WTF Is Hacking? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

WTF Is Hacking?

WTF Is Hacking?

Published November 20, 2015

Alexander de Ridder
Photos by
Dawn Patrol

Ever since first the term first entered public discourse in the 1980s, the stereotypical “hacker” has generally been conceived of as a nefarious young male, permanently hunched over his computer in a dank basement, surrounded by heaps of pizza boxes and crumpled cans of Generic Energy Drink™. As portrayed by the media, the hacker trades in ill-gotten credit card numbers and state secrets for profit, and wreaks havoc for fun.

Although such people certainly exist (we call them “criminals”), they are anything but representative of Actual Hacker Culture. Rather, the term refers to a vast subculture which directly descended from the counterculture of the 1960s and has been evolving ever since, spreading across the globe as its ideas and methodologies took shape.


Your average hacker will often see established institutes and structural systems as forces of oppression. Challenging their power, the hacker will manipulate and scrutinize them at every chance, playfully engaging in acts of creative subversion, studying and deconstructing their target’s arbitrary limitations.

Hacker culture is informed by figures such as author William Gibson (who coined the term “cyberspace”) and software freedom activist/programmer Richard Stallman (creator of the free, open-sourced GNU operating system, which became the basis for Linux).

In keeping with this thinking, The Pirate Party holds meetings that are open to the public, where people with some opinion or insight on certain subjects can attend and have their say. Their policy-making process is also a democratic system, with Pirate Party members able to vote, comment, and present policies for consideration.

In 1986, when the culture was in its nascent stages, an underground hacker ezine called Phrack published a short article that played a crucial part in codifying the hacker ethos. Titled “The Conscience Of A Hacker,” it came to be known as “The Hacker Manifesto,” and it certainly reads like one. Writing shortly after being placed under arrest for “computer crimes,” the author (referred to as The Mentor) exclaims: “We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals.”

The 600-word screed swiftly asserts the core tenets of hacker culture, and the intellectual foundation on which it is built, as well as expressing the multiplicity and unity of hackers worldwide.

The Mentor describes hacker culture as an egalitarian one, where differences are eradicated through the great leveller that is the internet. A hacker’s personal background is unimportant—the hacker’s merit is determined by their intellect, creativity, and the results they achieve.

The manifesto further denotes freedom of, and access to, information as a core value of hacker culture. Incidentally, it has been through valiant efforts to further these values that many of the world’s most celebrated hackers gained their notoriety.

When the media and authorities talk about hacking, they do so in the context of computer security (rather than the subculture outlined above). Used in this sense, “hacking” strictly entails the act of breaching or circumventing a secure system, regardless of motive, which might vary from criminal intent, to acts of sabotage, to espionage, to completing a personal challenge. This practice is also called cracking or “black/white hat hacking.” As the symbolisms imply, white hat hackers crack security systems with non-malicious intent (e.g. to test security strength), while black hat hackers do so to, for instance, steal information or cause damage.

A hacker’s mentality is defined by a creative way of thinking and a dedication to overcoming obstacles, and outsmarting systems. “My crime is that of curiosity,” as The Mentor writes. “My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

This piece is part of our in depth feature on The Pirate Party, which you can read here.

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