First, the meaning of hacker.
The word originally meant an inventive type, someone creative and unconventional, usually involved in a technical feat of legerdemain, a person who saw doors where others saw walls or built bridges that others thought were planks on which to walk into shark-filled seas. Hackers were alive with the spirit of Loki or Coyote or the Trickster, moving with stealth across boundaries, often spurning conventional ways of thinking and behaving. Hackers see deeply into the arbitrariness of structures, how form and content are assembled in subjective and often random ways and therefore how they can be defeated or subverted. They see atoms where others see a seeming solid, and they know that atoms are approximations of energies, abstractions, mathematical constructions. At the top level, they see the skull behind the grin, the unspoken or unacknowledged but shared assumptions of a fallible humanity. That's why, as in Zen monasteries, where mountains are mountains and then they are not mountains and then they are mountains again, hacker lofts are filled with bursts of loud spontaneous laughter.
Then the playful creative things they did in the protected space of their mainframe heaven, a playfulness fueled by the passion to know, to solve puzzles, outwit adversaries, never be bested or excluded by arbitrary fences, never be rendered powerless, those actions began to be designated acts of criminal intent. That happened when the space inside the mainframes was extended through distributed networks and ported to the rest of the world where things are assumed to be what they seem. A psychic space designed to be open, more or less, for trusted communities to inhabit, became a general platform of communication and commerce and security became a concern and an add-on. Legal distinctions which seemed to have been obliterated by new technologies and a romantic fanciful view of cyberspace áa la Perry Barlow were reformulated for the new not-so-much cyberspace as cyborgspace where everyone was coming to live. Technologies are first astonishing, then grafted onto prior technologies, then integrated so deeply they are constitutive of new ways of seeing and acting, which is when they become invisible.
A small group, a subset of real hackers, mobile crews who merely entered and looked around or pilfered unsecured information, became the definition the media and then everybody else used for the word "hacker." A hacker became a criminal, usually defined as a burglar or vandal, and the marks of hacking were the same as breaking and entering, spray painting graffiti on web site walls rather than brick, stealing passwords or credit card numbers.
At first real hackers tried to take back the word but once a word is lost, the war is lost. "Hacker" now means for most people a garden variety of online miscreant and words suggested as substitutes like technophile just don't have the same juice.
So let's use the word hacker here to mean what we know we mean because no one has invented a better word. We don't mean script kiddies, vandals, or petty thieves. We mean men and women who do original creative work and play at the tip of the bell curve, not in the hump, we mean the best and brightest who cobble together new images of possibility and announce them to the world. Original thinkers. Meme makers. Artists of pixels and empty spaces.
Second, the meaning of "hacker generations."
In a speech at the end of his two terms as president, Dwight Eisenhower coined the phrase "military-industrial complex" to warn of the consequences of a growing seamless collusion between the state and the private sector. He warned of a changing approach to scientific research which in effect meant that military and government contracts were let to universities and corporations, redefining not only the direction of research but what was thinkable or respectable in the scientific world. At the same time, a "closed world" as Paul N. Edwards phrased it in his book of the same name, was evolving, an enclosed psychic landscape formed by our increasingly symbiotic interaction with the symbol-manipulating and identity-altering space of distributed computing, a space that emerged after World War II and came to dominate military and then societal thinking.
Eisenhower and Edwards were in a way describing the same event, the emergence of a massive state-centric collaboration that redefined our psychic landscape. After half a century Eisenhower is more obviously speaking of the military-industrial-educational-entertainment-and-media establishment that is the water in which we swim, a tangled inescapable mesh of collusion and self-interest that defines our global economic and political landscape.
The movie calls it The Matrix. The Matrix issues from the fusion of cyborg space and the economic and political engines that drive it, a simulated world in which the management of perception is the cornerstone of war-and-peace (in the Matrix, war is peace and peace is war, as Orwell foretold). The battlespace is as perhaps it always has been the mind of society but the digital world has raised the game to a higher level. The game is multidimensional, multi-valent, played in string space. The manipulation of symbols through electronic means, a process which began with speech and writing and was then engineered through tools of literacy and printing is the currency of the closed world of our CyborgSpace and the military-industrial engines that power it.
This Matrix then was created through the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies, often invisible to the hackers who lived in and breathed it. The "hackers" noticed by the panoptic eye of the media and elevated to niche celebrity status were and always have been creatures of the Matrix. The generations before them were military, government, corporate and think-tank people who built the machinery and its webbed spaces.
So I mean by the First Generation of Hackers, this much later generation of hackers that emerged in the eighties and nineties when the internet became an event and they were designated the First Hacker Generation, the ones who invented Def Con and all its spin-offs, who identified with garage-level hacking instead of the work of prior generations that made it possible.
Marshall McLuhan saw clearly the nature and consequences of electronic media but it was not television, his favorite example, so much as the internet that provided illustrations for his text. Only when the Internet had evolved in the military-industrial complex and moved through incarnations like Arpanet and Milnet into the public spaces of our society did people begin to understand what he was saying.
