MCC-UE 1406 Hacker Culture & Politics

Mon/Wed 11:00–12:15 / WAVE 367

This course focuses on computer hackers, examining the ethics and technical practices of hacking in particular and more broadly how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet globally. 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, state-sponsored hacking, and the mischievous pranks of the 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, security and surveillance, and intellectual property.

Contacting me I hold office hours in room 740, 239 Greene St, from 4:15 to 6:00 PM every Monday. My email is

Assignments Assignments for this class will reflect a hackerly approach in two ways: students are expected to produce a “hacking project” over the course of the semester (55%) and a final presentation about the subject of their project and research. The content of the project must be about something pertinent to hacking that you want to learn more about (either one of the main topics of the course or another related subject or domain, with analysis that will draw on concepts from class readings and lectures; we will discuss). The form of the project must be built with software with which you have no prior experience: start from scratch, tinker, try things, get the system to do what you need it to. Depending on what you select, this will involve find and configuring open source software, learning new online platforms, and producing content in novel ways – and adopting a hacker’s DIY approach to your tools. This will be discussed and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Presentations are also a huge part of contemporary hacker culture, and you will be expected to deliver an intensively polished, rehearsed, 4–5 minute presentation on your research project at the end of the semester. (A rubric will be provided.)

Hacking project: 55%
Final presentation: 30%
Class participation: 15%

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

General Course and School Policies

Grading Rubric
A = Excellent / This work is comprehensive and detailed, integrating themes and concepts from discussions and readings with original research. 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.

Grade Appeals If you want to appeal a grade, send a short note explaining your concerns to me within a week of receiving your grade. (Grades that stand longer than a week will be taken as correct, and appeals will not be considered.) We will set up a meeting to review the grading, if necessary.

Academic Integrity The Steinhardt School’s Statement on Academic Integrity governs all student work in this course. “Academic integrity,” it says, “is the guiding principle for all that you do; from taking exams, making oral presentations to writing term papers. It requires that you recognize and acknowledge information derived from others, and take credit only for ideas and work that are yours.” Please familiarize yourself with the details of the statement.

Students with Special Needs Students with special needs, such as physical and/or learning disabilities, should register with the Moses Center and follow their guidelines for informing the course instructors who will arrange “reasonable accommodations” as requested.

Religious Observance In accordance with NYU’s Policy on Religious Holidays students who observe religious holidays that may interfere with the class schedule should inform course instructors well in advance of anticipated absences to ensure that appropriate arrangements are made for the completion of course work.

Writing Center Students are encouraged to make use of NYU’s Writing Center.

Schedule of Classes

1/25 / Syllabus, goals, requirements discussion
1/27 / What makes a hacker? What are hacker politics?
- Mark Liberman, “Hacking: Who Does What To Whom?”
- Robert Graham, “No, Hacker Really Does Mean Hacker”

2/1 / Hello World: Hacking as craft and as politics
- Hackers Chapters 1, 2, 5
2/3 / Phreaks and Geeks (and Usenet)
- Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box”
Due: Informal proposal for your hacker project

2/8 / Homebrew Club, Hardware Hacking, and the Personal Computer
- Hackers Chapters 8–10
2/10 / Locating Hacker Culture: Garages, Hackerspaces, Networks
- Watch BBS: The Documentary, parts 1 (“Baud”) and 2 (“Sysops and Users”)
- Elliot Williams, “Hackers and Heroes: A Tale of Two Countries” and “Hackers and Heroes: Rise of the CCC and Hackerspaces”

2/15 / President’s Day (no classes scheduled)
2/17 / Free and Open Source Software!: What and Why
- Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto”
- Hacker Culture Chapter 4, “Representing Hacker Culture: Reading Phrack

2/22 - Free and Open Source Software!: How
- Coding Freedom Chapter 1, “The Life of a Free Software Hacker”
2/24 - Free and Open Source Software!: Ethics and prospects
- Coding Freedom Conclusion, “The Cultural Critique of Intellectual Property Law”

2/29 - 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”
3/2 - Intellectual Property and Piracy: Free culture
- Aaron Swartz, “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”
- The (superb) summary of Lessig’s Free Culture on Wikipedia

3/7 - 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”
3/9 - Canceled due to jury duty


3/21 - Anonymity as Dissent and Culture: Leaking
- This Machine Kills Secrets, Parts 1 and 2
3/23 - Anonymity as Dissent and Culture: The war on whistleblowers
- This Machine Kills Secrets, Part 3, Afterword
Due: Midterm progress report for your hacker project

3/28 - Expect Us: Anonymous as Activists
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Introduction, 1
3/30 - Expect Us: Anonymous as Tricksters
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 2, 3

4/4 - Hackers, Tricksters and Trolls
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 5, 6
4/6 - Lulz and Sovereignty: Hackers, Spies, and National Security
- Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: Chapters 7, 8

4/11 - Craft and Craftiness
- Coding Freedom, Chapter 3
- Ryan Grove, “Code Aesthetics”
4/13 - Interlude on the Internet of (Hackable) Things
- Bruce Sterling, “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things”

4/18 - Advanced Trouble: Privacy and Points of Failure
- Watch Quinn Norton, “When You Are the Adversary”
4/20 - Advanced Trouble: Bad Patterns and Abandoned Users
- Betsy Haibel, “The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User”

4/25 - Hacker Politics I: Building New Institutions
- Brewster Kahle, “Locking the Web Open: A Call for a Distributed Web”
4/27 - Hacker Politics II: Scaling Culture?
- Rodney Folz, “Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture”
- Look through the Recurse Center User’s Manual, noticing all the stuff about community/culture

5/2 - Final Presentations, I
5/4 - Final Presentations, II

5/9 - Last Day: Looking to the future (biohacking and others)
Due: All deliverables for your final hacker project