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Anthropologist Spends Three Years Living With Hackers 252

concealment writes "Coleman, an anthropologist who teaches at McGill University, spent three years studying the community that builds the Debian GNU/Linux open source operating system and hackers in the Bay Area. More recently, she's been peeling away the onion that is the Anonymous movement, a group that hacks as a means of protest — and mischief. When she moved to San Francisco, she volunteered with the Electronic Frontier Foundation — she believed, correctly, that having an address would make people more willing to talk to her — and started making the scene. She talked free software over Chinese food at the Bay Area Linux User Group's monthly meetings upstairs at San Francisco's Four Seas Restaurant. She marched with geeks demanding the release of Adobe eBooks hacker Dmitry Sklyarov. She learned the culture inside-out."
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Anthropologist Spends Three Years Living With Hackers

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  • Ask Slashdot (Score:4, Insightful)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:17PM (#42125813)
    Did I just get old? Or did slashdot really gone down the toilet? Both?
  • Re:TLDR version (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:23PM (#42125859) Journal
    You lost me at Wired. That magazine is nothing but sensationalism. Or, maybe I should say SHE lost me at Wired, not you.
  • Re:TLDR version (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kernelpanicked ( 882802 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:29PM (#42125903)

    Maybe you should have actually, ya know, read some things. The book is being released under Creative Commons and she's putting up a site to distribute it. But since you just want mod points for being a smartass...carry on

  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:42PM (#42125993)

    If you hadn't come accross it yet, check out It has similar content to slashdot but the quality of discussion is generally much better these days.

  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:53PM (#42126075)

    "Did I just get old? Or did slashdot really gone down the toilet? Both?"

    Generational turn-over. New teens/young adults replace older people with more knowldge = slashdot turns to shit. Welcome to getting older. As you get older you get more knowledge and young people have less life experience/knowledge and hence you have cycles and peaks of greatness and mediocrity. It doesn't help that the net has become so mainstream and children of the next generation know how to use the web so you get morons of all intelligence levels everywhere now. Where as the nerds used to congregate around their favorite sites and not have to worry too much about the IQ level of the readers this is no longer true. The internet is essentially TV now.

  • by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @10:59PM (#42126103) Journal

    Season veterans who have spent literally * DECADES completely immersed in the hacker scene still dare not make any sweeping declaration about the nature of the hacker world.
    And here we have, a person who only spent 3 fricking years (as she put it "researching") comes out with her "immense knowledge" of the hacker subculture.
    My own experience told me that, while hackers in general do share "common traits", hackers from one community differ from hackers from another community, in term of way of thought, habits, etc.
    The term "community" means a lot as well - as the word not only define geographic difference, but also the different fields (shared interests) the hackers are working on.
    I still remember when the movie scene started to take interest in hackerism they had actors playing stereotypical thick-glassed, talkative, soprano-toned hackers, and they all come with lousy hairdo - As if we are like that.
    I've known some of the greatest hackers and from the outside they look normal - just fucking absolutely normal.

  • by Iskender ( 1040286 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @11:12PM (#42126201)

    And here we have, a person who only spent 3 fricking years (as she put it "researching") comes out with her "immense knowledge" of the hacker subculture.

    Where did you get that "immense knowledge" part? It wasn't in the article, and it wasn't expressed using other words either.

    Also at no point in the article did she say that all hacker culture everywhere is like that. In fact the article explicitly mentions that she wanted to study and studied differences between different hacker groups.

  • Hackers? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by __aaltlg1547 ( 2541114 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @11:22PM (#42126243)

    I just want to say I'm deeply disturbed by the article using the same word (hackers) to refer to Linux developers and Anonymous.

  • Shows one thing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by __aaltlg1547 ( 2541114 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @11:33PM (#42126333)
    I think the comments here show something clearly:
    While some antropologists may be interested in understanding hacker culture, the interest is not reciprocal.
  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gagol ( 583737 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @11:48PM (#42126399)
    Or maybe, as we all get older and wisdomful, the relative quality of Slashdot seems to go down. We have a chance here to educate the next generation of nerds, let's do it!
  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Wednesday November 28, 2012 @11:59PM (#42126463) Journal

    New teens/young adults replace older people with more knowldge = slashdot turns to shit. Welcome to getting older.

