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Hacker Culture

Hacker Culture
Douglas Thomas
Hacker Culture
There were reasons that I abandoned the analysis of art and literature after college. Truth be told, I never much participated in them while I was in college, making me a pretty mediocre English and art major. The main problem was just that there was so much outright fabrication involved. Fabrication is perfectly fine when one is writing literature or creating art, but completely bogus when talking about it. I used to roll my eyes so often in classes that I would occasionally pull muscles. I remember one discussion in art class in which we were discussing a gallery show that we had just visited called Taxonomy and Communion. The show itself was pretty hackneyed photography, but the professor had mistakenly written down the title as Taxidermy and Communion. What followed was a lengthy discussion about the theme of taxidermy and how it related to communion through the medium of photography. When it finally came to light that the title had nothing to do with stuffing deer, and was instead about classification schemes, the professor tried to pass it off as an interesting illustration of the way that postmodernism interprets a text from the reader’s perspective, and how meaning is never fixed. Nowhere was the admission that we had just gotten the title — and the point of the exhibit– wrong. And that was pretty much the end of my last shred of faith in critical interpretation. Somehow, the “critical” part got lost, and it was just interpretation, and damn the facts, even when they’re spelled out in black and white text on the gallery wall.
Hacker Culture does a bit of that, and those portions of the book make me wrinkle my nose in disgust. In particular, there’s some very silly analysis of Mentor’s Hacker Manifesto, as read through the eyes of a sociologist. However, those parts aside, Hacker Culture is not a bad read. While it does a bit of masturbatory academic fabricating in parts, there’s also some fairly rich and interesting history. The chapters about the representation of hackers in popular culture and the resulting demonization of hackers by the legal system is complex, insightful, and well-supported. The bits where Thomas lets the hackers speak for themselves, rather than playing the role of distanced interpretor, are quite good. Thomas manages to be not quite as adoring as Steven Levy, and not quite as critical as the popular press. When he manages to walk this line without giving in to his speculative sociologist’s (in)sensibilities, Hacker Culture succeeds in being a good (and useful) book.

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