There’s a documentary, The Hedgehog and the Hare, being made about the prosecution of Andrew Auernheimer (aka “the weev”). The filmmaker wants to interview me for background and context on the hacker culture. The following is a lightly edited version of the backgrounder I sent him so he could better prepare for the interview.
I’ve watched the trailer. I’ve googled “weev” and read up on his behavior and the legal case. The following note is intended to be a background on culture, philosophy, and terminology that will help you frame questions for the face-to-face interview.
Wikipedia describes Andrew Auernheimer as “grey-hat hacker”. There are a lot of complications and implications around that term that bear directly on what “weev” was doing and what he thought he was doing. One good way to approach these is to survey the complicated history of the word “hacker”.
My authority to explain this rests on having edited The New Hacker’s Dictionary, which is generally considered the definitive lexicon of the culture it describes; also How To Become A Hacker which you should probably read first.
In its original and still most correct sense, the word “hacker” describes a member of a tribe of expert and playful programmers with roots in 1960s and 1970s computer-science academia, the early microcomputer experimenters, and several other contributory cultures including science-fiction fandom.
Through a historical process I could explain in as much detail as you like, this hacker culture became the architects of today’s Internet and evolved into the open-source software movement. (I had a significant role in this process as historian and activist, which is why my friends recommended that you talk to me.)
People outside this culture sometimes refer to it as “old-school hackers” or “white-hat hackers” (the latter term also has some more specific shades of meaning). People inside it (including me) insist that we are just “hackers” and using that term for anyone else is misleading and disrespectful.
Within this culture, “hacker” applied to an individual is understood to be a title of honor which it is arrogant to claim for yourself. It has to be conferred by people who are already insiders. You earn it by building things, by a combination of work and cleverness and the right attitude. Nowadays “building things” centers on open-source software and hardware, and on the support services for open-source projects.
There are – seriously – people in the hacker culture who refuse to describe themselves individually as hackers because they think they haven’t earned the title yet – they haven’t built enough stuff. One of the social functions of tribal elders like myself is to be seen to be conferring the title, a certification that is taken quite seriously; it’s like being knighted.
The first key thing for you to understand is that Andrew Auernheimer is not a member of the (genuine, old school, white-hat) hacker culture. One indicator of this is that he uses a concealing handle. Real hackers do not do this. We are proud of our work and do it in the open; when we use handles, they are display behaviors rather than cloaks. (There are limited exceptions for dealing with extremely repressive and totalitarian governments, when concealment might be a survival necessity.)
Another bright-line test for “hacker culture” is whether you’ve ever contributed code to an open-source project. It does not appear that Auernheimer has done this. He’s not known among us for it, anyway.
A third behavior that distances Auernheimer from the hacker culture is his penchant for destructive trolling. While there is a definite merry-prankster streak in hacker culture, trolling and nastiness are frowned upon. Our pranking style tends more towards the celebration of cleverness through elaborate but harmless practical jokes, intricate technical satires, and playful surrealism. Think Ken Kesey rather than Marquis de Sade.
Now we come to the reason why Auernheimer calls himself a hacker.
There is a cluster of geek subcultures within which the term “hacker” has very high prestige. If you think about my earlier description it should be clear why. Building stuff is cool, it’s an achievement.
There is a tendency for members of those other subcultures to try to appropriate hacker status for themselves, and to emulate various hacker behaviors – sometimes superficially, sometimes deeply and genuinely.
Imitative behavior creates a sort of gray zone around the hacker culture proper. Some people in that zone are mere posers. Some are genuinely trying to act out hacker values as they (incompletely) understand them. Some are ‘hacktivists’ with Internet-related political agendas but who don’t write code. Some are outright criminals exploiting journalistic confusion about what “hacker” means. Some are ambiguous mixtures of several of these types.
Andrew Auernheimer lives in that gray zone. He’s one of its ambiguous characters – part chaotic prankster, part sincere hacktivist, possibly part criminal. The proportions are not clear to me – and may not even be clear to him.
Like many people in that zone, he aspires to the condition of hacker and may sincerely believe he’s achieved it (his first lines in your trailer suggest that). What he probably doesn’t get is that attitude isn’t enough; you have to have competence. A real hacker would reply, skeptically “Show me your code.” Show your work. What have you built, exactly? Nasty pranking and security-breaking don’t count…
Now, having explained what separates “weev” from the hacker culture, I’m going to explain why his claim is not entirely bogus. I can’t consider him a hacker on the evidence I have available, but I’m certain he’s had hacker role models. Plausibly one of them might be me…
His stubborn libertarian streak, his insistence that you can only confirm your rights by testing their boundaries, is like us. So is his belief in the propaganda of the deed – of acting transgressively out of principle as an example to others.
Combine this with a specific interest in changing the world through adroit application of technology and you have someone who is in significant ways very much like us. I think his claim to be a hacker is mistaken and shows ignorance of the full weight and responsibilities of the term, but it’s not crazy. If he wrote code and dropped the silly handle and gave up trolling he might become one of us.
But even though Andrew Auernheimer doesn’t truly seem to be one of us, we don’t have much option but to join in his defense. He’s a shady and dubious character by our standards, but we are all too aware that the kind of vague law and prosecutorial overreach that threw him in jail could be turned against us for doing things that are normal parts of our work.
Sometimes maintaining civil liberties requires rallying around people whose behavior and ethics are questionable. That, I think, sums up how most hackers who are aware of his troubles feel about Andrew Auernheimer.