Is Hacking Art? 1
Eng 102 Final Essay July 16, 2008 Christopher Horne
Is Hacking Art?
University of Advancing Technology
Elizabeth Lorang, Professor
Is Hacking Art? 2
Is Hacking Art?
If it is true, as the old New York urban legend goes, that any secret can be told in
a bar within three drinks, then the hacker equivalent would be learning any secret within
six Red Bulls. And learning secrets is the essenceof being a hacker. A hacker, or ‘one who
hacks’, derives from the verb ‘hack’, to chop or cut roughly. There are a variety of connotations,
ranging from the relatively benign to the positively malicious. The modern interpretation has
veered sharply towards the nefarious end of the spectrum of meaning. Hacking is usually meant to
denote a specific type of quasi-criminal computer programmer whose mission it is to illegally
break into other people’s computer systems. The reasons run the gamut from simple curiosity to
criminal intent, such as stealing credit card numbers, passwords, account numbers, extortion for
espionage. There is some consensus that hackers are a disruptive force in society. For hackers, this
disruption is part of their mission in life. A hacker may be defined as someone who enjoys creative
processes involved in computer programming. In corporate America, programmers are often seen
as technicians whose job it is to translate the visions of product managers into code. In damping
the oscillations of creativity in the name of productivity, corporations dump the highs as well as
the lows. For some talented programmers, this regimen lacks sufficient rewards. America has a
great tradition of lionizing people who win by breaking rules. Hackers have this quality, plus an
overriding sense of relentlessness. A great hacker will also possess empathy (which often also
characterizes a great painter). In the closed ethos that defines hacking, visualizing the needs of the
end user (other hackers in this case) constitutes an aesthetic factor very close to the idea of beauty.
Computer science often extols lack of empathy as a mark of
Is Hacking Art? 3
high intelligence. There are historical reasons for this, going back the Unix mainframedays, when
large central computers at universities, corporations and the military were programmed and
maintained by a ‘priesthood’ who depended on secrecy in order to maintain their sta as
This paper intends to discuss the question of whether hacking can be considered
art. To make any useful statements at all about th topic, it is necessary to first cons
what constitutes art and then to see how, if at all, hackers can claim a valid sinecure in
this area. The notion of art is often defined in cultural terms, as an aspect of the realm of
civilization. In this regard, a common idea of art might be an object that is beautiful, hangs in a
gallery, is recognizable as the work of an individual, shows evidence of intensive labor in its
production, and is often expensive. A second indicator of art is something which shows superior
taste and refinement in the buyer of art. This might be called ‘art is in the eyes of the beholder’ if
it were a chapter in a book. None of these ideas would be incorrect. Anyone who posts a blog on
the Internet would be correct in stating that they have an opinion. The point of demarcation for a
blogger or and artist (or for an art critic) would be whether that opinion is an informed opinion.
This is a very pertinent question early in the third millennium, when the Internet allows an
informational Babel, a true universal democracy, or a Jeffersonian meritocracy (take your pick).
In this spirit, art may be defined as reflecting some vital, illuminating part of current
culture, having a certain frisson that helps us locate ourselves in the context of the complexity of
life. Art should be relevant, make us think, have currency, an edge, hipness, definition, focus.
Victorian hair art may be beautiful in its way, but collecting and displaying it sends a message to
the viewer: I have no relevance, and therefore no voice in contemporary culture. The ghastly
simulacrums of Thomas Kinkade (“Painter of Light” tm) offer many of the hallmarks of
conventional definitions art (including hand painting by an individual) but only the most naïve and
Is Hacking Art? 4
gullible art buyers would fail to recognize themas commodities. The problem is that the
commoditization of art and culture is by now nearly total. Even once revered icons like Van Gogh,
Picasso, and Dali now pass as high-grade packaged goods for the wealthy.
My contention is that hacker art is a new form of artistic expression. Hacking is
a performance art. Hackers perform technology itself. We grant this status to cinema.
