September 24, 2011

Hack Week On the Media

Category: Academic,Hackers — Biella @ 1:48 pm

So much reporting on hacking is …. so bad (no surprise to readers here).

Worse is that term term was bandied out constantly during the News of the World Scandal. In contrast to this historical tradition, On the Media has curated a stellar “Hack Week” that provides depth, breath, and nuance; the producer of the show, Alex Goldman, poured an enormous amount of time, labor, and thought in compiling a rich set of materials to get at the term hackers, the many facets of hacking (from phreaking to hardware hacking) and best of all, interviewed the fantastic Marcia Hoffman from the EFF on one of the laws, the Computer and Fraud Abuse Act, whose massiveness (and vagueness) has the potential to do a lot of damage and which is often wielded against hackers (and many non-hackers as well).

There is also an audio section on the term hacker, which I myself might have done slightly differently, emphasizing, that alongside the MIT hacker (covered so well by Steven Levy) phone phreaking (only called as such in 1973 but well and alive before then) fed into a transgressive tradition that was not simply about malicious hacking nor about the media portrayals that started to explode in the 1980s. The interview gets at the fact that there are differences and hackers can be quite sectarian but I might have pushed this fact a little further.

All in all and after the ad nauseum use and abuse of the term hacking during the News of the World scandal (and its overabuse with Anonymous), this collection is the perfect antidote.

September 22, 2011

Congressional Quarterly on Hackers

Category: Academic,Hackers — Biella @ 10:28 am

When I was in graduate school, there were two publications that when I found out about them, they changed my life, for the better. One is the Annual Review of Anthropology (and there are many other Annual Reviews) and Congressional Quarterly Researcher. Both, albeit in very different ways, provide clear and crisp road maps and resources related to the topic under discussion. I had the “pleasure” of writing an ARA on digital media and I had always hoped that there was a Congressional Quarterly on hackers and hacking.

Well now there is one and I have to say, they have done a fantastic job. I am not surprised. They tend to be pretty matter of factual and present many sides to an issue. The author, Marcia Clemmitt, did just that, covering open source, transgressive hacking, Anonymous, and cybersecurity among many other issues. Out of all the recent publicly oriented publications on hackers and hacking, this is the one that is the most in-depth but accessible.

The only hitch is that the article is behind a pay wall but most universities subscribe to them and you can order an individual copy.

update: I forgot to mention that there is an excellent segment in the 24 page report by Daniel Flower, which covers the history and significance of the protests. It is compact but the best account I have seen.

November 1, 2010

The Anthropology of Hackers

Category: Academic,Hackers — Biella @ 12:45 pm

I meant to blog about this a long time ago but it slipped past me. Here is my course on hackers described in The Atlantic . I ma not teaching it this year but will do so next year. I actually include a lot more than what is in the syllabus (much to the chagrin of my students).

February 7, 2010

Hacker and Troller as Trickster

Category: Academic,Hackers,Humor,Troller — Biella @ 11:40 am


If you read the literature on tricksters, you will confront a string of words that capture the moral quality and sensibilities of these figures, figures scattered across time and place and largely enshrined in myths and stories:

Cunning, deceit, lying, provocateur, mischief, audacious, thief, play, shrewdness, audacity, grotesque, over the top, appetite, shocking, fun, delight, wit, trap, subversive, ability, wanderer.

These figures, which include Coyote, Loki, Hermes, and Eshu, among many more, push the envelope of what is morally acceptable and in so doing, argues Lewis Hyde (in his tome on the subject), renew and revitalize culture, especially the moral stuff of culture. They are not only boundary crossers, they are boundary makers. As the title of his book so succinctly and masterfully broadcasts “Trickster Makes this World.” Or as he suggests with a bit more elaboration:

“I want to argue a paradox that the myth asserts: that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be a space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on” p. 9

At the opening of the book, Hyde asks whether there are tricksters in modern industrial societies. His answer is a plain ‘no.’ The con man who might share some similarities does not qualify. For in fact what is needed is either a polytheistic system “or lacking that, he needs at least a relationship to other powers, to people, to instructions, and traditions that can manage the odd double attitude of both insisting that boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly distributed” p.13 He does locate the spirit of the trickster in spirited individuals: in Picasso, in Frederick Douglass, in laudable figures who push certain boundaries and renew our world for the better but nonetheless fall short of the archetypal trickster.

