Getting the hacker mentality badly wrong

This is the unedited ver­sion of a piece pub­lished on The Lowy Insti­tute for Inter­na­tional Policy’s Lowy Inter­preter blog.

I have a great deal of respect for the Lowy Institute. But when one of their staff writes a fundamentally flawed, badly misinformed piece on hacker culture, it really is time to scratch one’s head and ask why the viewpoint within public policy think tanks seems so narrow. I suspect it’s to do with where they do their hiring — ex-military, ex-intelligence, ex-policy wonks, largely from a narrow set of fields. Their willingness to extend the set of viewpoints into the wider, progressive and non-insider arena seems to let them down.

James Brown’s piece, Democracy and the hacker mentality, published today at Lowy Interpreter, is so misinformed and fundamentally flawed, I have to wonder whether there’s any research or fact-checking going on. Let me make an attempt at countering some of the misinformation Brown puts forth.

Brown opens with a statement, “Hackers like Julian Assange and many of his supporters have no patience.” He then goes on to posit that the hacker vs system process is a one-on-one process. Let’s just pick this apart.

Brown first fails to understand what a hacker is. Perhaps he didn’t bother to read the Hacker Manifesto (which would have taken all of a couple of minutes research to find), the 1986 seminal document that forms the basis for ethical hacking. He conflates, by misunderstanding hacking, the actions of those who attack systems and organisations (what hackers would refer to as script kiddies) with a desire to better understand the world and what makes it tick.

He also misunderstands the actions of those who protested online last week. What we saw was neither hacking nor cracking, rather something more like the online equivalent to marching on the offices of an organisation.

He seems to think that those with a hacker mentality (to which I proudly raise my hand) aren’t interested in working on the inside. Or hand-in-hand with government. Has he looked at Defence Signals Directorate lately? Or CERT Australia? I’m guessing those folks would be delighted to be tagged as (white hat) hackers.

Brown also fails to understand the true hacker mentality and its deep connections to open democracy and open government. Hacker culture is perhaps the most democratic I know. Authority and, for want of a better word, power, are accorded based on knowledge and ability, on capacity to work with others, rather than on any artificial organisational construct. Those with the hacker mentality are patient, highly cooperative, strong collaborators who seek to expand and share their knowledge, rather than people who “want quick results for little investment, and they work alone”.

Many of those working at the forefront of open government, both as public servants and on the outside of the public sector, are possessed of a rich vein of the hacker mentality. They seek, through their insatiable curiosity, to chip away at the edges of a closed system and break the door ajar to enable the collaboration and cooperation of government with its citizenry.

Brown also seems to think that hacker culture is disinclined to thoroughness and fact checking. In the context of his piece, this is an interesting assertion, given he gets so much wrong in so few words.

As to Brown’s assertions that WikiLeaks is outside the world of journalism, somehow different to any other organisation who might get leaked information dropped on his lap, perhaps he is unfamiliar with the debate in the media sector on the rapidly changing nature of the journalist; how journalism is no longer limited to those who are employed by “media outlets”. Perhaps he should talk to the ABC’s Mark Scott, or NYU professor, Jay Rosen, or look a tthe way progressive media outfits such as The Guardian and The Huffington Post are doing their work.

Brown’s last paragraph shows he simply didn’t bother to look about very hard. While many people working in and around government have been quiet on the matter of WikiLeaks, very many others in several forums have been quite vociferous, both in Australia and overseas. A simple search will reveal comment on blogs, in the traditional media, in forums where public sector workers gather to discuss the issues they face in their work.

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