is hacking central to
computer culture?

One could well explore how "hacking" has been central to what has emerged as "computer culture" in North America, and central to the beginnings of the personal computer industry in the late-1970s and the growth of the Internet a decade later. In this case, I mean both the broad ("manipulation of technology") and more narrow ("illegal activities using computers") senses of the word.

We must recognize from what conceptual point we are beginning our journey. The construction of the term "hacking" needs to be examined to some extent, within the context of computer culture and outside of it in popular and journalistic discourse. For our purposes here, we could leap from the popular conception of "hacking" as the embodiment of computer techne or even spiritual power, with a clear recognition that this implies a moral ambiguity with which we might become uncomfortable.

Often, representation of computer power over the past forty years have included an element of hubris in any manipulation of the technology, not so much representing an approach to computers in particular, but in technology in general. Recent films which have focused specifically on what would be identified as "dark-side hacking," starting with War Games in 1983 through Sneakers, The Net, Hackers and The Matrix, have presented a more Faustian dynamic of the consequences of excessive and morally neutral techne. Regardless, both types of representations create a connection of "hacking" wherein the hacking ability is portrayed as essentially magical, a question of acumen as opposed to opportunity or social skills which are not generally considered part of the hacking within popular discourse.

On the other extreme, we could look somewhat critically at how "hacking" is constructed within the more specific computer culture, particularly within the culture of programming, both formal and informal. We can recognize a distinction which is often made within computer/coder culture between "hacking" in the sense of writing code and developing solutions writing code or manipulating the computer, and "dark-side hacking," the illegal activities using hacking techniques. There has been much defence in recent years of a "pure" definition of hacking which precludes dark side hacking, but this has not caught on within popular discourse.

In part this may be the case because "pure hacking" and "dark-side hacking" are harder to delineate than might be originally thought. It would appear to share a common ethical origin Steve Levy’s "hacker ethic," which could be used to both justify and limit a wide range of activities, legal and otherwise. The founders of Apple Computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, began business together by selling "blue boxes," home made electronic devices used to make free long distance telephone calls. Their next product was the Apple I computer.

Pirating, the distribution of commercial software illegally, also seems to have at least the origin of its ethical justification in the 1970s hacker ethic; Microsoft’s first software product, an implementation of BASIC for Altair computers, was also the first heavily pirated commercial software.

Within critical theory, one can turn to the work of Michel de Certeau for assistance, and in particular his work on usage and consumption can be applied to the activities of hackers, as well as the writings of Rosanne Stone and Andrew Ross. Stone in particular writes about the invasion of an early "virtual community" called the Tree; Ross is attempting to place hacking within a cultural context. My main concern here will be to determine whether hacking is simply practice, or the construction of place, or the construction of practice using conceptions of place.

It might be useful when examining any hacking construct to notice where notions of hacking converge and rebound, creating a construction of hacking which, while in a clear hacking tradition, is often also something new.