Our Generation of Hackers

We spend so much of our time trying to hack and subvert and work around the systems that make up the world, but should we be trying to change them for the better instead?

​ We are all hackers now, apparently—or are trying to be. Guilty as charged. I am writing these words, as I write most things, not with a pen and paper, or a commercial word processor, but on Emacs, a command-line text editor first developed in the 1970s for that early generation of free-software hackers. I had to hack it, so to speak, with a few crude lines of scripting code in order that it would properly serve my purposes as a writer. And it does so extremely well, with only simple text files, an integrated interpreter for the Markdown markup language, and as many split screens as I want. I get to feel clever and devious every time I sit down to use it.

Thus it seemed fitting that when I was asked to join a "philosophy incubator" with a few fellow restless young souls, I was told the group's name—and that of the book we'd be publishing w​ith an internet startup—was Wisdom Hackers. Hacking is what this generation does, after all, or at least what we aspire to. The hacker archetype both celebrates the mythology of the dominant high-tech class and nods toward the specter of an unsettling and shifty subculture lurking in the dark. Edward Snowden is a hacker hero, but so is Bill Gates. The criminals and the CEOs occupied the same rungs on the high school social ladder, lurked in the same listservs, and now share our adulation.

To hack is to approach a problem as an outsider, to be unconfined by law or decorum, to find whatever back doors might lead the way to a solution or a fix. To hack is to seek simplicity, elegance, and coherence, but also to display one's non-attachment—by way of gratuitous lulz, if necessary. Wisdom is not normally a feature of the hacker's arsenal (they prefer cleverness), but evidently some of us have come to sense that even this generation of hackers will need to pick up some wisdom along the way.

But why hack in the first place? That is, why we should always need to use a back door?

For me this line of questioning began in 2011, the year of leaderless uprisings, starting with Tunis and Cairo and ending with police raids on Occupy camps, a civil war in Syria and a seemingly endless series of revelations spawned by Wikileaks. I followed these happenings as much as I could. I happened to be the first reporter allowed to​ cover the planning meetings that led to Occupy Wall Street, and I stayed close to those early organizers as their illicit occupation became a global media fixation, then long after the fixation passed. Through them—and their sudden and surprising success—I tried to obtain some grasp of the spirit of 2011, which was elusive enough that it couldn't be organized in some simple list of demands, but also intuitive enough that protesters around the world, in hugely different kinds of societies, found themselves saying and doing a lot of the same things.

I keep coming back to the slogan of Spain's homegrown occupation movement of that year: "Real democracy now!" This had uncanny explanatory power from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. Whether under Mubarak or Bush and Obama, young people around the world have grown up in societies they were always told were democracies despite repeated and undeniable signals that it was not: police brutality as a fact of life (whether by secret police or militarized regular ones), an unrelenting state of exception (whether by emergency law or the war on terror), and corruption (whether by outright graft or the mechanisms of campaign financing). When a system is broken, we resort to improvised solutions, jury-rigged workarounds, hacks. No wonder, then, that the mask of the amorphous hacktivist collective Anonymous became a symbol of the uprisings.

For 2011's movements, however, the initial virality and the rhetoric of direct democracy turned out to mask a generation unprepared to deal with power—either wielding it or confronting it effectively. The young liberals in Tahrir may have created Facebook pages, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood's decades of dangerous, underground, person-to-person organizing that won the country's first fair elections. Even the Brotherhood would soon be massacred after a coup unseated them in favor of the military. "The army and the people are one hand," Egyptians had chanted in Tahrir. With similar historical irony, the same might have been chanted about the internet.

In the Arab world, the 2011 endgame has included the rise of the Islamic State. Hacking every bit of social media it can get its hands on, the militants formerly known as ISIS emerged as a potent remix of al Qaeda's guerrilla anti-colonialism and Tahrir Square's utopian confidence, of Saudi-funded fundamentalism and hardened generals left over from Saddam's secular regime. These disparate apps have been hacked together into one thanks to hashtags, an elusive leader, a black flag, and gruesome vigilantism.

I reject the often-uttered claim that the 2011 movements lacked purpose, or reason, or demands. Their fascination with hacking, and the vital fecundity that enchanted them, attest to the widely felt longing for a deeper, somehow realer global democracy. But what they share also had a hand in bringing them down. The allure of certain hacker delusions, I believe, played a part in keeping the noble aspirations of that year from taking hold, from meaningfully confronting the powers that now pretend to rule the world.

Ours is a generation of hackers because we sense that we aren't being allowed in the front door. Most of us have never had the feeling that our supposed democracies are really listening to us; we spend our lives working for organizations that gobble up most of the value we produce for those at the top. We have to hack to get by. Maybe we can at least hack better than whoever is in charge—though that is increasingly doubtful. We become so used to hacking our way into the back door that we forget that there could be any other way.

I don't want to hack forever. I want to open up the front door—to a society where "democracy" actually means democracy and technology does its part to help, where we can spend less time hacking and hustling and more time getting better at being human. Tech won't do it for us, because it can't. Hacking isn't an end in itself—wisdom is.

Bio: Nathan Schneider is the author of God in Proof and Thank You, Anarchy. His website is The​RowBoat.com, and he tweets at @nathanairplane.