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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 194-196

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Hacker Culture. By Douglas Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Pp. xxvii+266. $25.95.

In Computer Power and Human Reason (1976), Joseph Weizenbaum described hackers as "compulsive programmers." Seven years later, with the [End Page 194] release of the film War Games, hackers became part of popular culture. In War Games, a curious young man plays what he thinks is a computer game. But in reality he is interacting with a military program that is going to start World War III. According to Douglas Thomas, the film demonstrates a cultural anxiety about technology, and technophobia is a theme running throughout Hacker Culture.

In 1984, the year after War Games was released, two notable books about hacking were published: Steven Levy's Hackers, which is a historical account about first-generation hackers, and Sherry Turkle's The Second Self, an ethnographic study of hacker culture at MIT. Turkle describes hackers as individuals who have made computers a way of life. Central to their lifestyle is mastery over computer technology, a topic also covered in Hacker Culture.

Thomas employs a cultural approach in examining hackers and their relationship to society. Utilizing journalistic accounts, personal interviews, and science fiction as support for his arguments, he contends that secrecy has played a central role in hacker culture. Moreover, secrecy is at the center of contemporary relationships between technology and culture. First-generation hackers in the 1960s worked within the secrecy surrounding the cold war and second-generation hackers moved into an environment of corporate secrecy. Today's hacker culture fosters secrecy because hackers utilize pseudonyms. When hackers are accused of illegally accessing corporate computer systems, law-enforcement officials find it difficult to arrest anyone because connecting a physical body to the remote illegal activity is next to impossible. Consequently, most hackers are arrested only when another hacker has turned them in.

For hackers, "technology serves as both the basis for the constitution of their own subculture and the point of division from mainstream culture" (p. xxv). Hackers tend to have a dystopic view of technology because mass media have increasingly commodified electronic information and the internet. According to Thomas, representations of hackers in popular media depict attitudes of anxiety about technology rather than hacker culture itself. Hacking is about understanding the process of using technology to mediate human relationships. But in contemporary culture "technological growth has outstripped society's capacity to process it" (p. 32). The result is a new technophobia to which hackers contribute because they are part of a "youth culture" that transforms experimentation into juvenile delinquency. Moreover, young hackers often understand computer systems better than the older generation and better than law-enforcement personnel, a situation that contributes to increased social anxiety.

Thomas's understanding of hackers and their relationship to computer technology is a major strength of his book. In the 1970s Microsoft's Bill Gates accused hackers of stealing his software. Today, Thomas explains, this conflict has taken a political turn, as hacking has become a form of protest against Gates's position on human rights in China. On one hand, hackers [End Page 195] use their skills to make political statements and to criticize the corporatization of technology. On the other hand, the mass media has branded hackers as criminals. As a result, computer security has become an important aspect in almost every element of contemporary life.

Hacker Culture provides descriptions of the relationships between hackers and contemporary society that reveal larger cultural attitudes about the relationship between people and technology. It fills a need for academic research on hacker culture. Although it is not a historical study, it does describe a number of historical incidents, a task that has heretofore been assumed primarily by journalists rather than academics. There is a need for more academic research on hackers, their history, and their culture, and Thomas has started to fill that need with this book.


Susan B. Barnes

Dr. Barnes is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the author of Online Connections (2001...


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