break the Siemens industrial centrifuges used in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

The book’s material on corporate surveillance has little that is new, but that lack is more than made up for by the insight and experience Deibert brings to bear on his specialist areas of cybercrime and cyber warfare. Throughout, he keeps the focus on the technology, leaving readers to draw their own political conclusions. It is a wise call, making the book accessible to readers with a broad range of political opinion. Black Code is essential reading for anyone who cares about the evolution of civil liberties, crime and warfare in the digital age.

A clear message of Black Code is that many interests are bending the internet to their own ends: so much so that Deibert writes that with the growth of the “cyber security industrial complex … the internet as we once knew it is officially dead.” Coleman is not ready to give up: she sees free software hackers, Deibert’s colleagues among them, as among the strongest defenders of digital civil liberties. They are technologists, yet they are also “the fiercest critics of the privacy violations and copyright policies of social network platforms like Facebook.”

Digital activism goes back to the clash between free software and intellectual property law, which coincided with the anti-globalization movement and the politics of No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies at the turn of the century. Coleman charts the growing legal sophistication of free software proponents as they sought to put computer code outside the realm of copyright and patent by claiming that “code is speech” (it can express humour, as we have seen), so that code sharing should be protected under freedom of expression laws. Coding Freedom makes a strong case that the free software movement has “fundamentally refigure[d] the politics of intellectual property law” and, more importantly, that the free software community demonstrated by its own success that restrictive intellectual property laws are not necessary for innovation—for if the World Wide Web is not innovation, what is?

So is the company with HACK in its courtyard a legitimate part of hacker culture? Coleman would say not: she sees free software as an alternative to “corporate” software and distinguishes hackers from “Web 2.0” companies. But Facebook cares not a whit about such distinctions: it claims hacker culture as its own and leaps into the marketplace with both feet. It is a development described by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath as The Rebel Sell: Why Culture Can’t Be Jammed—capitalism has happily absorbed the romantic pose of the free software movement and sold it back to us as social networks.

For Rainie and Wellman, politics comes out of the social network: from Toronto to Cairo, networked individuals are empowered individuals. They reference Deibert and Citizen Lab’s warnings briefly, but return quickly to an optimistic view of networked society based around the experience of expanded personal choice. They point out that video games can be educational and enjoyable, but not that they can be sexist, racist and glorifying of warfare. A networked world is one in which companies use technologies to “help [us] get our needs met,” rather than one in which they spy on us. In the workplace, networked organization is a liberating contrast to both hierarchy and rugged individualism. And the network is a boon for individual creators.

Unfortunately, despite the wealth of statistics, Rainie and Wellman neglect some strong research that runs counter to their conclusions. Matthew Hindman’s excellent book The Myth of Digital Democracy provides evidence that, although it seems more people can speak on the internet, the same narrow range of voices gets heard. Other researchers have argued that networked workplaces can give more power to central authority, enabling it to better reach all corners of an organization. Most often, those who lose out in an increasingly connected world are those in the middle, who have carved out modest careers from being able to offer something of distinct but limited appeal. These are not the “professional elites” but are the midlist author, the middle manager, the small business owner.

While Networked is a valuable reminder not to slip into a sentimental golden-agism and makes strong points about connectivity, it fails to convince when it comes to empowerment.

It would be easy to come away from these books with the idea that there is an open, collaborative “good internet” with norms owing much to the free software hackers that has been spoiled by a closed, censored and commercial “bad internet” tied to governments and big corporations. Such a view fits neatly with the idea of “internet freedom,” promoted last year by Hillary Clinton, but Black Code shows that even an open and uncensored internet can serve the powerful and afflict the powerless. Uzbek president Islam Karimov operates a filter-free service while his competitors have to filter; Mexican drug cartels use videos and social media to convey threats and videos of assassinations; and the government of Syria loosened its grip on the internet at pivotal moments, possibly to watch its opponents’ conversations. The Syrian Electronic Army used free software to trap dissidents, and the U.S. National Security Agency uses free software to analyze the data it collects in its surveillance efforts.

Cultural movements from impressionism to rock and roll have had their countercultural moment before being absorbed into the mainstream of society. The internet’s countercultural moment is over and the digital world is no longer a naturally hospitable environment for non-commercial, dissident or alternative culture. But that does not make cyberspace inevitably Orwellian: Facebook’s courtyard may embody wealth, but Deibert reminds us that the Hudson’s Bay Company had political and economic clout that today’s biggest corporations could never hope to match, and struggles for civil liberties have repeatedly succeeded in the face of seemingly insurmountable entrenched interests.

  1. If the variable $sky holds a string of characters, the fragment counts the asterisks in that string (in an unusual way) and puts the number into the variable $cnt: it counts the number of *s in the $sky.