Brett Scott on Mon, 10 Aug 2015 16:56:19 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Gentrification of Hacking: How yuppies hacked the hacker ethos

Dear Nettimers,

   My new essay in Aeon Magazine on 'The Gentrification of Hacking: How
   yuppies hacked the hacker ethos' can be found here


   You can find a long excerpt below. Comments welcome

   Brett Scott

   EXCERPT (starts about half way through the article):

   The word `hacker' came into its own in the age of information
   technology (IT) and the personal computer. The subtitle of Levy's
   seminal book - Heroes of the Computer Revolution - immediately situated
   hackers as the crusaders of computer geek culture. While some hacker
   principles he described were broad - such as `mistrust authority' and
   `promote decentralisation' - others were distinctly IT-centric. `You
   can create art and beauty on a computer,' read one. `All information
   should be free,' declared another.

   Ever since, most popular representations of the hacker way have
   followed Levy's lead. Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash
   (1992) featured the code-wielding Hiro as the `last of the freelance
   hackers'. The film Hackers (1995) boasted a youthful crew of
   jargon-rapping, keyboard-hammering computer ninjas. The media
   stereotype that began to be constructed was of a precocious computer
   genius using his technological mastery to control events or battle
   others. It remains popular to this day. In the James Bond film Skyfall
   (2012), the gadget-master Q is reinvented by the actor Ben Whishaw as a
   young hacker with a laptop, controlling lines of code with almost
   superhuman efficiency, as if his brain was wired directly into the

   In a sense, then, computers were the making of the hacker, at least as
   a popular cultural image. But they were also its undoing. If the
   popular imagination hadn't chained the hacker figure so forcefully to
   IT, it's hard to believe it ever would have been demonised in the way
   it has been, or that it could have been so effectively defanged.

   Computers, and especially the internet, are a primary means of
   subsistence for many. This understandably increases public anxiety at
   the bogeyman figure of the criminal `hacker', the dastardly villain who
   breaches computer security to steal and cause havoc. Never mind that in
   `true' hacker culture - as found in hackerspaces, maker-labs and
   open-source communities around the world - the mechanical act of
   breaking into a computer is just one manifestation of the drive to
   explore beyond established boundaries. In the hands of a sensationalist
   media, the ethos of hacking is conflated with the act of cracking
   computer security. Anyone who does that, regardless of the underlying
   ethos, is a `hacker'. Thus a single manifestation of a single element
   of the original spirit gets passed off as the whole.

   Through the lens of moral panic, a narrative emerges of hackers as a
   class of computer attack-dogs. Their primary characteristics become
   aggression and amorality. How to guard against them? How, indeed, to
   round out the traditional good-versus-evil narrative? Well, naturally,
   with a class of poacher-turned-gamekeepers. And so we find the
   construction of `white-hat' hackers, protective and upstanding computer
   wizards for the public good.

   Here is where the second form of corruption begins to emerge. The
   construct of the `good hacker' has paid off in unexpected ways, because
   in our computerised world we have also seen the emergence of a huge,
   aggressively competitive technology industry with a serious innovation
   obsession. This is the realm of startups, venture capitalists, and
   shiny corporate research and development departments. And, it is here,
   in subcultures such as Silicon Valley, that we find a rebel spirit
   succumbing to perhaps the only force that could destroy it:

   Gentrification is the process by which nebulous threats are pacified
   and alchemised into money. A raw form - a rough neighbourhood,
   indigenous ritual or edgy behaviour such as parkour (or free running) -
   gets stripped of its otherness and repackaged to suit mainstream
   sensibilities. The process is repetitive. Desirable, unthreatening
   elements of the source culture are isolated, formalised and emphasised,
   while the unsettling elements are scrubbed away.

   Key to any gentrification process are successive waves of pioneers who
   gradually reduce the perceived risk of the form in question. In
   property gentrification, this starts with the artists and disenchanted
   dropouts from mainstream society who are drawn to marginalised areas.
   Despite their countercultural impulses, they always carry with them
   traces of the dominant culture, whether it be their skin colour or
   their desire for good coffee. This, in turn, creates the seeds for
   certain markets to take root. A WiFi coffeeshop appears next to the
   Somalian community centre. And that, in turn, sends signals back into
   the mainstream that the area is slightly less alien than it used to be.