    Slashdot has always been full of shit, getting older just means you can recognise it a lot faster.

  • Re:TLDR version (Score:4, Insightful)

    by thePowerOfGrayskull ( 905905 ) <.marc.paradise. .at.> on Thursday November 29, 2012 @12:00AM (#42126475) Homepage Journal

    Yeah, you deserve a ton of mod points. I despise how people on Slashdot look down at anybody who's not in 'the club', whatever they might imagine the club to be. Jon Katz was fuzzy headed, but didn't deserve the reception he got here at all. And neither does this anthropologist.

    I really wonder why people are so xenophobic.

    I think in this case, people are resistant to the notion that they can be so neatly studied and classified.

  • Re:the point? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @12:17AM (#42126525) Journal
    The term "anthropologist" and its modern context and funding in the USA can be very interesting.
    Terms like "Human Terrain program" should offer some counterinsurgency warfare insight vs the projected "global humanitarians". []
    The "deep hanging out" "earning their trust" "getting them to tell us about their worlds" are the classic opening moves.
    David Price has a good book on this called Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State that might help.
    What was once seen as college hacking, computer games, a better door lock, old movie quotes, 6 years of French and an interest in Lua, a better wheelchair interface, faster servers, community wifi, crypto is now seen by many in the US military as a new front on an internal political battlefield, - great for funding, contractors and advancement.
    First you get the funding for understanding. After understanding comes influtration.
    Another aspect to understanding is for internal testing. You do not want your next young crypto expert back home or in the field to ever have doubts no matter the material they are exposed to.
    You want to keep your geeks happy and enjoying a living wage. Cash or an understanding of humanity from foreign embassies might fill the void in their lives wrt contractors pay or one too many night raids.
    It took some time for the UK and US to understand their staff and just how and why they got turned.
  • Re:TLDR version (Score:5, Insightful)

    by epine ( 68316 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @12:20AM (#42126539)

    We just discuss computer parts endlessly, right? I hope some smarter moderators show up soon.

    I don't mind so much about the decline in the participation standards, if there has in fact been a decline (not counting the glory days when the lamers had five digit ids).

    What I tremendously resents is the decline in the wording of the story summaries, which become ever more useless and trollish by the minute. It's not the people here that will drive me away. It's the decline in story summaries and the attitude of the editorial oversight which permits this to happen.

    If we had a moderation system to assign "vague-assed trollery" to the story submissions, I would instantly tweak my filter such that I never see these stories again (and the 300 comments out of 500 adjusting the crookered picture frame).

    The only reason I haven't jumped ship already is that most of the alternatives have been violently Twitterized. I'm determined to think in full paragraphs. I just can't wait for the headline "Generation Z rediscovers the paragraph." Maybe if I'm lucky--and live long enough to see it--the paragraph will become retro cool.

  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:5, Insightful)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @12:40AM (#42126629)

    "Slashdot has always been full of shit, getting older just means you can recognise it a lot faster."

    Not quite, I can look at trends in the younger generation that worship Steam and DRM where-as most of the olderschool PC gamers during the 90's detest DRM. Earlier this decade if you made pro-steam worshiping DRM statements you'd be downvoted to oblivion. Now with younger mods/steam fans you see many mods give +5 insightful to more and more glowing comments on Steam DRM. This is a generational transformation and you see it in the modding trends of what gets modded up/down or just left alone/ignored.

    Now this doesn't mean all young adults/teens/kids like DRM it just means kids tend to accept what they grow up with and don't question what has always been there. Think about the differences of growing up on command line operating systems like DOS vs say windows xp or windows 7 with fully functional web browsers plus easy-mode steamstore. Huge difference. Night and day kind of difference.

    Kids/teens don't know what has been lost/don't care. People who grew up during the earlier gaming (pre online only games) era are hugely disappointed by the downright criminal changes in the industry because they WATCHED the industry grow from when it was tiny so they have superior understanding and perspective. They were there during game-modding golden years of Quake/duke/doom/etc that has been smothered (Supcom 2 was locked down and made difficult to mod at publisher request). Games like diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 have been increasingly fucked with because of publishers greed.

