Hacker Culture and Politics: NYU Senior Media Seminar

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment


The following is a course description and basic overview of the Hacker Culture and Politics class I am teaching this semester at NYU. The syllabus borrows from Gabriella Coleman’s version of the class (she created this course for NYU in 2010), and in the last few weeks in particular, opens the discussion up to include behaviors that are perhaps less recognizable as “proper” hacking, but which are marked by subversive or otherwise creative re-appropriation — the hallmark of the term as it was originally conceived.

Weekly Discussion Topics

  • Defining Terms
  • Early Days and Phone Phreaking
  • The Next Generation
  • Free and Open Source Software
  • Free and Open Software part II + Ethics
  • Piracy or Content Liberation?
  • Pirate Party
  • Anonymity as Dissent, Anonymity as Culture
  • Anonymous
  • Craft and Craftiness
  • Hackers and Trickster
  • Trolls and the Trolls Who Troll Them
  • Media Jamming and Spectacle

Required Texts 

  • Douglas Thomas: Hacker Culture
  • Lewis Hyde: Trickster Makes this World
  • Steven Levy: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
  • Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking
  • Andy Greenberg, This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information

Required Articles (selected)

  • Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto”
  • Brian Pfaffenberger, “If I Want It, It’s OK: Usenet and the (Outer) Limits of Free Speech”
  • Lawrence Liang, “Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate.”
  • Robert Mueller, “Combating Threats in the Cyber World: Outsmarting Terrorists, Hackers, and Spies” (RSA Speech)
  • Lee Knuttila, “User unknown: 4chan, Anonymity and Contingency”
  • Coleman, Gabriella, “Our Weirdness Is Free. The logic of Anonymous—Online Army, Agent of Chaos, and Seeker of Justice”
  • Judith Donath, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”
  • Whitney Phillips, “The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle and Cycles of Amplification”
  • Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Detournement”

Course Description 

In mainstream parlance, hacking is, at least is understood to be, the criminal or otherwise malicious attempt to access information that isn’t meant to be accessed. In mainstream media portrayals, individual hackers are typically portrayed either as basement-dwelling malcontents with too much time on their hands or digital MacGyvers capable of building a radioactive iPad out of paper clips and a cereal box. Even hackers themselves equivocate on the meaning and implications of the title (Thomas 2003; Coleman 2010), and there is often great animosity between whitehats (hackers who abide by ethical and legal principles), blackhats (hackers who engage in unethical or illegal behaviors) and grayhats (hackers with ambiguous motives, who may appear good or bad depending on who is looking).

As loaded as the term has become, hacking in the original sense was surprisingly value-neutral. As early as 1959, students at MIT were using the term “to hack” to describe any technological project or innovation that creatively appropriated available materials in order to make something smarter, better or more interesting (Levy 1984, 39-49). In addition to interrogating the history, ethics and technical practices of hacking, as well as examining how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet generally, this course will explore the extent to which hacking—understood more broadly as creative tinkering—informs our relationship to the social, technological and media landscape.

Learning Outcomes

In this class, students will explore the historical, political and technological context of hacking. Through weekly blog entries, class discussions and their final projects, students will analyze the various narratives surrounding hacking, as well as the ways in which these narratives connect to and inform their own relationship to technology. They will be responsible for leading discussions on the course readings and critically engaging the readings and class conversations.

Final research paper  

For their 7-9 page final research projects, and drawing from course readings and class discussions, students will examine a specific moment of hacking spectacle. The event needn’t be a purely technological or computer-based hack; students are welcome to consider any moment—positive, negative or somewhere in between—of creative re-appropriation. If the event does not obviously meet the criteria of hacking, the student must include in his or her analysis an explanation of why this event qualifies as such. All analyses must consider the system(s) and/or principles hacked. Students will be given the opportunity to brainstorm specific paper topic ideas in class.


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