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Aaron Swartz-In-Memoriam: Of hackers, hacking and informational democracy

January 12, 2013

NB. My apologies for consistently misspelling his last name.


I should really be finishing up this work that is pilling up one me, but the cat tells me I need to write about this before I lose the initial impetus for it. So here it goes….


I have to begin by admitting that I did not really know of Mr Swartz, the recently deceased hacker, in terms of his name, though his exploits are not alien to me (yes, I knew of the exploits but did not pay attention to the name behind them). There was a time, probably almost two decades ago, when I would have known both the names and exploits, because of what I used to be.

The story of Aaron Swartz is not new, nor is it exceptional; he was not and probably will never be the last hacker to have been declared a felon, but has gained more media attention mainly because hacker-activists have garnered more media attention in the age of pre and post SOPA; in fact, you do not even need to attach the term ‘activists’ to ‘hackers,’ as they have been activists without the label. Moreover , they are the bane of the legal types, who, with the staunch backing of corporations, go after the former for political mileage.

Computer hackers are not as readily recognized at the same level as human rights activists who take to the streets or write about political and social issues, but their work IS about political, social and rights issues. Occasionally, some of them would actually write about how their own work connect to larger political issues. Many though, share a distaste for pointless and navel-gazing airiness.

Before going on, I need to define the term hacker, which is a target  because of how it is badly labeled in the media (and that is where most people obtain their information of this little misunderstood community).

A hacker is not someone who breaks into your puny little website for any malicious intent. In fact, a true hacker would find many of the websites already out there to be so laughably and poorly secured that there is no challenge to breaking in (just a few machine-level script can easily do the trick). The person who breaks into your website is probably a sneaker, or a wannabe cracker who entertains the illusion that he/she is a hacker.

A hacker, at the primacy of its origin, is someone who uses, mostly self-taught skills in computer coding, to find loopholes within a system and also as a way to challenge the policy of the statement and to make an ideological statement. At the same time, they are also pioneers in using technology to make life more comfortable while also changing the way we communicate and disseminate knowledge. Of course, there are still those with elite technical-hacking skills who have turned to the dark side and use their technical abilities to wreak havoc, but they tend to overshadow those with a genuine commitment to what all hackers, generally, would believe in: that everyone should have access to all that is out there and information access is the constitution of an equitable society. The one that bridges the haves and have-nots.

ASCII-like Bulletin Board Service

In fact, the hacker community was the one who made internet more accessible to the general public; before the internet was publicly available, there was the Bulletin Board Service (BBS) that was a self-contained and ‘intranet’ version of the internet, where sharewares and freewares of all kinds were uploaded and downloaded, online network games were first played, and the earliest versions of ‘online’ chats were performed. Even after the internet became more available, many still go on BBSes to maintain the communities they have formed. Remember that, for a long time, most were on dialup and modems, with only a very lucky field possessing optical cable of the T1 variety (this was in the 1980s and 1990s).

There are many different generations of hackers, and they do not all share the same ideology that drive their work. But inspite of the generational difference, they all begun young. Usually kids working with the computer in their bedrooms. Of course, there were also the college-going students, scientists whose work involved code-crunching, and programmers, hardware and software types. We trusted each other even though we have never met and probably never would, answered each others’ technical questions, share code, tell each other off for being assholes, and even occasionally pontificate on the philosophy of life but with a mix of irony. In fact, my earliest knowledge on programming, computers, data, informational flow, and scientific computation came from communing with these different people, as a teenager.

Aaron in his element

They transcend all nationalities and cultures. Of course, they tend to be  males but there were also a sprinkling of female hackers among them. A majority of them are in North America but there are also a number sprinkled all over Europe, Asia, South America, and even parts of Africa, depending on how accessible internet is in these regions. Many share a distaste (and downright scorn) for authoritarianism, social elitism, and imposed establishment. While staying as a community, they also have their strong individualistic identities, that include a respect for each other’s differences and peculiarities (that may also include peculiar predilections!) They were the first propagators of open source and common creative license before everyone is now talking about it. The look at each other’s code, improve on them and spin a variety of versions out of this openly shared code. Most are Unix users because they consider Windows to be ‘lame’ and stifling. In retrospect, they are right, because there are many hidden issues of access, proprietary information, and even your ability to make the system work the way you want it to, rather than be controlled by the system.

I am writing about these people not from having merely read articles about them or watch films about them: I write about them because I have had some personal friendships and encounters with them, both online and in the flesh. In fact, they constituted the earliest community I have had as a teenaged geek, living in a small town that was then a bit of a boondocks, in South East Asia. The internet back then opened up my world to so many possibilities I never knew existed, and I was able to form the sort of friendships and online connections with people, including some hackers, in a way I have never been able to do now. Part of it has to do with age, and the other part was, the Internet that was the wild, wild west of so many exciting possibilities, exists less today.

Moreover, the more technical and geeky sites, such as usenets or chatforums, tend to attract very particular types. Quite a number of us have trouble fitting in with the physical community we are a part of; hence we seek out a community that would look past our social ineptitude and physical.

Many have very strong computer-programming skills and also run their own servers, whether out of their own stacks in their bedroom or in their labs, where they share materials that the law today would constitute as illegal, not so much because of the content, but because of the way the content was distributed. They also created a lot of the open-source and freely available programs that were the predecessors to the sort of ubiquitous programs you see today. These earlier programs, more robust and subject to less ‘crashes,’ were created for those who at least have the most minimal knowledge of scripting practices, and were more closely connected to the structure of the machines they ran on.

Now, the open-source softwares, even if created by these same group of people that Aaron

Swartz came of, are meant for use by those who have non-existent technical skills. Moreover, programming has also become more accessible now that there are many more ‘natural language’ types of programming languages created, and APIs,  that ride on the back of other ‘less humanly intuitive’ languages. I am not a real coder (even though I can code, when I have to) nor a hacker (in the technical sense), but I share their love of going deep into the structure and understanding how and what makes these things work, and not work. While not realizing it, some of them are early interdisciplinary practitioners, only with a lot less fanfare.

The tradition of knowledge and open sharing is still alive, even if it is beginning to come under greater threat, as new divisions are set up (with tax-dollars) to regulate the formerly ‘freewheeling’ world of the cyberworlds. Some of it is necessary since unethical corporations, scammers and evil-doers have begun to stake a claim on the cyberturf.  But it does seem that as much resources is expended on going after the ‘good’ guys. There is less community support for the likes of Swartz as the institutions that seek to demonize them become ever more powerful.

The 2600 magazines that used to be regularly banned from schools and some bookstores.

Even though I have lost touch with almost all of these people from so long ago, they have shaped my interest and knowledge in technology and computers that had never completely disappeared, and in fact, spurred my nascent interest in information democracy, access, and empowerment, to understand what really goes on behind the technology you are using. It is sad that, today, it is harder to easily find these people freely communing and hanging out together as their space is increasingly encroached on by others. It is becoming worse now, than in those back then, as wired and wireless access is increasingly controlled by telcos whose main goal is not about creating access but increasing the amount of profit they can make for their shareholders, even if such profits have no long-term value. This means making good internet access LESS ACCESSIBLE for those who could not afford to pay. If there were many backlash in the 1980s and 1990s with regard to federal control of radio waves, there seem to be less of that when it comes to monopoly control of wireless access. What does that now say for the majority of the people who are the consumers of such infrastructures? Back then, hackers used to build their own structures as alternatives to the existing structures, which, in today’s climate, is becoming increasingly harder to do.

There are a number of books and publications out there about hackers and their culture, but I plan to write a more analytical piece that would look more deeply in this culture outside of the most obvious.


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