    Not only that, kids are ripe for corporate PR manipulation. Just see this article here where the talk about 'engineering' psychological changes via PR campaigns for the acceptance of F2P / online DRM.

    Quote:"But the most important aspect is there is a psychological transformation of the customers and the publishers that has to happen before everything is F2P on every platform. We are promoting these steps with other titles we're doing right now in our company." []

  • Re:Shows one thing (Score:1, Insightful)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @01:15AM (#42126771) Homepage
    How would an anthropologist feel if I took 3 years off work, hung around with them, and then wrote a book stating that I learned their culture inside-out? Without doing any anthropology or even studying it?
  • Re:Funding? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DaveAtFraud ( 460127 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @01:23AM (#42126799) Homepage Journal

    Why didn't Wired ask her how she paid to live for 3 years in one of the most expensive cities in the world?

    Seriously, I'd like to know.

    None of the guidebooks I've ever read say anything about how getting an email address is a substitute for avg. $2K@month in rent. (Highest in the USA.) []

    Easy. Governent grant. Yours and my tax dollars at work. Think about this next April 15th.


  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @01:25AM (#42126807) Homepage

    My god, there are a lot of smug/reactive, insular and almost anti-intellectual neckbeards on this thread. []

  • What puts me off (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bytesex ( 112972 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @01:34AM (#42126835) Homepage

    She uses 'I was like', 'they were like' an awful lot. That, to me, is not the sign of an intelligent person.

  • by MikeBabcock ( 65886 ) <> on Thursday November 29, 2012 @02:00AM (#42126915) Homepage Journal

    Most of those people to whom you refer aren't exactly students of human nature. This, on the other hand, is an anthropologist. You know the difference, right?

    I know people who've spent decades living by a lake and don't know as much about that lake as a marine biologist who showed up last week.

  • by zazenation ( 1060442 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @02:08AM (#42126945)

    What's not to be cynical about?

    " ... I was blown away by how culturally deep it was."

    Sure. Correct the flawed stereotypes with more subjective flawed stereotypes by a naive observer.

    She was correcting her engrained 'Revenge of the Nerds' stereotype of hackers with an equally arrogant attitude, similar to those of parents who visit a zoo, point to the gorillas and say to their children -- "Hey little Johnny, look at the big monkeys! (while tapping the glass under the sign that says DON"T TAP ON GLASS) Look, at those hands and fingers -- They're just like ours!" -- concluding with huge collective swigs from their BIG GULP clones.

    She seems to be aiming to take the logical, thoughtful, democratic behavior hackers exhibit -- which should be the vanguard for all human interaction -- and bending it into an amusing sidebar for WIRED as to the hackers "unusual" habits. All for a chance to get her name in print for some future book jacket blurb regarding "... her insightful and seminal work as she risked her name, sanity and possibly even her life as she descend into the seamy hacker underworld to collect research data..."

    This is all much like the gorilla inwardly cringing whenever he's called a monkey.


  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @02:54AM (#42127085) Journal
    I am willing to give one trait that spans across all of hackerdom (and someone can tell me how wrong I am). Hackers everywhere respect skill and knowledge. We seek it. That is how you can distinguish a non-hacker from a hacker.

    I would say this is the most important point in beginning to understand hacker culture. And there is no indication in the article anywhere that she understood this.
  • Re:TLDR version (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Narnie ( 1349029 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @05:48AM (#42127843)

    The only reason I haven't jumped ship already is that most of the alternatives have been violently Twitterized. I'm determined to think in full paragraphs. I just can't wait for the headline "Generation Z rediscovers the paragraph." Maybe if I'm lucky--and live long enough to see it--the paragraph will become retro cool.


    Generation Z will never discover the paragraph. The closest they will come is strings of phrases and cliches loosely related to the same topic or train of thought. Generation Z perceives paragraphs as well as structured thought as work and therefore must be avoided. As you have observed, people adopt language use from their environment, and the fine literary, theatrical, and music arts which they have been exposed to include text messaging, Harry Potter, teenager sitcoms on Disney/Nick/ABC family, Hannah Montana and Lady Gaga--all of which can be published on twitter with little comprehension lost.

