Hackers and the Battle for Cyberspace

Hackers never were part of the mainstream establishment, but their current reputation as villains of cyberspace is a far cry from the early days when, first and foremost, they were seen as ardent if quirky programmers, capable of near-miraculous, unorthodox feats of machine manipulation. True, their dedication bordered on fanaticism, and their living habits bordered on the unsavory. But the shift in popular perception to hackers as deviants and criminals is important not only because it affects the hackers themselves and the extraordinary culture that has grown around them (fascinating as a subject in its own right), but because it reflects shifts in the development, governance, and meaning of the new information technology. These shifts should be questioned and resisted. They unfairly cast hackers in a disreputable light and, more important, they deny the rest of us a political opportunity.

In Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy traces the roots of evolving hacker communities to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1950s. Here, core members of the Tech Model Railroad Club “discovered” computers first as a tool for enhancing their beloved model railroads and then as objects of passion in their own right. They turned their considerable creative energies to the task of building and programming MIT’s early mainframes in uneasy but relatively peaceful coexistence with formal employees of the university’s technical staff. In parallel, hacker communities developed and flourished in other academic locales, particularly Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon, sometimes spilling over into nearby cities such as Cambridge, Palo Alto, and Berkeley.

Formidable programmers, these hackers produced and debugged computer code at an astonishing rate. They helped develop hardware and software for existing computer functions and invented, sometimes as playful challenges, novel algorithms and applications that were incorporated into subsequent generations of computers. These novel functions not only extended recreational capabilities-gaming, virtual reality, and digitized music-but also increased practical capabilities such as control of robots and processing speeds. Obsessive work leavened with inspired creativity also yielded a host of basic system subroutines and utilities that pushed operating capacities and efficiency to new heights, steered the field of computing in novel directions, and became a fundamental part of what we experience every time we sit in front of a computer.

Levy and others who have written about this early hacker period describe legendary hacking binges-days and nights with little or no sleep-leading to products that surprised and sometimes annoyed colleagues in mainstream academic and research positions. The “pure hack” did not respect prescribed methods or theory-driven, top-down approaches to computer science and engineering. To hack was to find a...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.