The Last HOPE: Hacker History

The history-oriented panels at HOPE were very interesting, especially for someone like me who was kind of new to the scene. I am particularly interested in the aspect of history that pinpoints the people and moments where someone looked at something, ignored the expected mode of interaction, and made the creative leap to invent a whole new way of seeing, thinking and using the thing.

Phil Lapsley, in his talk about the history of phone phreaking, told us about Joe Engressia, who at 8 years old (in 1957), discovered that he was able to produce a pitch-perfect whistle that mimicked the 2600hz tone used to control phone lines. This led to years of experimentation, and the presentation included a video of an adult Joe dialing a phone simply by whistling the number into it. Kind of incredible.

Keynote speaker Steven Levy had an interesting perspective, having become interested in this scene in the early 80s when, knowing very little about computers, he was assigned to write an article about hacker culture. He soon went native, to some degree, buying a couple Apples for home use (totaling $9500!). He also ended up writing the book Hackers, which came out in 1984. He’s seen the culture – and its public perception – evolve over time and he’s not pleased about portrayals that oversimplify and villainize. On the subject of digital-age criminals, with no actual skills, he says “Those people aren’t really hackers, at least not in my book.” And he means that quite literally, of course.

Then there was Jason Scott (an old high school friend of mine, in fact) who points out that “The hardest part of history is to be there when it happens.” This may seem fairly self-evident, but the point is that someone was there, and someone has the artifacts that show what happened. And he wants people to save those stories and those things, and tell other people about them. This sincere entreaty was illustrated with entertaining stories about prototypical hacker cons in the 1800s (obviously, not called “hacker cons” at the time), clubbers misusing Preparation H on their abs to look more ripped, and the emergence of the myth that child hackers are murderous. “People are being killed by a clever 9 year old… using technology and abilities.”

I think we’re at an interesting point in hacker history. Clearly there have been several distinct phases that have come and gone, and some people at HOPE were definitely waxing nostalgic, but there seem to be some new, subtle, vital movements rippling up right now. Maybe I just think that because I’m only now hearing about them. But maybe not.

Read more of my posts about The Last HOPE:

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