Cinema is a performance by technology. The non-technological forms are plays, musical theater
and the like. For hackers, it is information itself which is the medium of representation. This is a
new concept in some ways, and in other ways, it is exactly the artistic justification behind the
Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, and later Color Field, Minimalism, and Op and Pop art. Art is
pure information, the evidence of the mental activities of the artist as a sensitive interpreter of
culture. Technology is the hacker’s home culture; commenting on and manipulat ng that culture,
he or she makes a perfectly valid statement of art, provided that it is done with the perception and
vision expected of any skilled artist . A hacker takes culture as his or her object, just as Goya found
war as a cultural subject or Warhol used thephenomenon of celebrity for the same purpose.
Quoting Douglas Thomas (Hacker Culture), “The difference is that the grounding of style is
shifted from the relationship from the relationship of material to cultural production to one based
on the production and consumption of knowledge. Hacker culture is able to invent itself as an
active system of signs rather than as a reactive system of re-articulation and re-contextualization.
Hacker style reverses the hierarchy of production.” (Douglas, 2002)
The demographic for hackers is often young men either in their teens or early
twenties. They are smart, technologically savvy, and driven by a desire for knowledge.
As a culture, hackers are dedicated to testing boundaries. The goal of a hacker is mastery- mastery
of knowledge, of technology, and mastery of other hackers. They have their own language, Leet,
derived from the word ‘elite’; their own magazines such as Phrack and 2600, and their own virtual
Is Hacking Art? 5
territories on the Internet, such as BBS (online bulletin boards), where online reputations are built
and software offered to the community, and the Darknet, a private Internet where business is done.
Hacking culture is a mirror for mainstream culture. This mirror is dark and distorted, but a true
mirror nonetheless in many ways. The truth which this mirror reveals is far from beautiful, but it is
possible to find alternative answers to many of the half-truths and myths we allow material culture
to use against us to control the scope of our interactions with other members of society.
Mainstream culture overtly and covertly is dedicated to maintaining a status quo and class structure
not conducive to mobility. For example, ordinary citizens have Facebook, privileged classes have
Diamond Lounge (www.diamondlounge.com), a social networking site which only admits
members recommended by other members. Those members are from the top echelons, and the
information exchanged is of great monetary value. In having an alternative vision of values and
lifestyles, we are better able to evade the persistent obfuscation presented as a model of ordinary
life by the omniscient, omnipresent condu of mainstream media on behalf of such process owners
as the military, political and commercial interests who currently occupy the alpha predator niches
of our social ecology.(Douglas, 2002)
This state is often referred to as the Panopticon, an all-seeing surveillance culture.
For those in opposition to the Panopticon, there are two desirable pieces of knowledge.
The first is who the surveillance culture prioritizes in choosing targets, and the second
Is what kind of information is being gathered. These kinds of knowledge are important to
all of us, but for the hacker at the margins of legality, they are vital to freedom.
One of the primary confusions in conventional society is the difference between
money and wealth. Wealth is anything that creates surplus value. It need not be a
physical object. It could be data, or services, or knowledge, or anything else that people
want and are willing to pay for. Money is only the token of exchange for goods and
Is Hacking Art? 6
services. Hackers understand this principle very well. This is why their labor and
products (chiefly software) is offered to other hackers for free. They are ‘paid’ by
having their reputation enhanced online. It is a game of honor, like jousting was for
medieval knights. Knights had rules of chivalry which defined their lives, and hackers
have a similar code of honor, called Hacker Ethics.
At the heart of the hacker experience is an intense desire for problem solving.
To gain more and more knowledge is a primary goal. Hacking is a ‘gifting culture’, similar to that
of certain Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest, where status and leadership are gained
by giving potlatches. (Sternberg, 1994) The more the would-be leader gives to the tribe, the higher
their social status. In the case of hackers, by giving back knowledge and making available free
software tools that other hackers can use, the common enterprise of hacking and hacking culture is
advanced. One of the main social contracts of this culture is ‘Hacker Ethics’. In its most articulate
form, published in a book by Steven Levy “Heroes of the Computer Revolution” in 1984. (Levy,
The principles dictate:
1. Access to computers-and anything that might teach you something about the way
the world works- should be unlimited and total.
2. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!
3. All information should be free
4. Mistrust authority- promote decentralization
5. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or
6. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
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7. Computers can change your life for the better.
This simple code yields some surprising insights. Who would have believed tha
over-caffenated adolescents with data fixations could be native postmodernists, as in Rule 5. But
what is postmodernism? Sir Isaac Newton, the great 18th century physicist once said, late in his
life, “I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then
finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, wilst the great ocean of truth lay all
undiscovered before me.”[fl] This faith in some great but discoverable truth lay behind much of
the thinking of the Enlightenment, and later the period of culture which has come to be known as
modernism. In contrast, postmodernism is the study of the phenomenon of the perceived trend
towards the atomization of context and the failure of meta-narratives in general to provide for
social cohesion in society. It is the hangover from the grand ball of the Enlightenment, when the
belief in the mind of Humankind and belief in the perpetual and inevi able advance of Civilization
was still possible. The lighthouse of the Rational has fallen in a storm. There are bricks and
stones and rubble, but the great prize, the light itself that saved countless ships, has been swept
away to sea. Some long for the light, but others say that it is better gone. These last are the coastal
pirates, the shipbreakers whose new-found wealth has madethem the rulers of the coast. But what
is really gone forever is the view from the top of the lighthouse. To picture code-obsessed
teenagers taking time from their efforts to break into Strategic Air Command backbone servers to
discuss the finer points of such postmodernists as Derain and Derrida is farcical.
Any real similarities in philosophy between postmodernism and hacking are an example of
co-evolution. It sometimes happens that in nature two entirely different species come up with the
same form independently, sometimes by dint of evolutionary change, as in the case of the Viceroy
butterfly, which mimics the Monarch. The Monarch butterfly feeds on the bitter tasting sap of the
Is Hacking Art? 8
milkweed plant, and this makes it unpalatable to birds. Through the mechanism of natural
selection, the Viceroy closely resembles the Monarch, and so takes advantage of the birds’
acquired distaste. An exception to this may be in the origins of postmodernism, which came about
as a result of reaction against modernism. One of modernism’s chief affects is architecture,
exemplified by the International Style created by Mies van der Rohes in the 1950’s. This is the
familiar ‘glass box’ skyscraper, still with us today. The glass box minimized public space and by
its ordered verticality, became the perfect expression of hierarchal corporate power. It is proper to
speak of computer architectures in the sameway, because the same power structures that created
the skyscrapers also built the corporate networks, for the same purpose and with the same
philosophy. Therefore, we may think of hacker culture as closely related to the pos
movement. They both are reacting in different arenas against the same authoritarian culture.
Principle 2, the Hands-on Imperative (Levy’s capitalization) is worth discussing.
In some ways, the idea of taking things apart to see how they work in order to produce something
better defines a key aspect of hacker personality and thinking. In Victorian society, they would
have been called tinkerers. Before the advent of the computer, many adolescents were into
electronics, building radios, repairing TV’s, making homemade strobe lights, guitar amplifiers, and
the like. They were regarded as harmless eccentrics, prototypical nerds, and usually wound up
being ham radio operators or TV repairmen. The computer is a device of another order altogether.
Because it can both send and receive data, and is connected via the Internet to other sources of
data, the harmless tinkerer suddenly has real power. Part of the lure of becoming a hacker stems
from an original state of powerlessness, of being the one who the jocks in hi h school beat up and
the pretty girls scorned. Powerlessness aligned with intelligence is a powerful cocktail in any age,
but the computer provides the leverage to actuate that power into a significant force in society. I
am reminded of the old Arab saying, “Never turn your back on a frog.” Just because something
Is Hacking Art? 9
seems powerless doesn’t mean that it is. Principle 6 demonstrates that the idea of hackers as artists
is already a very integral part of the culture.
Modern art was largely defined by New York critics Clement Greenberg and
Harold Rosenberg beginning in the 1950’s. Their theme was purity. The canvas was
a field of action. What was to go on the canvas, according to Greenberg, was not a picture
but an event- a record of pure activity. The contents, or message of the artwork on the canvas was
to be stripped of all visual and historic referents, and the results were simply visual information.
