Hacking the Hacker: Shedding Light on a Technological Craft

If you were to stop someone on the street today, anyone really, and asked them about their understanding of what a hacker is, you would most likely receive descriptions of very “meddlesome” or “manipulative” individuals who are always on the ready to do no good with their clickety-clicking, descriptions of distrustful people just waiting to invade your devices by any means necessary.

Today, and for the longest while, hackers have mostly been portrayed as a sort of immoral subset of digital others. However, it would appear that this is only a misrepresentation of people who simply hold an in-depth understanding of digital devices and how they function. There is an abundance of evidence that sheds light on the hacking culture and proves it to be much broader than what many people believe it to be. Hacking goes beyond breaking into computer networks and security systems, and one college professor's research does well at advocating for the unappreciated hacker culture.

Kevin Steinmetz is an assistant professor of anthropology, social work and sociology at Kansas State University's (KSU) College of Arts and Science. He researches and studies technology crimes and hacking culture. Through his latest endeavor, he provides a different perspective to our understanding of hacking by essentially posing two questions: what is a hacker and what does it mean to hack? His discovery might come as a surprise to some and perhaps disappoint others. Regardless, it would seem that hacking, much like carpentry, metalwork or pottery, is just another modern day craft.

Steinmetz's study involved field research of an ethnographic kind. The professor met with hacking groups in Texas in order to observe them and study their culture. He performed interviews to gain a better comprehension of how they perceive themselves and what they do.

It was found that, despite the actions of a very small yet very loud minority, hacking is and always has been about programming and the application of such skills. What began as a nerdy, tech-obsessed pass-time has grown into a variant subculture. However, the world tends to focus on a tiny demographic of this subculture that has been made infamous by a more prominent security culture.

Steinmetz reports, “Hacking is crafty and also looks a lot like craftsmanship. Perhaps the best way we can understand hacking is as a transgressive, technological craft.”

By analyzing the various perceptions and characteristics of hackers, Steinmetz's research uncovered similarities between hacking and craftwork. These parallels include: an emphasis on skill, a deep sense of commitment, a particular mentality, guild-like social and learning structures, common experiences, and tendencies toward transgression.

The term hacking gained negative connotations due to modern political and media discussions where it is often used to describe outcomes like network intrusions and credit card theft, but these depictions tend to overlook the fact that hacking is more about the process than the results. Steinmetz advocates that those who utilize their programming skills solely for results are not “true” hackers. “They have to take on the quantities of craftsmen – someone who enjoys their work and is dedicated to it.”

Professor Kevin Steinmetz's research is an enlightening insight and is available in the British Journal of Criminology.


Image: Flickr's Creative Commons 

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