Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Making Mischief

This is why I love the Internet. Two days ago, I posted a dusty fragment about amateur magicians. Today, I heard from my friend Oliver. He'd dusted off the fragment, and made the connection I'd been longing to. I knew it was there, but it was somewhere just out of my reach. So Oliver, brilliantly, made it for me.

You see: Oliver was a teenage hacker. In the best sense of the word. These days, he is a very respectable Protector of Computers. But he still retains an air of imminent mischief, and that's something I like in computer-protectors. It keeps things interesting.

Anyway! Oliver handily drew a parallel between the culture of amateur magicians at the turn of the twentieth century and hacker culture in the 1990s-early 2000s. With his a-okay, I've pasted the text of this observation below:
Just read your post on magicians and I find a striking parallel with the hacking scene. Real hacking isn't magic and there are no single "give me all your password" commands. It is simply attainment of a superior level of knowledge about some niche in computing. One simply needed to be obsessive enough to devote the time and study. Given the current economy it is actually possible to become rich and, somewhat, famous. And there is good money in providing script kiddies, read amateur magicians, with tools and tutorials. Especially if you stretch this
analogy to include IT administrators of every flavor of Fortune 500 company as the amateurs.

What really drew me in though was the idea of information exchanges. The "scene" was the life blood of the hacker. The free flow of information was incredible in the 90's when there wasn't as much commercial success to be had. If only you knew where to look.
So true! When I first wrote that paper about amateur magicians, I got the nagging feeling that I was looking at one tiny corner of a larger phenomenon. Little did I know that this phenomenon manifested itself most recently in a world of empty pizza boxes and Surge soda.

If you draw any clever parallels of your own, be sure to let me know! Claiming some "American cult of the amateur" may have been timidly audacious of me, but I'd love to be proven just a little bit righter. Or wronger.

Thanks also to Jason, who wrote me a very nice email today about the delights of esoteric history. The short version of our exchange: Esoteric history! It's delightful!

That said, I'm thinking that historians and hackers should maybe forge some sort of alliance. We could make all sorts of marvelous mischief. Any takers?


Oliver said...

Just for historical accuracy the beverage of choice back then was Mountain Dew. I think the red necks and failed extreme sports fans have taken over that market and hackers have moved on to energy drinks (red bull, bawls, etc).
There is also an unexplored link to the "brotherhood" for both groups. Why there is a lack of bona fide female hackers or magicians is interesting and yet unanswered.

Jason Black said...

I'm not a hacker, by any means, but I did drink a lot of Surge while playing N64.

I think the idea of the "American cult of the amateur" is a well founded one. Having focused on the development of mass ideas in my undergrad (namely various forms of socialism), networking strikes me as not only important to the people I'm studying, but an important thing to study in and of itself, either in a contemporary or historic sense.

How else can you understand the spread of radical ideas such as communism, without studying the means by which they spread, and the people that spread them?

Also I got a blogspot.