One of the most sullied words that have pervaded public discourse, with the rise of the internet, is “hacker”. The word conjures up images of a silent, menacing, technology-savvy young man, who, with his almost magical control over the digital realm, manipulates systems, changes the laws, rewrites the rules and takes complete control. A hacker is defined by his ability to play around with the basic elements of a system and perform actions, sometimes for social good, but often, for fun and to explore the digital world’s frontiers. They are not the evil spirits that we often imagine them to be.
We hear stories about criminals hacking often enough — people who break into national security systems and retrieve sensitive information, teenagers who crash servers by spamming them with unnecessary traffic, users who commit credit fraud by phishing or breaking into bank accounts, or shutting down entire systems by erasing all the code.
Hackers v/s Crackers
As many of us know, the term hacker has a different origin and meaning than its abused application. In fact, people who perform maleficent activities using their technological prowess are called “crackers” — these are people who use their ability to interact with a system in order to make personal gains or to harass others. A hacker is a person who has extraordinary technology skills and is able to manipulate digital systems and makes them perform tasks which were not a part of their original design. Which means that a geek who can hack into a server and uses the free space to host a free website, aimed for public good, or a techie who writes a programme that can use the idle computing time of your machines to run peer-to-peer networks, or a teenager who can break the constraints of an existing software to integrate it with other programmes, are all hackers. A hacker is defined by his ability to play around with the basic elements of a system (not necessarily digital and internet-based) and perform actions, sometimes for social good, but often, for fun and to explore the digital world’s frontiers. They are not the evil spirits that we often imagine them to be.
Hackers can be suffused with a spirit of civic good and of social beneficence. Around the world, hackers have used their technology skills to make public interventions to resolve a crisis in their environments. From the now notorious Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks platform to more positive efforts like Ipaidabribe.com, a civic hackers have emerged as our new heroes. Ipaidabribe.com is a civic hacking website, which allows users to use digital storytelling as a method by which they can start discussions on corruption and what we can do to change the systems.
Many digital natives are civic hackers. Aditya Kulkarni, one of our earliest participants with the “Digital Natives with a Cause” programme, is a digital native civic hacker. Like many young people in India, Aditya, from Mumbai, found the field of electoral politics opaque. He found it difficult to understand why good people voted for bad leaders and why large sections of the society shirk their responsibility to vote, thus leading to flawed governments. He, with his friends, started VoteIndia.in, a website where they collected information from public domain sources about electoral candidates in their local constituencies, so that voters could make informed decisions. The website was an instance of civic hacktivism.
I talk about hacking because I want to draw your attention to the phenomenon that started with Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption stance and the series of public interventions that surrounded it. Hazare has emerged as a hero for many. He has been trending on Twitter, there are pages dedicated to him on Facebook, Tumblr blogs have been spreading his word, text messages have urged people to come out in support. While there is much speculation about Hazare’s politics and the media spectacle that it has created, little attention has been given to Hazare’s almost exclusively off-line campaign and the way in which social media tools have been able to capture his momentum and turn it into a series of civic hacktivist interventions.
Flashmobs with people bearing candles and chanting against corruption emerged in cities. Public consultations organised by young people saw critical engagement with questions of corruption. The interwebz have been abuzz with people expressing opinions and calling for public mobilisation. Anti-corruption convictions have found resonance with people who, otherwise, despite having access to these technologies, would not necessarily have engaged in these kinds of civic hacktivities. This, for me, is not only a sign of hope but also a moment of understanding that digital activism is not always restricted to the digital domain.
As in the case of Aditya, and that of Hazare, the germ of an idea is often offline. The processes of protest and demonstration towards social change travel across the physical and the digital world. The idea of a digital native as a civic hacktivist reminds us that the young person behind the computer, in a virtual reality, is not dissociated from the embedded contexts of everyday life. Their skills with the computer often help them make critical interventions to mobilise social change.
This article is a slightly altered form from the column published in the Indian Express. For details: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/you-are-here/694540/0
(The writer is director of research at the Bangalore based Centre for Internet and Society and co-chair of the Digital Natives with a Cause Knowledge Programme.)