Young people who became conscious as the Internet became public discovered a Big Toy of extraordinary proportions. The growing availability of cheap ubiquitous home computers became their platform and when they were plugged into one another, the machines and their cyborg riders fused. They co-created the dot.com boom and the public net, and made necessary the "security space" perceived as essential today to a functional society. All day and all night like Bedouin they roamed the network where they would, hidden by sand dunes that changed shape and size overnight in the desert winds. That generation of hackers inhabited Def Con in the "good old days," the early nineties, and the other cons. They shaped the perception as well as the reality of the public Internet as their many antecedents at MIT, NSA, DOD and all the other three-letter agencies co-created the Matrix.
So I mean by the First Generation of Hackers that extended or distributed network of passionate obsessive and daring young coders who gave as much as they got, invented new ways of sending text, images, sounds, and looked for wormholes that let them cross through the non-space of the network and bypass conventional routes. They constituted an online meritocracy in which they bootstrapped themselves into surrogate families and learned together by trial and error, becoming a model of self-directed corporate networked learning. They created a large-scale interactive system, self-regulating and self-organizing, flexible, adaptive, and unpredictable, the very essence of a cybernetic system.
Then the Second Generation came along. They had not co-created the network so much as found it around them as they became conscious. Just a few years younger, they inherited the network created by their "elders." The network was assumed and socialized them as to how they should think and act. Video games were there when they learned how to play. Web sites instead of bulletin boards with everything they needed to know were everywhere. The way a prior generation was surrounded by books or television and became readers and somnambulistic watchers , the Second Generation was immersed in the network and became surfers. But unlike the First Generation which knew their own edges more keenly, the net made them cyborgs without anyone noticing. They were assimilated. They were the first children of the Matrix.
In a reversal of the way children learned from parents, the Second Generation taught their parents to come online which they did but often with a different agenda. Some of their elders came to the net as a platform for business, a means of making profits, creating economies of scale, and expanding into a global market. Both inhabited a simulated world characterized by porous or disappearing boundaries and if they still spoke of a "digital frontier," evoking the romantic myths of the EFF and the like, that frontier was much more myth than fact, as much a creation of the dream weavers at CFP as "the old west" was a creation of paintings, dime novels and movies.
They were not only fish in the water of the Matrix, however, they were goldfish in a bowl. That environment to which I have alluded, the military-industrial complex in which the internet evolved in the first place, had long since built concentric circles of observation or surveillance that enclosed them around. Anonymizers promising anonymity were created by the ones who wanted to know their names. Hacker handles and multiple nyms hid not only hackers but those who tracked them. The extent of this panoptic world was hidden by denial and design. Most on it and in it didn't know it. Most believed the symbols they manipulated as if they were the things they represented, as if their tracks really vanished when they erased traces in logs or blurred the means of documentation. They thought they were watchers but in fact were also watched. The Eye that figures so prominently in Blade Runner was always open, a panoptic eye. The system could not be self-regulating if it were not aware of itself, after all. The net is not a dumb machine, it is sentient and aware because it is fused bone-on-steel with its cyborg riders and their sensory and cognitive extensions.
Cognitive dissonance grew as the Second Generation spawned the Third. The ambiguities of living in simulated worlds, the morphing of multiple personas or identities, meant that no one was ever sure who was who. Dissolving boundaries around individuals and organizational structures alike ("The internet? C'est moi!") meant that identity based on loyalty, glue born of belonging to a larger community and the basis of mutual trust, could not be presumed.
It's all about knowing where the nexus is, what transpires there at the connections. The inner circles may be impossible to penetrate but in order to recruit people into them, there must be a conversation and that conversation is the nexus, the distorted space into which one is unknowingly invited and often subsequently disappears. Colleges, universities, businesses, associations are discovered to be Potemkin villages behind which the real whispered dialogue takes place. The closed and so-called open worlds interpenetrate one another to such a degree that the nexus is difficult to discern. History ends and numerous histories take their place, each formed of an arbitrary association and integration of data classified or secret at multiple levels and turned into truths, half-truths, and outright lies.
Diffie-Hellman's public key cryptography, for example, was a triumph of ingenious thinking, putting together bits of data, figuring it out, all outside the system, but Whit Diffie was abashed when he learned that years earlier (1969) James Ellis inside the "closed world" of British intelligence had already been there and done that. The public world of hackers often reinvents what has been discovered years earlier inside the closed world of compartmentalized research behind walls they can not so easily penetrate. (People really can keep secrets and do.) PGP was - well, do you really think that PGP was news to the closed world?
In other words, the Second Generation of Hackers, socialized to a networked world, also began to discover another world or many other worlds that included and transcended what was publicly known. There have always been secrets but there have not always been huge whole secret WORLDS whose citizens live with a different history entirely but that's what we have built since the Second World War. That's the metaphor at the heart of the Matrix and that's why it resonates with the Third Generation. A surprising discovery for the Second Generation as it matured is the basis for high-level hacking for the Third.