(Wolfe, 1975) Painting was to be a blueprint for ideas, in exactly the same
way that software code is a blueprint for the computer program itself. Real art happened
in the brain, real art speaks for itself. Given the concept that the Internet may be regarded
as the ‘canvas’ of the work of hackers, we can begin to see some ready parallels between
what has been accepted as the primary theory of modern art since the 1950s, albeit in
modified form, and the possibility that hacking can be considered a valid art form.
Hacking, like the work of Jackson Pollack or Jasper Johns, is a signifier of the state of
American culture, a ready barometer for the cooling of an advanced culture as it hardens
and solidifies into a late stage of decline. Furthermore, the art of hackers is a direct message
written on the very life of the culture itself, since it affects and modifies the functioning of the
Internet. The Internet, as frame, represents the image of culture in flux. By violating that frame,
hacking’s interaction adheres to the principle that art is a diagram of culture. As comment on that
diagram, hacking represents a diagram of a diagram, and a diagram of a diagram is metaphysics.
We can see, then, that not only is hacking art, but in it could be said to signify a sacred
mission to save society from itself. Hacking is the real goods, creatively. Hacking as a culture is
about secrets, and secrets are the root of cool. We live in a world of predigested forms, at the
Is Hacking Art? 10
interface of public history and secret history. As individuals, the signal-to-noise ratio for
empowerment is very high. The official media represents a species of nest invasion, which seeks
to maintain the crisis of self for its own ends. We have internalized the interface, and history, as
internalized space, emerges from the trauma of loss of self. With the barriers to the self broken
down, and the flood of messages from the Id of commercial and political American culture
breaking over the levees of our souls, we seek a rescuer, an agent of change, to restore the integrity
of our submerged psyches. Hackers represent an alternative order, a path to higher ground, where
the individual, the ronin, the trickster, shows the way back toself-containment and
detachment from the corrosive swells of the sea of media. Hackers have voluntarily abandoned the
cherished values of our culture which make life comprehensible and define normality. This
requires real courage. We are immigrants in a windowless passage in steerage, our destination
defined by hope. Only the ‘first class’ passengers have access to sunlight, air, and a semblance of
a view over the wide ocean of progress. Hackers are those passengers from the lower levels who
steal onto the bridge undetected to gain some notion of our course and heading. We should
celebrate this boldness not to suffer blindly in darkness.
No artist can claim that calling without some sense of beauty or aesthetics. For a hacker, as
a writer of software, the first consideration must be utility. His or her intended audience is going to
take the code off the BBS and use it for its intended purpose. If it doesn’t work, and work well, the
hacker posting the code will find their reputation in a steep, rapid decline. According to Paul
Graham, Hackers and Painters, (Graham, 2004), beauty for a software designer is good design.
Good design encompasses simplicity, solves the right problem, looks easy but is actually hard to
write, has symmetry, and importantly, it is daring. If something is ugly, it is probably not the best
design, according to Graham. The root of technology is
technique. Good technique is always in favor among the cognoscenti, whether it is Jasper
Is Hacking Art? 11
John’s wax-based encaustics, the invisible brushstrokes of Georgia O’Keefe, or DoomCowX’s
level-seven OSI hack on a DOD server. Great work in any creative field tends to grow out of ideas
that have been overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that is unthinkable. A great hacker
does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. An example
as an artist might be Seurat, who broke the integrity of a picture plane made up of brushstrokes that
flow together to make a pictorial representation and instead broke it up into thousands and
thousands of tiny dots of color. It was the right sort of wrongness.
