As a child, all of my time was spent reading – at the age of 8 or 9 I was staying up all night reading the likes of Dickens and Verne, at 11 or 12, I was tearing through encyclopedias, medical texts, and anything else I could get my hands on. I had a love for learning, for understanding, a desire to know everything, and an insatiable curiosity that often led me in interesting directions (in that ancient curse “may you have an interesting life” kind of way). Then one day my father came home with a large box – and my world was changed forever.
I don’t remember the year – but I remember well the feeling of awe every time I heard my 2400 baud modem negotiating a connection, linking me to another world, a better world. I soon started finding other people like me, that thought the same way I did – we were all alike, too smart for our own good. One day I stumbled upon a short essay – and though I had read many of the greatest books ever written, none of them resonated with me in the same way this short essay did:
The following was written shortly after my arrest...
\/\The Conscience of a Hacker/\/
Written on January 8, 1986
Another one got caught today, it's all over the papers. "Teenager
Arrested in Computer Crime Scandal", "Hacker Arrested after Bank Tampering"...
Damn kids. They're all alike.
But did you, in your three-piece psychology and 1950's technobrain,
ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker? Did you ever wonder what
made him tick, what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?
I am a hacker, enter my world...
Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of
the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me...
Damn underachiever. They're all alike.
I'm in junior high or high school. I've listened to teachers explain
for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. "No, Ms.
Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head..."
Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike.
I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is
cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I
screwed it up. Not because it doesn't like me...
Or feels threatened by me...
Or thinks I'm a smart ass...
Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here...
Damn kid. All he does is play games. They're all alike.
And then it happened... a door opened to a world... rushing through
the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins, an electronic pulse is
sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is
"This is it... this is where I belong..."
I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to
them, may never hear from them again... I know you all...
Damn kid. Tying up the phone line again. They're all alike...
You bet your ass we're all alike... we've been spoon-fed baby food at
school when we hungered for steak... the bits of meat that you did let slip
through were pre-chewed and tasteless. We've been dominated by sadists, or
ignored by the apathetic. The few that had something to teach found us will-
ing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.
This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the
beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying
for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and
you call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek
after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color,
without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals.
You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us
and try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is
that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like.
My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me
I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual,
but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike.
The work goes by many names:
- The Hacker’s Manifesto
- The Conscience of a Hacker
- The Mentor’s Manifesto
- The Mentor’s Last Words
By whatever name you want to call it, it speaks to a generation that found something amazing – a world of peers, a world where information was shared freely and not horded for power or money, a world where your only limitation was your own mind. It was a brotherhood2 – and yet I had never actually met any of them (and years later, I still have met very few).
Perhaps it’s a side effect of being raised in a pentecostal church, but I can’t help but read that text with a certain religious fervor – like a preacher at a digital pulpit calling to his brothers and sisters to stand. Instead of fire and brimstone, he spoke of acceptance and understand; instead of pleading for forgiveness, he taught to seek knowledge and truth.
I learned many things from this brotherhood – I learned about people and cultures, I learned that your mind is the only asset you have that really matters. I also learned some less philosophical things as well – I learned to explore computer systems, to break their security, and to find what really makes them tick. I learned to code so that I could explore faster, I learned to secure systems to protect them from the rogues that didn’t accept the ethics of the time.
There were clear lines, and strong ethics – while there were rouges, anarchists who loved to destroy, and crackers as they were called – just out for a buck, most of us followed the rules. You didn’t do anything malicious – never damage or destroy anything, and you left things more secure than you found them. It was all about learning, all about exploring – it was a quest for knowledge.
I learned much in that quest, if not for that brotherhood it’s unlikely that I would have learned so much about software development or systems security, not to mention making a career out if it.
Today, things are different. That generation has moved on, mostly to the corporate world – driven by another need: food. Groups like Anonymous claim to stand for the common good – but no good comes from destructive techniques (especially when executed by those that don’t understand what they are doing). The brotherhood that accepted everybody without question is no more – now we have governments playing along, cracking groups drawn along religious and racial lines, and anarchists that destroy much in the name of doing a little good (i.e. the legacy of groups like LulzSec).
It’s a different world.
2 – This is a good time to point out that hackers and crackers are very different – please look at the word “hacker” in its original context.
This post was originally written in 2012, but never published. The reference to LulzSec for example, does show the age, but the point is as valid as ever.