The Third Generation of Hackers knows it was socialized to a world co-created by its legendary brethren as well as numerous nameless men and women. They know that we inhabit multiple thought-worlds with different histories, histories dependent on which particular bits of data can be bought on the black market for truth and integrated into Bigger Pictures. The Third Generation knows there is NO one Big Picture, there are only bigger or smaller pictures depending on the pieces one assembles. Assembling those pieces, finding them, connecting them, then standing back to see what they say - that is the essence of Third Generation hacking. That is the task demanded by the Matrix which is otherwise our prison, where inmates and guards are indistinguishable from each other because we are so proud of what we have built that we refuse to let one another escape.
That challenge demands that real Third Generation hackers be expert at every level of the fractal that connects all the levels of the network. It includes the most granular examination of how electrons are turned into bits and bytes, how percepts as well as concepts are framed and transported in network-centric warfare/peacefare, how all the layers link to one another, which distinctions between them matter and which don't. How the seemingly topmost application layer is not the end but the beginning of the real challenge, where the significance and symbolic meaning of the manufactured images and ideas that constitute the cyborg network create a trans-planetary hive mind. That's where the game is played today by the masters of the unseen, where those ideas and images become the means of moving the herd, percept turned into concept, people thinking they actually think when what has in fact already been thought for them has moved on all those layers into their unconscious constructions of reality.
Hacking means knowing how to find data in the Black Market for truth, knowing what to do with it once it is found, knowing how to cobble things together to build a Big Picture. The puzzle to be solved is reality itself, the nature of the Matrix, how it all relates. So unless you're hacking the Mind of God, unless you're hacking the mind of society itself, you aren't really hacking at all. Rather than designing arteries through which the oil or blood of a cyborg society flows, you are the dye in those arteries, all unknowing that you function like a marker or a bug or a beeper or a gleam of revealing light. You become a means of control, a symptom rather than a cure.
The Third Generation of Hackers grew up in a simulated world, a designer society of electronic communication, but sees through the fictions and the myths. Real hackers discover in their fear and trembling the courage and the means to move through zones of annihilation in which everything we believe to be true is called into question in order to reconstitute both what is known and our knowing Self on the higher side of self-transformation. Real hackers know that the higher calling is to hack the Truth in a society built on designer lies and then - the most subtle, most difficult part - manage their egos and that bigger picture with stealth and finesse in the endless ambiguity and complexity of their lives.
The brave new world of the past is now everyday life. Everybody knows that identities can be stolen which means if they think that they know they can be invented. What was given to spies by the state as a sanction for breaking laws is now given to real hackers by technologies that make spies of us all.
Psychological operations and information warfare are controls in the management of perception taking place at all levels of society, from the obvious distortions in the world of politics to the obvious distortions of balance sheets and earnings reports in the world of economics. Entertainment, too, the best vehicle for propaganda according to Joseph Goebbels, includes not only obvious propaganda but movies like The Matrix that serve as sophisticated controls, creating a subset of people who think they know and thereby become more docile. Thanks for that one, SN.
The only free speech tolerated is that which does not genuinely threaten the self-interest of the oligarchic powers that be. The only insight acceptable to those powers is insight framed as entertainment or an opposition that can be managed and manipulated.
Hackers know they don't know what's real and know they can only build provisional models as they move in stealthy trusted groups of a few. They must assume that if they matter, they are known which takes the game immediately to another level.
So the Matrix like any good cybernetic system is self-regulating, builds controls, has multiple levels of complexity masking partial truth as Truth. Of what else could life consist in a cyborg world? All over the world, in low-earth orbit, soon on the moon and the asteroid belt, this game is played with real money. It is no joke. The surrender of so many former rights - habeas corpus, the right to a trial, the freedom from torture during interrogation, freedom of movement without "papers" in one's own country - has changed the playing field forever, changed the game.
Third Generation Hacking means accepting nothing at face value, learning to counter counter-threats with counter-counter-counter-moves. It means all means and ends are provisional and likely to transform themselves like alliances on the fly.
Third Generation Hacking is the ability to free the mind, to live vibrantly in a world without walls.
Do not be deceived by uniforms, theirs or ours, or language that serves as uniforms, or behaviors. There is no theirs or ours, no us or them. There are only moments of awareness at the nexus where fiction myth and fact touch, there are only moments of convergence. But if it is all on behalf of the Truth it is Hacking. Then it can not fail because the effort defines what it means to be human in a cyborg world. Hackers are aware of the paradox, the irony and the impossibility of the mission as well as the necessity nevertheless of pursuing it, despite everything. That is, after all, why they're hackers.
Thanks to Simple Nomad, David Aitel, Sol Tzvi, Fred Cohen, Jaya Baloo, and many others for the ongoing conversations that helped me frame this article.
Richard Thieme speaks writes and consults about life on the edge, creativity and innovation, and the human dimensions of technology.