Hacker Spirituality

Hacker Spirituality

"double identity" by Julie Liger-Belair /

Theologian Anne Foerst suggests that the young man who stole your identity set out to find himself on a quest for freedom.

In the 1960s, calling someone a computer “hacker” was a compliment, and hacking meant creative, unorthodox problem-solving to overcome the limitations of early computers. This understanding of hacking was prevalent until the 1980s when cybercrime became more common and the term “hacking” started to become associated with it.

In 1986, a hacker who called himself “The Mentor” became disturbed by the many arrests of his fellow hackers. He wrote the “Hacker’s Manifesto” to explain what a hacker is at the core. He describes his frustration with teachers explaining math that he was already doing in his head. Then he talks about making a life-changing discovery: A computer does what he tells it to do. If it makes a mistake, it’s because he “screwed up,” not because it doesn’t like him or feels threatened by him or doesn’t like teaching. In other words, the computer is a great teacher and very different from a school teacher. One key component of hacker culture is this deep and abiding love for the computer and what it does—as well as a disdain for formal education. The fact that famous hackers like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk are all college dropouts makes this point. The “Hacker’s Manifesto” inspired many people to become hackers because they identified with The Mentor.

Hacking culture, according to hackers, is a necessary subversive counterculture that stands against the mainstream of society, which has been brainwashed into prioritizing greed, adapting mainstream norms, and becoming fearful of being different. Hackers disdain authority—decentralization is key—and the ultimate goal is an open political system in which free information is promoted. This cannot happen in a system where bureaucracy rules because bureaucracy kills innovation and creativity.

With all these statements, one can safely say that hackers have formed a kind of religion. Its main symbol is the computer, and its ritual is hacking. The malicious use of information is secondary. Rather, the excitement lies in getting to the information, regardless of its content.

One meaning-giving narrative is that of the underestimated and unappreciated underdog who is, in fact, brilliant and will set the world free through hacking. Another meaning-giving narrative is that of a free flow of information, which will set us all free. The “Hacker’s Manifesto” is its sacred text.

This religion creates a strict insider/outsider distinction in which the insiders are the chosen ones through their math abilities and computer savviness. What the insiders share is an interest in tinkering with and advancing computer hardware and software. They are creative, disciplined, and ambitious. They tend to be proud of their craftsmanship and perceive their hacking activities as fun and rewarding. If they work in a computer-related field, the boundaries between work and leisure are blurry, since hacking is not perceived as work. Most hackers have a problem-solving mentality and exchange tips and tools of the trade in online forums and at conferences. Perceiving themselves as outside-the-box thinkers, hackers take pride in their skills and their results. Hacking is perceived as overcoming obstacles, and so the very process of hacking gives them joy; the final result doesn’t matter as much. While all hackers experience the tedium of repetitive tasks and the frustration of experiencing failure, the joy of the process makes such downsides bearable and acceptable.

Often, the turn toward criminal behavior happens gradually and even accidentally. A typical hacker might break into a system for fun and daring. Once inside, the hacker might leave a message and alert the network owner of the weaknesses that let them break in. But some hackers start to look around, explore the illegally entered space, and try to find something valuable that can either be sold, altered, or destroyed for profit.

While criminal hackers—called “black hat” or crackers—can come from all walks of life, the vast majority start as nerdy, young, and male. Hacking becomes a form of rebellion against their parents or a way to enter the adult world on their own terms. Through hacking they gain a kind of independence, which is deepened by the financial independence they get through illegal monetary gains. In a way, youthful hacking becomes a boy culture that is highly competitive, where the less skilled are generally looked down upon and called lame. Hackers commonly taunt each other with threatening overtures designed to provoke fear, and even affection is expressed through aggression. Hacking is not the first religious exploration to become a criminal enterprise, and it won’t be the last, but that knowledge may provide some solace the next time your computer is hacked.

25 Years of Total Aliveness

In our Spring 2000 issue, theologian Anne Foerst wrote from the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, where she was trying to figure out when it would be appropriate to baptize a robot, which meant deciding what separates human beings from other animals. She came up with the metaphor homo narrans (storytelling human). “Why? Because we humans create stories to make sense out of the chaos of our raw perceptions and experiences…To be human is to constantly weave stories. And to be in a culture means to be endlessly woven into a tapestry of more stories. We don’t see them as stories because we are so fully embedded in them.”

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Double identity credit Julie Belair Liger forweb

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