   If you repeat this cycle enough times, the perceived dangers that keep
   the property developers and yuppies away gradually erode. Suddenly, the
   tipping point arrives. Through a myriad of individual actions under no
   one person's control, the exotic other suddenly appears within a safe
   frame: interesting, exciting and cool, but not threatening. It becomes
   open to a carefree voyeurism, like a tiger being transformed into a zoo
   animal, and then a picture, and then a tiger-print dress to wear at
   cocktail parties. Something feels `gentrified' when this shallow
   aesthetic of tiger takes over from the authentic lived experience of

   This is not just about property. In cosmetics shops on Oxford Street in
   London you can find beauty products blazoned with pagan earth-mother
   imagery. Why are symbols of earth-worship found within the citadels of
   consumerism, printed on products designed to neutralise and control
   bodily processes? They've been gentrified. Pockets of actual paganism
   do still exist, but in the mainstream such imagery has been thoroughly
   cleansed of any subversive context.

   At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being -
   lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses.
   Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed
   over to become a safe `thing that white people like'. Gentrification is
   an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of
   relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were
   formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent.

   We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The
   countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the
   preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The
   association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with
   an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds
   tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx
   into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals
   results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking
   over the subversive ones.

   Silicon Valley has come to host, on the one hand, a large number of
   highly educated tech-savvy people who loosely perceive themselves as
   rebels set against existing modes of doing business. On the other hand,
   it contains a very large pool of venture capital. The former group
   jostle for the investor money by explicitly attempting to build network
   monopolies - such as those created by Facebook and Google - for the
   purpose of extracting windfall profit for the founders and for the
   investors that back them, and perhaps, for the large corporates who
   will buy them out.

   In this economic context, curiosity, innovation and iterative
   experimentation are ultimate virtues, and this element of the hacker
   ethic has proved to be an appealing frame for people to portray their
   actions within. Traits such as the drive for individual empowerment and
   the appreciation of clever solutions already resemble the traits of the
   entrepreneur. In this setting, the hacker attitude of playful
   troublemaking can be cast in Schumpeterian terms: success-driven
   innovators seeking to `disrupt' old incumbents within a market in an
   elite `rebellion'.

   Thus the emergent tech industry's definition of `hacking' as
   quirky-but-edgy innovation by optimistic entrepreneurs with a love of
   getting things done. Nothing sinister about it: it's just on-the-fly
   problem-solving for profit. This gentrified pitch is not just a cool
   personal narrative. It's also a useful business construct, helping the
   tech industry to distinguish itself from the aggressive squares of Wall
   Street, competing for the same pool of new graduates.

   Indeed, the revised definition of the tech startup entrepreneur as a
   hacker forms part of an emergent system of Silicon Valley doublethink:
   individual startups portray themselves as `underdogs' while
   simultaneously being aware of the enormous power and wealth the tech
   industry they're a part of wields at a collective level. And so we see
   a gradual stripping away of the critical connotations of hacking. Who
   said a hacker can't be in a position of power? Google cloaks itself in
   a quirky `hacker' identity, with grown adults playing ping pong on
   green AstroTurf in the cafeteria, presiding over the company's
   overarching agenda of network control.

   This doublethink bleeds through into mainstream corporate culture, with
   the growing institution of the corporate `hackathon'. We find financial
   giants such as Barclays hosting startup accelerators and financial
   technology hackathons at forums such as the FinTech Innovation Lab in
   Canary Wharf in London, ostensibly to discover the `future of
   finance'... or at least the future of payment apps that they can buy
   out. In this context, the hacker ethic is hollowed out and subsumed
   into the ideology of solutionism, to use a term coined by the
   Belarusian-born tech critic Evgeny Morozov. It describes the
   tech-industry vision of the world as a series of problems waiting for
   (profitable) solutions.

   This process of gentrification becomes a war over language. If enough
   newcomers with media clout use the hollowed-out version of the term,
   its edge grows dull. You end up with a mere affectation, failing to
   challenge otherwise conventional aspirations. And before you know it,
   an earnest Stanford grad is handing me a business card that says,
   without irony: `Founder. Investor. Hacker.'

   Brett Scott / [2]@suitpossum / 079 8243 7769 / [3]LinkedIn / [4]Blog

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