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The Hacker's League
Lee Felsenstein
18 March 1992


     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 

     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 

     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 

     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 

     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.


     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 

     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 

     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 

     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 

     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 

     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