Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: Dear Hacker: Letters To The Editor Of 2600 by Emmanuel Goldstein

This book came out a few months ago, but I am such a fan of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly — I just had to say something about it. I have been curious about hackers since I bought my first computer back in 1987. It always seemed like a closed world to me. Not because I wanted to do anything ‘bad,’ but because I wanted to know more about the computer itself. The only problem was, I had spent time in Silicon Valley, with real coders — and knew I had no skills in that department whatsoever.

Even more so than in the previous collection, The Best Of 2600 (2008), Emmanuel Goldstein spells out what he considers a hacker to be. It is certainly not the demonized evil kid the media has presented us with. No, a true hacker as defined by 2600, (which has been publishing since 1984 by the way) is a person with a quest for knowledge. If one discovers things that could be used for ill will — then they have discovered flaws that have always been there. The difference between a hacker and a criminal is what the person does with the knowledge once they have it.

Dear Hacker is nothing more than a collection of letters to the editor of 2600 magazine, broken down into nine sections. These include “The Magic Of The Corporate World,” “The Challenges Of Life As A Hacker,” and “A Culture Of Rebels.” Believe me, those titles may sound somewhat incendiary, but they are not at all. In fact, what comes through is the humanity of these people. On one page you will find a writer talking about how she discovered a massive security hole in a major credit corporation, and reported it to them — right next to some misguided schlump looking for help in hacking his ex’s Yahoo account to mess with it.

In all cases, Goldstein’s integrity shines through. In the former he praises her for doing what he would have done. In the latter, he calls the guy out with a razor-sharp satirical response. The poor bastard probably never even got the joke — but I did.

Goldstein’s Hacker Quarterly is approaching its 30th anniversary, and yes, he has taken his fair share of harassment from those in power. I love the fact that he lives by the idea that information is free — it is what you do with the information that makes you wrong or right.

2600 is iconic in my mind. The idea that public information should be freely shared is so subversive, it is almost — oh what, a part of the Fourth Amendment to The Constitution? Conveniently forgotten perhaps, but there nonetheless.

As Isaac Asimov put it in The World Of Ideas: Writers “ Why does one think they need to stop learning when they get out of school? Learning is a life-long process.” I whole-heartedly agree, and so does 2600. That is the very root of what Emmanuel Goldstein has been saying for the past 27 years. A real hacker is synonymous with a real learner. Maybe the term is hopelessly polluted in the public mind. But the spirit never dies.

I checked out Dear Hacker from my local library, and you can too. If they do not have it, then ask them to get it. That is hacking in the most fundamental sense. Don’t take the “officials” at face value — you have a right to request a book purchase from the library. And never be intimidated by bureaucracy, it is all a house of cards based on insecurity (on their part) in the first place.

I think Emmanuel Goldstein would agree with me on this. Even though he would only be selling one copy to a library, versus say ten or twenty individual ones — the concept has always been about sharing. I seriously doubt this guy is getting rich here, so it is obviously a labor of love.

Embrace learning, curiosity, and individualism. You are not a Communist, or a member of the Taliban by doing so. Dear Hacker says it better than I ever could. Check it out (literally).

Article first published as Book Review: Dear Hacker: Letters To The Editor Of 2600 by Emmanuel Goldstein on Blogcritics.

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