Book Review – “Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism”

On Friday afternoon, during my third attempt to locate Steven Weber’s book "The Success of Open Source" at Lauinger Library, I scanned the spines of several hundred books, hoping to find it misshelved nearby. Instead, I stumbled across Tim Jordan’s "Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism," which has turned out to be the most delightful read I’ve come across since I began working on my thesis.

Just published in November, Hacking is part of Polity Press’s "Digital Media and Society Series." Like many such series, the entries in this one are brief, and I expected the 140 pages to be a broad overview with little new information. In other words, I expected a highly readable lit review. Instead – while the book also functions quite well as a simple primer on all-things-hacky – I was delighted to find that it contains a very tight argument.

If you’ve read my other recent book reviews, or my thesis blog, you may have noted that I have a certain distrust of (or distain for) attempts to link the open software movement with other counterculture movements in the information society – not because there aren’t meaningful links, but because too often academics make these links somewhat lazily, lacking both a coherent theoretical framework and the narrow technical detail needed to give such links substance.

Jordan, however, has dealt with this challenge masterfully, with his beautiful description of hackers as "warriors of technological determinism." His argument, stripped down, goes something like this:

Hacking: Digital Media and Technological DeterminismTechnological determinism isn’t really viable, as a broad description of the relationship between technology and society, because technologies are never completely asocial. However, in our daily lives, which are so thoroughly mediated by technology, our experiences are (or at least seem to be) determined by technology. (Particularly when they fail. For example: if your car won’t start, it has a tremendous determining influence on your day).

Hacking, then, is the process of pushing back against the experience of being technologically determined. Hackers "identify where a technology is determining them in ways they dislike . . . and they engage in altering that technology, which thereby automatically produces new ways in which technology can determine action" (Jordan, p15).

Under this formulation, it becomes very easy for Jordan, for instance, to describe the copyleft movement as a hack on copyright – a legal structure that, prior to copyleft, was determining for both consumers and creators. He can link cracking (the code-breaking activities, often illicit, that most people associate with hacking) with such topics as open source software development, hacktivism, and the Creative Commons, without resorting to the usual ambiguous and anecdotal waving of hands.

In addition to the primary argument, Hacking contained two other gems that other recent books haven’t delivered. First, he offers a very simple but helpful analysis of why open source software licenses and certain Creative Commons licenses take differing approaches to both derivative works and commercial distribution. Second, he touches – albeit briefly – on the differences between hackers and non-hacking programmers ("the programming proletariat"). Both of these sections, in addition to the larger contributions of the book, offer a tremendous amount of nuance to a subject that is often glazed with generalities.

All in all, if you have any interest in hacking, open source, hacktivism, privacy or security, then you really MUST spend an afternoon with this book. It’s a quick read, but with surprising depth and novelty, and is argued with fantastic clarity.

Brad Weikel

Brad Weikel received his MA in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) from Georgetown University in 2009. His thesis, "From Coding to Community: Iteration, Abstraction, and Open Source Software Development" argued that programming practices, particularly iterative workflows and abstraction models, can help explain both the success and struggles of open source software. His work was a technocentric complement to prior explanations from economists, lawyers, and political and cultural theorists. While writing his thesis, Brad blogged about his topic at OpenCulture.cc, where he has since continued blogging, more broudly, about collaborative production and the commons at large. Brad was Managing Editor of gnovis during the 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 school years, and Creative Director in 2006/2007. He is currently the Web & Communications Coordinator for EarthRights International.