Tuesday, April 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Hacking by Tim Jordan, 2008, Polity Press, Digital Media and Society Series

This slim volume explores the concepts of hacking and hackers. Author Tim Jordan's method is to extract from the literature on hacking, both journalistic and academic, what he perceives as important, essential, and illuminating ideas, interpretations, innovations, and analysis regarding his subject. In this sense, the book is more of an introduction to hacking and hackers than it is a new narrative or comprehensive study of the literature.

Jordan gives a brief summary of the definition of hacking as established by other authors and makes the distinction between hacking and cracking. Cracking has more to do with computer crime and illegal intrusion into computer networks whereas hacking refers more to the broad territory of computer programming, both illicit and sanctioned, and, as a cultural term, extends beyond the realm of computer programming into other areas of life.

Jordan's main thematic concern is with the ideas of technological and cultural determination and how they interact. Jordan makes the case that the common, and erroneous, perception of these two types of determination is that they are diametrically opposed: either technology is the primary factor in determining human endeavor and experience or culture is the primary determining factor. Jordan argues that they are mutually intertwined, that culture often determines technology and that technology alters the culture and this process goes back and forth creating new culturea and new technologies. At times one determining factor assumes ascendency over the other, but this is only temporary. Moreover, our perceptions of which factor is more important also play a role. If we perceive technology as being the primary determining factor in our lives that has an impact, and the same if we perceive culture as the most important factor. Perception, identity, and agency are all affected.

Chapter 4, "Hacking the Social: Hacktivism, Cyberwar, Cyberterror, Cybercrime" was especially intriguing, from my point of view, in that it brought together the different scales on which computer hacking, and cracking, can operate: the personal, the individual operating against a large organization, the individual operating against the individual, and the nation state acting against other nation states. The anonymous nature of hacking and cracking often blurs these distinctions: were the cyber attacks against the government of Estonia sanctioned by the Russian government or just individual perpetrators operating on their own? Were cyberattacks against US institutions and assets found to be originating in China authorized by the Chinese high command, or were they actions taken by individuals or organizations without offical state sponsorship? Due to a lack of information coming from the US and other governments about these cyber-intrusions, it's still highly speculative that these could even be considered acts of cyberwar. Jordan writes a clear and concise primer on these rather murky issues.

Jordan's emphasis is on the sociological and not the technical: what do these actions and actors mean in human terms? Jordan's short volume is an effective introduction backed up with a detailed bibliography for those readers who want to explore futher.

Reading this volume made me interested in reading more in this series from Polity Press, known as the "Digital Media and Society Series."