MCC-UE 1406 Hacker Culture & Politics

Mon/Wed 12:30–13:45 / East Building, Rm 207

This course focuses on computer hackers, to interrogate not only the ethics and technical practices of hacking, but to examine more broadly how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet more generally. We also will examine ways in which hackers challenge or reinforce definitions of political action. We will examine how hacker values are realized and constituted by different legal, technical, and ethical activities of computer hacking – for example, free software production, cyberactivism and hacktivism, cryptography, and the prankish games of hacker underground. We will pay close attention to how ethical principles are variably represented and thought of by hackers, journalists, and academics and we will use the example of hacking to address various topics on law, order, and politics on the Internet like free speech and censorship, privacy and security, and intellectual property.

Contacting me + office hours from 15:30–17:00 on Monday (740, 239 Greene St)

Assignments You will write six “reporting papers” (2–3 pages), where you independently identify something interesting happening now pertinent to the themes of our class, explain it, and take a critical stand on it using at least one concept or argument from class (lectures and/or readings). EMAIL ME ALL PAPERS BEFORE CLASS ON THE DAY THEY’RE DUE. All papers should be standard formatting: 12 pt font, double-spaced, with a standard citation format, you know the drill. The big assignment, which will replace a final paper or exam, is a final presentation on a topic of your choice, reflecting the importance of live presentations in the hacker and larger tech communities. (Rubrics and recommendations will be provided.) Participation: be ready with the reading – the reading listed for each day needs to be read that day, and I expect you to be engaged and active in discussing it.

Reporting papers: 60% (10% each)
Final presentation: 30%
Class participation: 10%

Grading rubric
A (Excellent) This work is comprehensive and detailed, integrating themes and concepts from discussions, lectures and readings. Writing is clear, analytical and organized. Arguments offer specific examples and concisely evaluate evidence. Students who earn this grade are prepared for class, synthesize course materials and contribute insightfully.
B (Good) This work is complete and accurate, offering insights at general level of understanding. Writing is clear, uses examples properly and tends toward broad analysis. Classroom participation is consistent and thoughtful.
C (Average) This work is correct but is largely descriptive, lacking analysis. Writing is vague and at times tangential. Arguments are unorganized, without specific examples or analysis. Classroom participation is inarticulate.
D (Unsatisfactory) This work is incomplete, and evidences little understanding of the readings or discussions. Arguments demonstrate inattention to detail, misunderstand course material and overlook significant themes. Classroom participation is spotty, unprepared and off topic.
F (Failed) This grade indicates a failure to participate.
Plus and minus grade indicate the standing within the above grades.

Boring but necessary stuff
Absences More than two unexcused absences will automatically result in a lower grade. Chronic lateness will also be reflected in your evaluation of participation. Regardless of the reason for your absence you will be responsible for any missed work. Travel arrangements do not constitute a valid excuse for late work. There are no extra credit assignments for this class.
Academic dishonesty and plagiarism We abide by the Steinhardt standards of academic integrity: Don’t plagiarize, don’t cheat, don’t double-submit. I’m bound by my job to get you in trouble for it (and yes, we notice; Google exists; etc).
Writing help If you need assistance with writing, contact the NYU Writing Center (schedule appointments online at, or just drop in).
Students with physical or learning disabilities are required to register with the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities, 726 Broadway, 2nd Floor, (212–998–4980) and are required to present a letter from the Center to the instructor at the start of the semester in order to be considered for appropriate accommodation.

Readings All readings will be online, as PDFs or links – plus online video of presentations and documentaries – along with the following books, available at the NYU Bookstore or the other usual places:

Coleman, Gabriella: Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking
Coleman, Gabriella: Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
Greenberg, Andy: This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information
Thomas, Douglas: Hacker Culture
Levy, Steven: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

1/26 - Syllabus, goals, requirements discussion
1/28 - What, and who makes a hacker? What are hacker politics?
- Mark Liberman, “Hacking: Who Does What To Whom?”
- Robert Graham, “No, Hacker Really Does Mean Hacker”

2/2 - Hello World: Hacking as craft and as politics
- Hackers Chapters 1, 2, 5
2/4 - Geeks and Phreaks (and Usenet)
- Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box”

2/9 - Homebrew Club, Hardware Hacking, and the Personal Computer
- Hackers Chapters 8–13
2/11 - Locating Hacker Culture (or, garages and hackerspaces)
- Watch the first two parts of BBS: The Documentary: Baud (39 mins) and Sysops and Users (44 mins)
DUE: Reporting Paper 1

2/18 - Free and Open Source Software!: What and why
- Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto”
- Hacker Culture Chapter 4, “Representing Hacker Culture: Reading Phrack

2/23 - Free and Open Source Software!: How
- Coding Freedom Chapter 1, “The Life of a Free Software Hacker”
2/25 - Free and Open Source Software!: Ethics and prospects
- Coding Freedom Conclusion, “The Cultural Critique of Intellectual Property Law”
DUE: Reporting Paper 2

3/2 - Intellectual Property and Piracy: Pirates ahoy
- Rasmus Fleischer, “Pirate Party Speech”
- John Biggs, “Avast, Me Hearties: How The Pirate Bay Changed The Way We Steal”
3/4 - Intellectual Property and Piracy: Free culture
- Aaron Swartz, “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”
- The (superb) summary of Lessig’s Free Culture on Wikipedia

3/9 - Intellectual Property and Piracy: IP and DRM (the empire strikes back)
- Tim Berners-Lee, “The Many Meanings of Open”
- Chris Sherlock, “Bug 923590 - Pledge never to implement HTML5 DRM”
- Brendan Eich, “The Bridge of Khazad-DRM”
3/11 - Interlude on the Internet of (Hackable) Things
- Bruce Sterling, “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things”
DUE: Reporting Paper 3


3/23 - Anonymity as Dissent and Culture: Leaking
- This Machine Kills Secrets, Parts 1 and 2
3/25 - Anonymity as Dissent and Culture: The war on whistleblowers
- This Machine Kills Secrets, Part 3, Afterword

3/30 - Expect Us: Anonymous as Activists
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Introduction, 1
4/1 - Expect Us: Chanology and Tactics
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 2, 3
DUE: Reporting Paper 4

4/6 - Expect Us: AnonOps on the world stage
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 5, 6
4/8 - Expect Us: The Anti-Anons
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 7, 8

4/13 - Craft and Craftiness
- Coding Freedom, Chapter 3
4/15 - Code Aesthetics: Hacking as an art form
- Luke Plant, “Why Learning Haskell/Python Makes You a Worse Programmer”
- Ryan Grove, “Code Aesthetics”
- Mateas and Montfort, “A Box, Darkly: Obfuscation, Weird Languages, and Code Aesthetics” (as much as you can grasp)
DUE: Reporting Paper 5

4/20 - Advanced Trouble: Privacy and Points of Failure
- Watch Quinn Norton, “When You Are the Adversary”
4/22 - Advanced Trouble: Bad Patterns and Abandoned Users
- Betsy Haibel, “The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User”

4/27 - Hacker Politics I: The Trouble with Hacker Culture
- Watch Johannes Grenzfurthner, “Fuckhackerfucks (a rant)”
4/29 - Hacker Politics II: Worst-Case Scenarios
- Shanley Kane, “My Statement”
DUE: Reporting Paper 6

5/4 - Final Presentations, I
5/6 - Final Presentations, II

5/11 - Last Day: Looking to the future (biohacking and others)