    As for the recent editorial quality, I blame new management and the lack of cApiTaL punishment. It'd be nifty if trolls and trollish stories were punished by having their posts all capitalized via moderation, for example, every down vote causes another letter get capitalized. I know I'd gloss over articles and posts written in all caps. But it'd also be nifty if trolls were lynched.

  • by Herve5 ( 879674 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @11:12AM (#42129839)

    Spending three years, and from a real anthropologist, means she actually knows *more* about the hackers than any individual one in the group.
    Anyone insulting here only shows ignorance of what her profession is*.
    She may be a poor writer after that (I didn't read her work), she may be stupid, she may not vote my side, she may believe hideous things -but definitely: part of her job, after three years of full-time work, she just knows more than you and me. And than any single individual here not having devoted *years* professionally to the topic.

    (*) Sorry Cowboy, you can foe me now -- you also can check you're part of my friends, for years...

  • Re:Ask Slashdot (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gman003 ( 1693318 ) on Thursday November 29, 2012 @11:56AM (#42130361)

    As a member of the "Steam-worshipping younger generation", I feel I should explain my position. A lot of what you say is right. But there are a few points you get wrong.

    I don't love Steam because it's DRM. I love it despite the DRM it contains.

    You see, I still view DRM as an evil. However, it is not an intolerable one, nor is it a philosophical one. It is, perhaps, a necessary one. As a thought experiment, suppose there is some perfect DRM system - it always stops the software from being used by non-paying customers, and always allows paying ones to use it, regardless of internet connectivity, system profile, phase of the moon, etc. Don't ask how it works - it's magic or something. But it always lets the right people use it, and always stops the wrong ones. I, and most of "my generation", would not object to it. The developer does have a reasonable expectation that they will profit from their work, which DRM can help to protect.

    DRM does two things - it reduces the number of non-paying users, and it drives away otherwise-paying customers due to the inconvenience of it. The "perfect DRM" I posited reaches the limits of those numbers - non-paying users are reduced to zero, and the only people it drives away are those with a deep philosophical opposition to DRM (who are, I think, a relative minority). Actual DRM systems perform worse than the ideal, of course. Some, in fact, drive away more paying customers than non-paying, and ultimately cause a profit loss, not gain.

    Steam is one of the better ones. You can view it as a compromise between two positions. On the one hand, you have the publishers, who want maximum control over their product, as a corollary to their desire for maximum profit. On the other hand, you have the customers, who want maximum convenience. Steam provides significantly less restriction than many publishers would like - it does not encrypt things, it allows offline play, and it is easily broken. Many publishers supplement it with additional DRM, like SecuROM or GFWL (which are, in fact, noted on the store page), because they don't think it goes far enough. On the other side, Steam DRM is significantly more convenient than any other system I have seen. And Steam also offers significantly more features than a standard DRM system, enough that I would argue that the DRM is just one component of the system.

    Steam is fundamentally a content distribution system - the goal is to put software in the hands of as many paying customers as possible. The DRM is secondary to that - it's enough to discourage casual piracy, but anyone who really wants to not pay for their games can bypass it. Rather easily, even - there are fake version of the Steam authentication servers that simply authorizes you for every game, so if you can get the files, you can run the game. If Steam is ever shut down for any reason (and Valve doesn't follow through on their promise to release a DRM-removal tool themselves), I fully plan to use such a server.

    For me, Steam is about at the limit of how "inconvenient" DRM can be before I stop using it. In fact, when combined with some other DRM, I refuse to use it. I try to avoid stuff that uses GFWL unless it's a really good game, and I've been avoiding EA (and Bioware in particular) due to their DRM constantly fucking up.

    I don't use any other similar services, simply because all but one of them contain more DRM than I will tolerate. The only other one I would consider is GOG, but I simply haven't had a reason to buy anything from them yet.

    "Your" generation seems to have refused to compromise, on both sides of the DRM fight. "My" generation is willing to compromise, generally as long as it is an actual compromise, where both sides give up some things in order to get others.

    PS: I also think you're being a bit factually inaccurate when you said that old games didn't have DRM. They most certainly did. I remember not being able to install Warcraft II off a copied disc - it has to be installed from an original, although a copy will w

Who goeth a-borrowing goeth a-sorrowing. -- Thomas Tusser