Hacking. Now there’s a term that elicits a multitude of responses: some people steadfastly equate hackers with criminal activity. Others insist they’re more like misunderstood explorers. Still another group claims that hackers are computer programmers, no more and no less. As the years have progressed, attempts have been made to try to classify the various types — maybe ‘bad’ hackers are crackers or black hats, good ones are hackers or white hats. None of it has stuck. Hackers are still hackers, with a byzantine variety of interests and aptitudes folded into the term.
One important subgroup in the hacker scene has been kids. Maybe it’s because minors have less societal pressure for conformity, or maybe they simply have more spare time than adults, but neverthess kids are hugely represented in the hacking community. Kids are smart, persistent and fast learners; As geekparents, we’d be well advised to remember this. I don’t know how many moms and dads have relied on "net nanny" programs rather than actual parenting to police their child’s internet usage, and found out later it had been completely subverted.
How wonderful is it that these brilliant geeklets have a podium? The fact is, 2600 has always been willing to print articles from kids, and these stories, inevitably marred by structural and logical flaws, nevertheless profoundly inspire other geeklets to communicate and share. For most publications this voice would go unrepresented, but in 2600 they have been an important part of its history — and many made it into A Hacker Odyssey.
Surprisingly, for a counter-culture group, hackers have a remarkably well-documented history. Part of it is that as a group, they have been very eager to share information, argue and boast through newsgroups, textfiles and forums. This makes for a very detailed written chronicle of what happened. But somehow, until recently, there has never been a hacker-written history of the scene — all books about the history of hacking have been written by journalists and established authors.
With The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey, that all changes. For the first time, a compendium of hackers’ writings have been collected, unedited, culled from the pages of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, a semi-underground publication around since 1984. 2600, along with the now-defunct Phrack, arguably represent the most authoritative of the various hacker publications, making this book not only unprecedented but incredibly valuable.
The Best of 2600, along with its chronicler (and 2600 editor Emmanuel Goldstein) tackles the magazine’s 24-year run the best way it can — by being encyclopedic. Weighing in at 871 pages and rivaling a phonebook’s size and heft, the book covers the ups and downs of hackerdom’s brief existence: discoveries, busts, jokes, conflict. The book is laid out in three sections, covering the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. Within those divisions are chapters describing the great themes of those decades.
The 1980s: In the Beginning
Of course hacking didn’t begin in the ’80s, but 2600 did. Actually, in many ways the ’80s marked the end of a golden age, with Ma Bell splitting up and the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act throwing the book at the early explorers of the internet. My favorite of this section’s seven chapters is the one covering the "Hacker Philosophy" — watch as 2600′s unique view on freedom and information coalesces in a series of thoughtful editorials and monologues.
I also enjoyed the report on the conviction of Robert T. Morris Jr, author of the infamous ’88 Morris Worm. Morris’s story has stayed in my consciousness because my mom worked as a computer programmer at the time, and showed me frantic emails bouncing around the nascent Internet as the servers began to crash one by one.
The 1990s: The World Discovers Hackers
The ’90s was an exciting time to be a hacker. There were continent-spanning battles and epic busts. This decade also marked, for the most part, the end of phreaking as it was known. The telcos had gone digital so most of the phreakers’ tricks stopped working.
It was also the time when hackers began entering the cultural consciousness. Yeah, there had been hacking movies in the ’80s (WarGames!) but it wasn’t until the ’90s that the hacker became a Hollywood staple. There is even a review of seminal flick Hackers (I’m a huge fan) for which Goldstein served as a creative consultant.
The 1990s also saw the rise of the popularity of PCs to the point where they became standard home accessories. Needless to say, hackers had mixed feelings about this: certainly, they had been on to the phenomenon long before the public. All of the giddy babble about superhighways must have seemed terribly lame. The ’90s also saw the incarceration of a number of 2600 writers, like Kevin Mitnick and BernieS.
I think my favorite article of the ’90s was Billsf’s "True Colors" in which he describes the various phreaking tools like Blue Boxes and Red Boxes. Most of these don’t work any longer, but it was fascinating to read about them.
2000 and Beyond: A Changing Landscape
A changing landscape… a vague title but we are talking about NOW. Maybe in the next decade we’ll be able to discern clearer themes. The big story of the early ’00s was the DeCSS lawsuit brought by the DVD consortium against 2600. A hacker wrote a program that decrypted DVD content so it could be accessed by a computer. Rather than fix their technology, the consortium tried to sue everyone who had the decryption program, DeCSS. Spoiling for a fight, 2600 hosted DeCSS on their site, and were sued. They eventually lost, though not without a spirited battle. Of course, DVDs are being pirated left and right so the lawsuits ultimately served no purpose.
Besides legal squabbles, the big story so far in the ’00s has been the ubiquity of wireless technology and mobile phones. A huge percentage of the stories about this decade have involved explorations of cellular and wireless networks. My favorite article is "Hacking the Genome" by Professor L, which explains the whole genome sequencing story (circa 2003) in layman’s terms.
I told you about what was cool about the book, but what was missing? One minor disappointment was the lack of anything except articles. These were the meat of the periodical, its heart and soul — but there was other stuff. For instance, the magazine covers were sometimes amateurish but were always thoughtful and topical. Often they had messages or riddles hidden within the imagery. Couldn’t we have had a retrospective of these?
Then there were the multitude of payphone pictures that the editors printed, and the hacker-related crosswords and brain-teasers at the back. Next, 2600′s letters to the editor are legendary — some people claimed to buy the magazine just to read them. Finally, there were the classifieds, perhaps the most unusual series of ads I’ve seen. I would have liked to see more of this important stuff even if it meant fewer articles.
Still, The Best of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey is an important, amazing book that tells the story of these kids and adults as they explore a new frontier.
Stay tuned for a GeekDad interview with the enigmatic Emmanuel Goldstein.