BY Hans-Christian Daay in Opinion | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Chaos Says Welcome

Joining the European Hacker Party

BY Hans-Christian Daay in Opinion | 06 MAR 95

Only five days after 'Chaos Communication Congress, the European Hacker Party', the international newspapers began reporting the arrest of a 16 year-old English hacker. The boy in question had wangled his way into the Pentagon and cracked 'a million passwords', accessed private CIA data on the Korean crisis, 'just for fun', generously placing the information he had plundered at the disposal of millions on the Internet. We're familiar with this fable from science-fiction novels and, of course, the 'criminal' teenager at the PC makes a great story for the mass media. In Germany, supposedly the country with the most sophisticated telecommunications network and the highest density of hackers, there's another, little-known variation on the story. Recently a gang of computer users sold Pentagon secrets to one of the most respected television news programmes, but the 'secrets' turned out to have been written by the hackers. Since the information went out at peak viewing time, the media were not in a position to issue a retraction.

Germany's best known hacker organisation is Hamburg's Chaos Computer Club, whose stated aim is to ensure freedom of information and help shape the future of technology. Each year the CCC stages a three day conference on the most recent innovations in hacking, which doubles as a major embarrassment for industry and the military. At the end of last year, the first 'hacker party' was held in the old Berlin Kunsthalle. The most striking feature of the 800 guests was that 95% of them were male. The spectrum was otherwise broad, including nervous portable-toting Stüssy kids, impressively spotty computer-nerds, anarchists, easily identifiable policemen, industry representatives and a handful of artists. The informal atmosphere was somewhere between school trip, senior common room and techno madness, brought together in the form of a demand for 'human rights' on the PC.

The CCC is less concerned with producing more chaos - the rapid development of a competitive market is taking care of that - than with revealing mistakes and disinformation on the part of the media apparatus. One participant, who must have been about 15, spoke in concrete terms of ways of disrupting the 'irresponsible' switch systems of the telephone companies. Another suggested that when IBM assures its customers that it would take the best hackers years to crack the new CD-ROM security system, and the CD is unlocked a few days later and the key passed around from mailbox to mailbox, what is criminal isn't the cracking of the code, but IBM's false promise. Heroes of the movement were hailed, such as the American hacker who listened in to his own investigators on the FBI computer. Clearly distancing itself from 'criminals', the CCC talks in terms of 'social hacking', the creative approach to technology and information. If you're told you shouldn't open something, out comes the screwdriver. What the Bilwet Agency calls an 'outrageous treatment' of technology isn't based on the goal of personal enrichment, but the strict code of hacker ethics.

In their entertaining lecture, 'Why the Internet is Shit', two Art + Com programmers analysed the technical aspects of the net, which has hardly changed in 20 years. The fact that this system is so hip despite being massively over-centralised and error-prone, is mostly down to massive disinformation on the part of its investors. The conference also dealt fairly comprehensively with the interests of the secret services, as well as the appalling lack of data protection on the Internet, which was why the practically watertight code software 'Pretty Good Privacy' was advertised on every street corner. The conference lacked any serious examination into the capitalisation of new technology: wealthy employers, from the porn industry to the news services are buying out some of the best people from the hacker ranks, and the implications of this could have been discussed more fully.

Central to the congress was the question of what form the 'digital cities' of the future might assume. A wide range of possibilities is opening up here to counteract the aridity of the white cube. Interfaces need to be designed; the architecture, content and infrastructures of virtual cities need to be drawn up. George Macunias' Marxist-oriented Fluxus demand that artists should make their money in related fields is given a new meaning here. In one particularly interesting talk, a Siemens employee drew analogies with artist-researchers like Anastasius Kirchner in the Renaissance. One artist said he'd prefer not to describe himself as an artist so that he wouldn't have to discuss what technology has to do with art. But while it's naive to imagine that the existing network can be completely dismantled (an old dream of the German anti-technology movement), there is an opportunity to help to shape it, to occupy and discard various models when the time is right. Government and industry are either out of their depth or still placing too much emphasis on competing for the latest product releases. Aren't artists in an excellent position to make a contribution here? What was disappointing at the CCC was that most artists still thought all they needed to do was pump networks like the World Wide Web full of visuals, or stick computers in galleries. The stage is set for artists to establish new ways of linking information from relevant fields such as science, art, linguistics, technology, psychology and politics, and then to begin to leap between theses areas. Artists could learn from hacker megalomania and have a bit of fun disentangling and re-entangling information, rather than playing with signs and signifiers from within the protected space of the art world.