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The Hacker's League Lee Felsenstein 18 March 1992 Theory The Hacker's League is modeled loosely after the American Radio Relay League (A.R.R.L.), an organization of technological adventurers of the Edwardian period. In its heyday, the radio amateurs moved from being nuisances to being important contributors to the development of radio technology. In a field which demanded governmental regulation for orderly operation, the A.R.R.L. represented the interests of amateurs in the councils of government and organized ongoing educational activities through which newcomers to the field could learn not only the technology involved, but also the human interactions which connect the technology to the outside world. The most recent triumph of radio amateurs has been the development of packet radio, which has recently been adopted by Motorola as the basis for its "wireless local loop" for wireless telephone operation. Thanks to the amateurs, it was developed and tried out in an open environment outside of commercial pressures which tend toward secrecy and exclusion. In the area of computers and telecommunication, there are several parallels between today's hackers and the radio amateurs of 1915. Hackers are seen by the respectable technological players as nuisances capable of doing great damage and generally without redeeming qualitites. They were indistinguishable from rogue broadcasters who trampled on other signals in their urge to cover the longest distance. In the corridors of power there was a movement toward outlawing them. Nontechnical people did not know quite what to think about this problem and its suggested solution. The A.R.R.L. was more than a lobbying organization, though. It provided a means for the mutual education essential to the growth of any technology, a route of entry open to all comers, and a social scene to accompany the technological forum. Through the A.R.R.L. green kids could encounter grizzled oldtimers who would be unapproachable in their positions the industry. At field days and other events the cameraderie of being explorers overcame the barriers of class and position as well as those engendered by commercial competition. Networking was possible in the amateur environment which forwarded the operation in the commercial and professional environments. The concept of the Hacker's League is similar but different as befits the different nature of the technology. The aim is to provide a situation in which otherwise unqualified entrants to the field can engage in informal learning situations, test their skills as a means of exercising their craft, gain hands-on experience with systems which would be unobtainable otherwise, and participate on both sides of mentoring and tutorial relationships. The Hacker's League would provide an outlet for the creative energies which are otherwise expended making life worse for perceived or imagined enemies through unauthorized entry to systems and other illegal or unethical conduct. Such energies would be turned toward projects which advance the state of the art, and in a way which undermines the arrogance and exclusivity of the corporate managers which hackers find so tempting a target. To the charge that the Hacker's League would become a front for the interests of industry may be raised the defense that by exploiting industry's fear of low-level disorder it would provide an organizing platform for higher-level attack upon the technological underpinnings of the existing structure. Consider the difference between outcomes had hackers in the 1970's been content to organize politically for access to mainframes. There would have been no personal computer industry, and the power relationships would not have undergone the radical changes brought about by the triumph of open architecture. One might well have said then that the amateur computer activity was a distraction from the true task of tugging at the sleeve of power, yet we can all see the effects of that activity. The Hacker's League could be seen as a guild serving to restrict entry to the membership of the technical elite. In fact, the League would be far more open than the current system of university education. It would provide a means of testing to see whether one is suited to the demands of the technology without exacting years of commitment to learning prerequisites. Within the Hacker's League there would be much more mobility among specialties than exists in university curricula, and the doors would be open to underage entrants and those who come later in life after entrance to a university becomes difficult or impossible. Still, the human tendencies which lead toward exclusivity and the formation of cliques will always be with us, and we must bear themin mind as we proceed in conceptualizing and realizing the Hacker's League. The technology in which we work tends to eliminate the need for centralization, and one of the important outcomes of the Leagues's development would be the demonstration of the decentralized mode of organization, as noble an exploration as might be contemplated, int he opinion of many. After all, the primary challenge is not so much in the hardware, or the physical form of the systems of intercommunication and interaction around which society develops. The important work is in developing the social forms of use of this technology which forwards the common good as well as that of the individual. New ways of thinking, as Einstein said, are the urgently needed ingredient for the humanization and survivalof society. The Hacker's League would not only provide a development bed for social innovations involving the use of information technology, but it would empower those innovations through the parallel development of the technology and, most importantly, of the human network through which the technology is made to come alive. Practice The Hacker's League would be membership organization open to nonmembers for certain functions. It would be organized as a nonprofit educational and scientific organization. Its publications would be freely available to all interested readers. The League would hold periodic local events demonstrating technical achievements of members or chapters, and offering places for individuals outside the League to exhibit or to engage in low-level trade, such as swap meets. A newcomer would most probably make first contact at such events, and might decide to attend a local chapter meeting. Meetings of local chapters would be high in information exchange and low in structure. Newcomers would be acknowledged and provided with a brief orientation so that they would not feel put off by displays of technical virtuosity or cliquishness. If the newcomer desired further involvement, there would be a set of course tracks available as suggested paths for establishing, through achievement, one's level of skill. These might be thought of as Scout Merit Badges, although the name would probably not be used. In the early stages of involvement, the newcomer might interact with a designated instructor who is also working to establish skill in teaching and coaching. Later, as the newcomer gains skill and established competence, he or she would be recommended for more individual instruction and consultation from more highly skilled mentors. Such mentoring relationships would be an important feature of the League, both as a means and and end. The League at the local level would acquire maintain obsolescent equipment which would be operated and imporved by the members through development projects proposed from the membership. Telecommunication resource would also be solicited as donations from carriers, on the none-too-subtle suggestion that the availability of such resource in such a context is conducive to the developmentof skilled citizens instead of antisocial attackers. Through this resource the League would maintain its larger structure, which would be a communication- based overlay of networks and ad-hocracies. Through these structures conflicitng positions could be discussed and debated in a functioning participatory democracy. Informed plebiscites would be conducted both as a means of determining the senseof the League on issues of importsnce and as development projects testing the capabilities of information technology under various arrangements of use. The highest structure of orgnization would be at the local level, and the administrators at wider levels might be given titles, such as Janitor, which tend to prevent puffery and self-glorification. Sapiential authority would be fostered within the League as opposed to positional authority. The newcomer would progress from establishing his or her level of skill to a process of exploring the available courses of self-development. It would be possible to propose a specific course different from the recommended courses. The newcomer would then engage in projects which require the improvement in skill level under the supervision or review of competent skilled members. This should be seen as professional development (where the word has no connotation of "earning a livelihood") and since it is a responsibility of all professionals to teach adn transmit their skills, the newcomer would along the way be expected to perform as an instructor and later a supervisor and mentor to future newcomers. Thus, progress in self-development would not be simply a matter of the "neat hacks" one could accomplish, but would require an integration into the society first of hackers, then the broader society. There is no reason why technologists must rely on others to represent their work to the public or the polity. One of the public service functions performed by the members of the Hacker's League (and this performance would be explicitly carried out by the members and not by the "organization") would be consultation on informational security and integrity of communications within everyday society. Members of the League would provide a service of analysis of proposals, investigations of system misuse and pursuit of abusers which would rest on itsown professional foundation rather than serving direct commercial ends which might distort the conclusions of investigations. To use a popular metaphor, members ofthe HAcker's League might be compared to doctors on the Electronic Frontier, with their own loose medical association to keep quackery at bay and serving a public health function. Or perhaps the analogy might be to schoolteachers who also write literature and literary criticism, as well as turningout works of art and organizing criticism of the same. Obviously, this metaphoric space needs work. One can expect to betterone's material condition through participating inthe networks of relationships which would be the Hacker's League, if one has the skill and aptitude to improve one's skills. If not, it would be no shame to cease participation. An important function of the League would be to encourage the incompetent to go elsewhere without opprobium. They may well turn up as administrators within industry, and it is in no ones' interest for there to be hostile relations based upon "loser" status. In fact, the Hacker's League would be a way to do away with the "winner/loser" dichotomy. If you try, you win to some degree, and younger members less secure in themselves need to learn this, at times to a desperate degree. One can take on more thnone can handle, be allowed to fail with support from those more experienced, and not incur actual or emotional costs which would otherwise drive one away from such experimentation. The Hacker's League wouldn't be working without a measurable degree of honestly won failure on the partofits members. What types of projects would be undertaken? Perhaps the development of distributed operating systems suitable for networks of variegated intelligent devices; elegant user front- ends and development environments for intuitive system configuration; pidgin speech (unnatural language) recognition systems; new structures of groupware; posibly neural networks at higher levels. But these are my own conjectures, and what would actually transpire would almost certainly make these guesses look ridiculously quaint and primitive. Let's give it a chance to happen.