Hacker culture – understanding scandinavia
In our day and age, the word hacker is a term associated with criminal behavior. It can mean anything from extracting information unlawfully, break or bypass security measures, avoid payment of service, terrorism (to terrorize, to cause fear) and much more.
20 years ago a hacker, in the Scandinavian sense of the word, was simply a clever programmer. The impression is that of a programmer hacking away at a problem, finding or hacking new roads in the mountain (or going under it if that’s what it takes). Such a programmer dedicated the majority of his time to creating demonstrations (demos) and pushing technological boundaries. His or her’s focus was (and is) on how to squeeze every last drop of CPU power from a system – in the service of graphical or audible effects regarded as cutting edge or “impossible”.
A hacker was, at least in the Scandinavian sense, not the same as a cracker. The latter being a person who spent his time removing copy-protection from games and software in general, with little or no moral standing as to the fate of his victims (crackers tend to believe that everyone else is rich and that years of work exists only for their leisure).
An interesting point, when comparing hacker culture between Scandinavia and USA – is that Scandinavia really never had a clear-cut equivalent of America’s white and black hat paradigms. The closest match is that between hacker and cracker, but even there the lines cross and blur.
What the US missed out on
Americans have really missed out on what must be one of the most positive aspects of hacker culture, namely the demo scene. I have heard many different explanations regarding the lack of “demo” interest in the US, ranging from economic (america is insurance based and as thus, money and career is implanted in the mind of kids quite early) to the more tasteless (“we don’t do demos, we make bombs”).
Personally I think it has more to do with the college school system, fraternity mentality and various cultural tendencies. But it is extremely strange that a solid demo scene never occurred in the US during the 80’s and 90’s – because demo coding is probably the best education in programming you can get. And considering the money prices involved with high-end demo coding, especially from multimedia and game companies who are on the constant lookout for the next superstar programmer – i find it nearly inconceivable.
Considering how Americans trek across the entire continent to celebrate comic books and star trek characters (comicon), it is sad to see what I believe would be a more rewarding expo not even being proposed. But, perhaps times have changed. I know there are countless developer expo’s in the US every year – sadly very few of them involves more than presentations of technology as opposed to radical, cutting edge demo’s.
Back in the day we used to simply call these gatherings “copy parties”. This was way back when a 20 megabyte hard disk was seen as the proverbial shangri-la of storage space. Games and applications came on 720Kb floppy disks, and tape streamers were regarded as “safe”. So parties were copy parties, because that’s basically what you did there. You copied games and shared your code — and hoped to win the demo competition your group signed up for.
Today these same parties (and I suspect much of the same activity) is simply called “demo parties”, and if you are between 14 and 30 – it’s THE place to be whenever you can. I’m 41 years old and still regard these gatherings as one of my most enjoyable experiences, especially today with all that juicy hardware to play with. The most famous demo party, probably in all of europe, being “the gathering” which is held at the olympic stadium in Hamar, outside of Oslo, Norway (called “the viking ship”).
The gathering (TG) has turned into big business over the years, with technological companies practically throwing sponsorship at the event – and in return they get the ultimate hunting ground for future employees with a high degree of technical insight.
If you have ever been at an expo (or Delphi meetup) you enjoyed, multiply that by 10.000, add a huge stage with 24/7 shows, beer, the fastest internet connections money can buy (and I mean that quite literally) and more programmers than god ever intended — and you have “the gathering” in a nutshell. Created by “The Crusaders”, a fairly infamous hacker group from Drammen outside of Oslo, Norway.
As readers of my blog probably know, I started out in a group called Triumph (actually it was called “the band” before that), then I moved on to Alpha Flight, before I finally joined Quartex. Quartex being the most notorious hacker cartel in Europe at the time. In Scandinavian sense this is regarded as a high achievement, since only people with a solid skill set could join these groups. Quartex being the absolute elite.
Sadly Quartex meet with a rather grim fate. It existed since the early days of the Amiga home computer, but when the piracy wars of Europe raged – german police hunted Quartex to extinction, with only scattered members around the globe (interestingly enough, one of the HQ addresses being American).
Importance of hacker culture in modern life
The importance of hacker culture cannot be underlined enough. If you associate hackers with dark room, anonymous thieves who do nothing but cause problems, then you are in fact suffering from a particular bad case of generalization and stereo-typing. The entire concept of “hacking” is an expression of curiosity and creativity combined with expert technical knowledge. In many ways it represents the individual’s pursuit of technical excellence, far beyond anything you find at your local university.
What you will typically find, at least in Scandinavia and northern Europe is that nearly all of the programmers doing ground-breaking work today have a background as demo coders and “hackers”. In fact, it was their exposure to advanced programming at an early age, driven by interest and environment, that led to these good programmers becoming exceptional experts as adults.
Such hackers are in the US labeled “white hat hackers”, since they are using their skills for good; while those that use their knowledge for breaking the law and clearly placed in the “black hat” department. This should also give some hint to the phrase “red hat”, which is one of the world’s leading Linux distributions.
I’m not sure the American tendency to see things in purely black or white can be applied to hacker culture. Hacker culture is generally a lifestyle with many facets. Being able to crack a game or get into someone’s Facebook account is not the final word spoken about an individual. While I would never condone such actions – or breaking the law no matter where you live, I do feel that the stereo-type of “the hacker” should be adjusted according to reality.
I consider myself a “hacker” even though I don’t break copy-protection or try to sneak my way into a server illegally. But should I do something like that, then the government should be glad I did it and not some foreign nationalist party who would use the information for evil. And that is the role of a white-hat hacker, to know “how to”, but to use that knowledge for good.
But in Scandinavia at least, the term hacker still retains some of its former glory from the 80’s and 90’s. And that can only be a good thing.