I bet it is pretty obvious where I am going with all of this given my object of study: phreakers, hackers, and trollers. The trickster does exist across America, across Europe, really across the world and it is not in myth but in embodied in group and living practice: in that of the prankster, hacker, the phreaker, the troller (all of whom, have their own unique elements of course, but so does each trickster). Their relationship to other powers are many and can be located in terms of information, intellectual property, the government, language itself, institutions of power like the FBI and AT&T. The list is not short.

For a few years now I have been thinking about the linkages between the trickster and hackers as well as the troller but it was only in the fall when I found myself trapped in a hospital for a week that I finally cracked open the book by Hyde and devoured it. Within a the first few pages, it was undeniable: there are many links to be made between the trickster and hacking. Many of these figures, push boundaries of all sorts: they upset ideas of propriety and property; they use their sharpened wits sometimes for play, sometimes for political ends; they get trapped by their cunning (which happens ALL the time with tricksters! That is how they learn); and they remake the world, technically, socially, and legally and includes software, licensing and even forms of literature (think textfile, the Jargon File or most dramatically, ED).

But if the trickster generally resides in myth, and the trickster of the information age resides in practice, myth matters everywhere because there is a mythos created around these figures. Sometimes the mythos is propagated these groups (take a look of ED for example or Phrack in the past) and of course the media has played an undeniable role. And yet, unlike what is represented in the pages of Hyde, there are living, actual bodies in motion, in conversation, in transformation, a group that goes far beyond the other more controlled and bounded tricksters we might be able to locate in society, such as artistic/political groups like the Yes Men.

But the most shocking (or hard to think through) element lies less in the many associations one can make, but in the following curious fact. For the most part the trickster is enshrined in myth and stories but the tricksters I am referring to are in fact full-bodied, full-blooded groups of people who are actually engaging in all sorts of acts of trickery. This is culture not in the sense of art and myth but people and practice and this of course makes an (ethical) difference. What happens when you are the recipient not of a story offered an elder, but the recipient of trickery, an act of pranking or trolling, for example? What happens when you can trace all sorts of instances of boundary re-shifting and remaking, as with the GPL? I think this, even more than the linkages, is what makes this connection so remarkable and I trying to think through what it means to have a figure that we can find and talk to, as opposed to one embodied in myth and story.

For now I am going to leave this post short and in the next installment, will start raising some of the connections between trickery and variants of hacking and trolling.

February 3, 2010

2600 papers

Category: Hackers,Humor — Biella @ 6:19 am


Glad to see his paper on hacking and zines was picked from a pool of 2600 papers….

December 29, 2009

This is one if for you: the hacker conference as ritual

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS,Geek,Hackers,My_work — Biella @ 10:08 am

One of the most frustrating things about being an untenured anthropology professor (aside from being untenured) is that, for the most part, the articles you must write to get tenure strike those you write about as hopelessly boring and jargony. I always imagine that when geeks read my articles, the experience can be represented as follows:

%*&%*&*(((& Linux *(&*(^%&%%^%% DeCSS &*(&^&&*^&^&^& Free Speech %^&%^%^%%^ Hacking &*(&^*(^^*^**^*Code*((*&&**&&*&* Emacs **(**)*( New Maintainer Process *&())))))))))&*&7&&*&)*&*&*&& DMCA **(**((( Copyleft. ****W$$&& TINC

Well, finally, I have my hands on the uncorrected proofs of an article that is far far more readable, accessible, and truth be told, romantic than anything I have written “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” This article’s ancestry goes back to this ancient blog entry that I wrote after Debconf4 in Brazil, later made it into my dissertation, and finally a gabillion years later is on the verge of publication.

