Tue, Aug 30, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Inside the secret world of hackers

By Heather Brooke  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

Hackerspaces are the digital-age equivalent of English Enlightenment coffee houses. They are places open to all, indifferent to social status and where ideas and knowledge hold primary value.

In 17th-century England, the social equality and meritocracy of coffee houses was so deeply troubling to those in power that King Charles II tried to suppress them for being “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.”

It was in the coffee houses that information previously held in secret and by elites was shared with an emerging middle class. They were held responsible for many of the social reforms of the 18th century, when English public life was transformed.

Hackerspaces could prove to be as important for reform in the digital age. While collectives of rogue hackers, such as Anonymous and Lulzsec, have grabbed headlines with their mischievous hacks of personal information from Sony, News International and governments, hackerspaces have quietly focused on creating alternatives to the things they see wrong in society: secretive government, unfettered corporate power, invasion of privacy. Bradley Manning, the US Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking files to WikiLeaks, attended the launch of BUILDS, a hackerspace at Boston University last year. In Sweden, the hacker collective Telecomix has been involved in keeping lines of communication open in Middle Eastern countries when political leaders shut down networks.

As part of the research for my book The Revolution Will Be Digitised, I traveled to Berlin to meet the group of hackers known as the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). The club was so named not because it set out to cause chaos, but rather because one of the founders, Wau Holland, felt the chaos theory offered the best explanation for how the world actually worked.

Dutch hacker and entrepreneur Rop Gonggrijp says the club is about “adapting to a world which is, and always has been, much more chaotic and non-deterministic than is often believed.”

In Berlin, just after Christmas last year, more than 2,000 hackers and information activists gathered at the CCC’s annual conference to discuss technology and the future. Gonggrijp gave the keynote speech, which was startlingly prescient in light of subsequent uprisings, revolutions and riots.

“Most of today’s politicians realize that nobody in their ministries, or any of their expensive consultants, can tell them what is going on any more,” Gonggrijp said. “They have a steering wheel in their hands without a clue what — if anything — it is connected to. Our leaders are reassuring us that the ship will certainly survive the growing storm, but on closer inspection they are either quietly pocketing the silverware or discreetly making their way to the lifeboats.”

The hacker community may be small, but it possesses the skills that are driving the global economies of the future. So what is a hacker?

Hackers often describe what they do as playfully creative problem solving. It is much easier to attack than to defend a system, so the best hackers are those who build things. The ones who break them are known as “crackers.” The World Wide Web and free software operating systems such as the GNU Project and the Linux kernel could all be considered hacker creations. Even Facebook began as a hack.

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