Annika Richterich Annika Richterich Arjen Schmitz

The ins and outs of hacking

In Culture
Written by  Jolien Linssen Friday, 21 October 2016 07:40

What do you think of when you imagine a hacker? A solitary, nerdy guy in his mid-30s breaking into a computer system? Or the Guy Fawkes mask, the symbol of the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous? Reality turns out to be much more nuanced, as we learn from assistant professor of Digital Culture Annika Richterich.


It seems like a simple question: what is hacking? “Well, that’s actually quite a difficult one”, Richterich says. “Since the emergence of hacker culture in the late 1950s, many different meanings have been attached to it. The most common one is that of hacking as a criminal activity; breaking into systems in order to steal data or information.” Perceived as a major threat, this kind of hacking – sometimes called ‘cracking’ – probably receives the most media attention. But it’s not the whole picture.

Creative and innovative
Hacking developed from the programmer subculture, particularly – but not exclusively – at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Initially the term referred to creative, innovative and enthusiastic engagement with emerging information and communications technology. “The first hackers were involved in things like programming early computers”, Richterich explains. “A prominent example of a hacking community is the free software movement founded by Richard Stallman, where developers created a non-proprietary operating system, among other things. Users are free to run and share the software, and because they can access the source code, they can study and modify it.”

The idea is that citizens have the right to understand and access the technologies they use. Richterich: “Members of hacking communities generally believe in values such as technological openness and the freedom of information.” This can clash with the interests of corporations – but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all anti-corporate. “Some business models are built on open source software. It can be very interesting for corporations: an open source approach allows them to benefit from voluntary developers who help to maintain and improve their software.”

Hacking versus making
Richterich recently returned from a trip to the United Kingdom, where it became clear that members of hacking communities are still busy figuring out for themselves exactly what hacking means. The issue is complicated by the emergence of ‘maker’ culture, which is closely intertwined with hacker culture.

“In the UK, I visited both hacker- and makerspaces. These places are used as shared workshops by people interested in digital technologies, such as developers, software engineers, artists and artisans; they come here to create things. By organising as a group, they have access to spaces and machines they couldn’t afford on their own. Also very important for them is the sense of community. A member of the Oxford Hackerspace told me, ‘I get people here, and I feel understood.’”

The spaces Richterich visited had similar types of equipment: most had a wood and metal workshop, as well as 3D printers, laser cutters, and sewing and welding machines. “At the London Hackerspace somebody was making a table in the cellar, while upstairs people were working on a computer program.” So can fabricating a table, even if it is with the help of digital technology, be considered a form of hacking? “If someone is creating products, like a craftsman, I’d consider this making. Hacking would be the activity of working with software, hardware and electronics so as to produce innovative and sometimes unexpected results and to push the boundaries of technology. But this distinction is by no means clear-cut. Different communities are in the process of negotiating the line between hacking and making, and the results may vary.”

Richterich’s interest in hacking started a few years ago, when she and associate professor Karin Wenz organised a hacking marathon. During a ‘hackathon’, hackers are given a limited amount of time to work on an individual or joint project. “The goal was to develop something which could revive interest in the mining heritage of South Limburg.” Soon, she realised these hackathons could serve as the gateway to all sorts of interesting communities.

“It’s a challenge to understand what these different communities are actually doing when they’re not just following the rules of technology, but instead creatively interacting with them. My background is in sociology, so I’m also very interested in the social side of this technological practice.” Gender issues are a hot topic, as most hackerspaces are still dominated by white men. The same holds for ‘hacktivism’, the most famous and controversial example of which is Anonymous, a group that uses hacking as a means of protest, awareness raising and civil disobedience.  

Does Richterich consider herself a hacker? “I’d love to say yes,” she says, “but I’m not a developer and at the moment I’m not creating anything. I’m researching and writing, of course, but to call that hacking would only make the meaning of hacking even more diffuse. There is a collective of researchers who call themselves ‘hackademics’, so I guess you can call me a hackademic.”

Annika Richterich (1984) studied sociology at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) and media economics at the University of Siegen (Germany), where she obtained her PhD. She is assistant professor of Digital Culture at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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