Debian developers, in particular, might dig this piece. I made use of your blog entries, mailing list discussions, interviews, and photos to reveal what is special about these events and also memorialize some important events, such as the the founding of Debian Women.

So while some I am sure some academics will find this piece distasteful for idealizing these events, so be it. I grew very fond of these conferences, they changed the way I thought of computer hacking, and why not write something that makes those you worked with feel good (as opposed to bored and confused). Finally, academics have totally missed the theoretical boat when it comes to conferences, which are probably one of the most important ritual forms of modernity and yet there is so little written on them—an issue I address briefly in the conclusion.

Note that this version has various mistakes (including the name of Joel “Espy” Klecker and the caption under Figure 3, and Figure 9). Since many of your are human debugging machines, if anyone takes a preview read and finds any typos, feel free to send along as I will be sending the proofs back next week.

November 18, 2009

Phreaking your way into Egypt?

Category: Academic,Advice,Hackers,Phreaking — Biella @ 7:47 pm

At times I am secretly (actually more openly) jealous of my colleagues in the English department who get to teach literature day in and day out. What a treat.

So I always make sure to sneak at least one fictional story whether short–such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Unready to Wear” in Welcome to the Monkey House, which is superb or something longer and way more verbose than Vonnegut who is the epitome of sparsity, such as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon is too long).

I have just been informed by Phil Lapsley of one of the only fictional accounts on phone phreakers Loving Little Egypt and I might just make this the fictional account for my hacker class I am teaching next semester. I can never get enough of phreaking and since there is so little on the topic, this can top things off.

Has anyone read it? Any thoughts? Any other fictional accounts on phreakers?

November 10, 2009

Fsck Purity: The Politics and Pleasures of Free Software

The great thing about living and working in NYC is that there is a steady stream of conferences to attend, such as the fast approaching digital labor conference entitled ‘Internet as Playground and Factory.’ The problem is that since I live 1/3 of the year in San Juan and often get stranded and stuck when my mother gets hospitalized, as is the case now, I am often not in NYC. Depending on my mom’s prognosis tomorrow, I may or may not make it but I am working on my slides and revamping a few of my thoughts as I would like to attend.

My new title is one I think some readers of the blog might enjoy: “Fsck Purity: The politics and pleasures of free software” (thanks karl) and the talk will be part of a panel “The Emancipatory Politics of Play” with Chris Kelty, Fred Turner, and Ben Peters. If you are interested in attending, register soon as it is free and open to the public but requires advanced registration. There are also already a collection of short interviews videos available, the one by me is a basic discussion of the politics of free software, conducted at the end of a very long teaching day, so I am not sure it makes any sense. I never watch my own interviews so I can’t quite be the judge :-)

October 12, 2009

Digital Anthropology, the Anthropology of the Digital

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Digital Media,Hackers,My Work — Biella @ 4:17 am

I have not been a frequent fixture on my own blog as I am writing what is called an “Annual Review of Anthropology” on digital media and ethnography. Truth be told it is killing me as there is a 6000 word limit and 100-150 works one must mention and entertain (usually by throwing in some categorical statement that makes sense for 10+ works). One thing is clear: the literature on digital media by anthropologists is switching from trickle to steady and very interesting stream. Even if I Epically Fail, I have already learned a lot, which is what I keep telling myself as I struggle through the writing stage of the article.

But if you want a taste of some recent work, there are some blog entries you can check out: Daniel Miller who was one of the first anthropologists to venture in this area (and kick-started the first program in digital anthro) at UCL has written a nice review of various books recently published. And for the same blog, I wrote an overview
of my work on hacking, liberalism, and pleasure. So if you want a short introduction to the books being published by anthropologists on digital media, I highly recommend checking Daniel Miller’s post.

August 14, 2009

1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Debian,F/OSS,Free Speech,Hackers — Biella @ 6:03 am

Update: Geek feminism blog has a great entry with a collection of personal reflections on what transpired during the course of 1998.

