Krispy Kremes and Ancient Ethics


The decidedly seedy Hotel Pennsylvania, a tourist magnet opposite Madison Square Garden, seems like an odd place for a guy like Greg Newby to foment his cyberrevolution. After weathering countless sales meetings and sweaty travel clubs, ITS airport-chic interior has warped and faded. The lights are caked with yellow gunk, and the claustrophobic rooms appear plucked from an old videocassette of The Shining.

Yet there was Newby last week, at the Hackers on Planet Earth convention (H2K), making a case for his “Hacker’s Code,” a document designed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: unify the technophilic, anarchy-inclined denizens of the computer underground. Newby’s Hacker’s Code is a list of 12 basic principles that he hopes will “help hackers to spot their common heritage, and recognize both their diversity and their potential power.”

But first he had to get the attention of hundreds of laptop-toting, utility-belt-wearing teenagers who preferred to debate the finer points of shortwave radios and Linux platforms until the wee hours. A few miscreants, wired on cheap beer and Krispy Kremes, tossed around fireworks and fiddled with the elevator controls.

“I want people to know, especially the younger people, that you’re not the first angry person to come along. You’re not the first to be belittled by classmates, or misunderstood, or ostracized.”

For Newby, an assistant professor of information science at the University of North Carolina, the esoteric banter and juvenile hijinks were mere sidelights. He wanted the sugar-buzzed kiddies to settle down and think about their culture’s roots. His code borrows heavily from famous texts, including the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. And the document’s ethics were inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, rules that preach against harming humanity.

But the code’s most recognizable forefather is a 14-year-old screed known as the Hacker’s Manifesto. Written by a character known only as the Mentor, the manifesto is a bile-filled rant against a society that persecutes the geeky. “My crime,” the Mentor writes, “is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.”

That bold statement motivated Newby to pepper his code with such riffs as “Hackers often disagree with authority, including parents, employers, social customs, and laws.”

“I want people to know, especially the younger people, that you’re not the first angry person to come along,” says Newby, 35, who has been fiddling with computers since the late 1970s. “You’re not the first to be belittled by classmates, or misunderstood, or ostracized.”

Newby aims to promote the growth of “hacktivism,” a movement that uses Internet monkey-wrenching to further social justice. “We have to be a little bit more thoughtful about what we do,” he says. “If you deface a Web site because that just happens to be the one you can deface, that’s vandalism. But if you target a Web site because of its particular message, then that’s hacktivism.”

Some H2Kers wonder whether the underground is simply too unwieldy to accept a set of guidelines. “The Prophet,” who moderated an ethics panel at H2K, says the culture is becoming even more splintered, as a swarm of Matrix-loving newcomers flood the scene. “The kids have been dumbed down and mainstreamed, and they understand very little about the powerful exploits they’re using or the technologies with which they’re interacting.”

“Juintz,” Web coordinator for WBAI’s hacker-oriented radio show, Off the Hook, says his peers are likely to resist anything that remotely resembles a set of regulations. “The most important and defining statement [in the code] for me is ‘Every hacker must make his or her own decisions about what is right and wrong,’ ” Juintz says. “I’m a firm believer in the right of an individual to make his or her own decisions and not be told that they should think a certain way, or that they can’t do certain things.”

Newby understands that hackers are an independence-loving lot, and that his code will have a difficult time garnering recognition. Still, he has posted it on his Web site and will incorporate any feedback into a final draft destined for publication in 2600: The Hacker Quarterly.

The Prophet, however, believes Newby could save himself a lot of trouble by distilling the code into a simple edict. “It really only needs to be four words,” he says. ” ‘Do the right thing.’ ”

Brendan Koerner is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation.