This week, Timothy Lee at the Washington Post published a piece on Edward Snowden and “hackers”.

“A society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than those sponsored by the most influential people,” Graham wrote. In other words, hackers tend to be fierce civil libertarians because they’re sensitive to the problems that occur when their habitual adversaries, the suits, gain too much power.

Read the full article

I argue that Lee is falling prey to a fear of the “the other”. Hackers (the definition of which seems to shift from decade to decade) “engage in revealing secret information or passionately support those who do.” They “think about society as just another complex system in need of optimization, and this sometimes leads them to conclusions starkly at odds with conventional wisdom.” They are at constant odds with “the suits”. In short, Lee is stating that they aren’t anything like us.

The Post article doesn’t cast hackers in an unduly bad light, but it does set them apart from society as a whole. It tries to associate programmers with civil libertarians for the sake of simplicity and narrative.

The truth (I believe) is that having an innate understanding of technology may pre-dispose one toward making judgements about technology, and how technology influences society. This comes from a better knowledge of what mechanisms are at play when using a given technology, and what capabilities result from that use. The pre-disposition is the same as that of doctors toward public health issues, or environmentalists toward global warming. It is the pre-disposition of an expert.

Technology is re-defining civil liberties for the next century, and the cries of those with knowledge and insight must be heard. Relegating the crier to the status of “outsider” is dangerous, and sets us back as a society.

Not So Unlike Us

Lee picks several “hackers” as examples for his thesis:

  • Aaron Swartz attempted to publicly release academic papers.
  • Richard Stallman created the Free Software movement.
  • Jason Trigg donates half his income from a Wall Street job to charity.
  • Bradley Manning leaked classified US information on the Iraq war.
  • Edward Snowden leaked classified US information on NSA surveillance programs.

I’ll accept it as given that all five of these men were knowledgable about technology, whatever their expertise at actual programming (which surely spans a wide gamut: Stallman alone probably wrote more lines of code than all the others combined).Two of the men, Manning and Trigg, use or used technology as a tool to achieve some other social goal. To encourage an end to the Iraq war (Manning), or to altruistically improve the lives of others (Trigg).

Three of these men expressed a unique understanding of technology in their actions.

Swartz understood that copying digital content is “zero-cost”. The distribution of academic papers, in Swartz’s understanding, should not longer be beholden to the constraints of the physical world. Instead the monetary value of accessing a paper should be merely that of making a digital copy, or zero. When Stallman was first given an executable hardware driver instead of source code, he immediately understood that he could not longer use the hardware as he chose. Some part of the freedoms to use a device inherent in ownership had be stripped from him, and the Free Software movement was his response. Snowden understands more about how the NSA deals with information than any other figure speaking about it openly. Combining what he learned and his technical comprehension, he sees that some actions may severely overstep the boundaries Americans have traditionally not allowed the government to overstep.

You don’t need to agree with these three men to see that they are concerned with how technology is affecting society.

These classifications identify two profoundly different groups. Manning and Trigg are passionate about their goals, but would exercise any means to achieve them (using technology or not). They are surely not the “other” in society. Manning is part of a population of 1.5 million members of the active military (wikipedia), and among the 59% of Americans against the Iraq war in 2010. Trigg is surely among the larger part of society that would hope to aid others in building a better future.

Swartz, Stallman and Snowden perceive how technology is starting to shape our society and bring important issues to our attention. Despite this, they too are not part of the “other”. Swartz and Stallman were active in the academic community, Snowden among the 4.91 million Americans with security clearance in the US. All three saw how technology was changing their own lives and would affect others, and took action.

They are the doctors who understand washing hands can defeat disease, despite the invisibility of germs to the human eye. The rest of us are the town-folk who believe being born with too much bile makes you sick.

Beyond these individuals, Lee disregards the rest of the technology community entirely. Counter-culture figures like Steve Wozniack and Steve Jobs changed society through traditional commercial enterprise. Bill Gates did the same, then proceeded to change millions of lives in poverty through his philanthropic work. My personal colleagues in technology lead lives celebrated less publicly but just as much privately, with aspirations, bad days, and long lines at the DMV. With friends over for dinner, lovers, and families.

Technology playing a role in their lives does not make them the “other”, and they should not be feared. They are fellow citizens and neighbors given the burden of being canaries in the technology coal mine. Not always right, but salient to contemporary society. Listen closely, lest you should miss the message as they are shouted down.