Cultural Anthropology has published a supplemental section for my articlee, one that not only has some nifty images, but gives a nice overview of the article. I have also received some feedback via email and blogs, which have been helpful and have already made their way into the book manuscript–the first draft of which is almost done (I am sending it to some folks very soon for comments).

Fred Benenson, Free Culture rabble rouser, wrote a retrospective, noting how DeCSS radicalized him, with apologies to MLK (you sill just have to read to see why he is apologizing, it is amusing).

James Vasile from the SFLC wrote a blog entry asking me to make some linkages between free speech and the freedom to associate, which is an excellent, excellent point, elaborated in his own words:

My point of departure from Biella is that she doesn’t go far enough. Code is speech, but it’s also very much more important than that. It’s community. The first amendment protects three areas of freedom: belief, speech and association. The first two are just examples of the third; free speech and religion are meaningless in the absence of community

Don Marti wrote an interesting email highlighting the importance of 1998, which I could not agree with more (bits from his email provided below). It was a pivotal year that really stirred the pot, so much so, that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation. The problems was at the time my dissertation committee did not bite (they loved the idea, but were understandably concerned about my job prospects). I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate who riveted me, in part with her accent, to press on if that is what I wanted to study. Given I have a real real real soft spot for Irish accents (like everything sounds so important, even revolutionary when an Irish person speaks), I was swayed, went back to my committee and well, here I am a decade later. And now you know how to convince me of something: get an Irish person to do the arguing.

So I encourage folks to take a read, it is readable, or so I think. Or maybe I should say far less jargony than some of my other stuff. I still welcome comments!

Here are some of Don’s thoughts about 1998:

1998 was a really weird year.

The intellectua lproprietarians got the DMCA — 98
to nothing in the Senate, voice vote in the House.
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act passed
the same year. The IT industry was rapidly giving
up on the bickering, greedy Unix vendors, and Unix’s
non-fungible admins with a sort of literary tradition,
and moving instead to standardized certified MSCEs.
(A co-worker at the time told me that the main selling
point for Windows NT was that it didn’t have “cheeky
Unix geeks”.)

1998 was the apparent high-water mark for the
de-hackerification of the industry. Even long-time
hackerish companies were getting a haircut and
a shave. SGI introduced the Visual Workstation,
running Microsoft Windows NT, and O’Reilly and
Associates was pushing the company’s first and only
shrink-wrap software, a web server for Windows NT.
The spring 1998 O’Reilly catalog had all Windows books
on the cover, and all the Unix stuff was in back.
Netscape was on its way down in flames.

But all this stuff happened too.

Oracle for Linux. VC investment for Red Hat.
Open-source releases for Mozilla, Qt, and IBM Secure
Mailer (now Postfix). Linus Torvalds on the cover
of _Forbes_. It was also the first year that Linux
kernel developers got full-time jobs doing just
kernel work.

So there was all this fascinating news and code for
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.
It was a recipe for a political debate.

The Stallmanite incarnation of Free Software often
talks about recapturing a pre-EULA state of innocence
– not just the fabled environment of the MIT AI Lab,
where Stallman developed his code-sharing habits,
but a lot of early science and business computing.
Copyleft, a tool for defending Free Software,
is Stallman’s brainchild. (I remember seeing
a (Sperry?) ad at the Computer History Museum,
advertising a large software sharing community as
a feature of the company’s hardware line. Need to
find this again.)

Is copyright law a constitutional mandate? It’s in
the section with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, all
things that Congress is allowed, but not required,
to do.

Why do free software developers act as their own
lawyers? Maybe for the same reason they act as
their own testers, PR people, documenters, sysadmins,
whatever. Developers do their own law the same way
they do their own logos. When you get the processes,
connectivity, and tools to increase a development
organization’s tooth/tail ratio, any necessary
“tail” (context) tasks get picked up by “tooth”
(core) people.