To the extent that hackers areseen to be the enemies of such manifestations of
mainstream culture as the government, commerce, the military and the media, which seek to
consolidate their power on the economic and social lives of citizens by any means, the central issue
is: Who has the center of cool? Apple Computer’s slogan was “Think Different”, even as they
strove to commodify their customer base into reliable demographics. A company either grows or it
dies, the argument goes, and it grows by feeding off the economic and social nature of its
customers. The military and government, too, need this fuel of coolness to finance a plethora of
schemes. “Be all you can be”, whispers the Army’s advertisement; “Aim high” counters the Air
Force. “Yes, we can!” trumpets a prominent presidential candidate. The media, having no
substance, is all about cool. Why do millions of people tune in nightly to watch a man in a suit
read from a piece of paper? There is nothing inherently interesting in the act, but the ‘news’ is
pitched as relevant, ‘with it’, vital- in other words, cool. In this sense, hackers may be
thought less as true enemies of the current hegemony than as a rival subculture, competing for a
share of the limited oxygen that is Attention. Attention- ‘eyeballs’, to use the vernacular, is the
real prize. The sustained attention of individuals is the paydirt of our civilization, the heavy grains
of gold in the media stream that must be panned and sluiced to maintain power. Hackers are agents
of disruption to the physical process of transmitting cultural messages about Weapons of Mass
Is Hacking Art? 12
Destruction or the virtues of whitening strips for a clean, healthy mouth. The message of
manipulation is precisely the same. Only the weight of the message is different. As McLuhan
might have said, a company does not produce cigarettes, or lightbulbs, or cruise missiles, it
produces information. On the surface, the disruption caused by hackers is trivial- a few servers go
down, some account numbers are compromised, a company’s reputation for reliability is
damaged. But the game goes on.
The real hazard from hackers consists of providing an alternative vision of cool.
If money and material goods aren’t hip, if a credit card with a 27 % interest rate no longer
represents ‘freedom’, the commodification of context (meaningthe entire communication
process) is broken. In this sense, the government and industry represent the real hackers, stealing
and manipulating our personal identities for power and gain. Both the hackers and the
corporations are bent on producing art. The art of corporations is concealment, that of hackers is
the revelation that the concealment can be removed. Using the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz, it is
the hackers in the form of Toto who pull back the curtain of power, revealing to the transfixed
public the machinations of the man with the microphone. (Mizrach, 1998) Bogeymen (the
ayatollah, Ghadafy, Bin Laden, radon gas) are part of the standard mechanism of distraction used
by all governments and industry in their campaigns to maintain power. Yet, flaws in the nature of
Power itself prevent hackers from being fully utilized for this purpose. A bank may not wish to
advertise to its competitors and the public that bank accounts and other information are not safe. A
government may not wish to point out that it had secrets to hide, or the nature of those secrets.
Hackers are nothing if not intelligent, and realize that this phenomenon gives them additional
leverage over institutions of all stripes.
The hacker’s crime is that of erasing the boundaries between technology and culture,
Is Hacking Art? 13
and in so doing, creating a space where one can perform technology as a subject of culture rather
than a subject alienated by culture. (Douglas, 2002) They could becalled deconstructionists, artists
who find meaning in the margins of technology where machines and relationships encounter
situations they were not designed to handle. As such, they are metaphysical explorers who seek to
understand all that there is to understand about the world. This is the hallmark of the highest type
of humanity. Like that other explorer, Prometheus, who brought the forbidden technology of fire
to civilization, we see them as agents of knowledge who have done their job too well, and must be
punished for their effrontery. Those would reveal secrets must pay the price.
Douglas, Thomas. (2002). Hacker Culture. Minneapolis.
University of Minnesota Press.
Sternberg, Robert J. (1994). Thinking and Problem Solving. San Diego.
Levy, Steven. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revol tion. Garden City.
Brewster, Sir David. (1855). Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir
Isaac Newton, Volume II. Edinburgh. Thomas Constable & Co.
Wolfe, Tom. (1975). The Painted Word. New York.
Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Taylor, Paul. (2004). The Digital Sublime. Cambridge. MIT Press.
Graham, Paul . (2004). Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age. Cambridge.
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Mizrach, Steven. (1998).Is There a Hacker Ethic for 90’s Hackers?.
Retrieved July 15, 2008 from http:// www.fiu.edu/~mizrachs/hackerethic.html